By Dan Matthews
As students move into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) higher education, it’s important to understand their learning experiences need to be more diverse. STEM internships are a good tool in this regard. When students can make connections with industries, mentors, and practices this can boost the outcomes of their education in a variety of areas. As their course tutor, you have a role to play in facilitating and supporting these internships while they’re still at school.
We’re going to review why STEM internships can be a powerful tool, along with some of the ways you can help set your students on a positive path.
Gaining Mutually Supportive Opportunities
Some of the most powerful STEM internship opportunities are about achieving balance. A purely classroom-based education has little room for employment practices. As such, engaging in an internship while at school can help to fill in some of the experiential gaps and provide practical critical skills around how these concepts are applied in the real world.
Wherever possible, it’s helpful to facilitate internships to occur during the semester. This allows greater opportunities for students’ classroom learning to inform their internship work and vice versa. In many ways this acts as a support system, allowing students to discuss with their internship mentors topics raised in class. Similarly, it means they can share experiences and practical insights into the subject matter with you and your peers.
This isn’t always easy to achieve. Work with your students to find the most appropriate internships. Reach out to businesses and seek mentors with an understanding of the challenges involved and genuinely want to enhance students’ knowledge base and STEM career prospects.
Making Meaningful Connections
One of the key benefits of STEM internships is the opportunities they provide in forging professional relationships early on. So often in STEM subjects, the route to an enriching career is being able to demonstrate a candidate is not only competent, but they are pleasant to work with. Internships aren’t like regular brief networking events or an interview. The relationships students build during their time help potential employers understand what they have to offer as regular contributors.
The right relationships in STEM fields can also unlock doors to more exciting projects and experiences. By making sure they demonstrate their enthusiasm and ability in one internship, a student may be recommended for research placements if they choose to move on to postgraduate education. From a career perspective, it also demonstrates a student has developed an understanding of cultural and technical practices that mean they’ll fit into the current workspace.
That said, this isn’t something you’ll find is always a given. As an educator, part of your approach should be to help ensure students have the soft skills to complement their technical STEM knowledge in the workplace. This not only helps strengthen the relationships they’ll build with internship mentors but also demonstrates they can help fill the increasing soft skills gap in STEM industries.
Enhancing the Experience
One of the reasons STEM careers can be so attractive is the prospect of varied working practices. In many fields, there are daily challenges and projects that professionals get to navigate. This also means a STEM internship can be a full and enriching experience. But it’s also the case that students only have a finite time with their host company. For the experience to have the most powerful impact, they need to know how to enhance their internship.
Work with your students to understand what their goals are for an internship. Be specific here about the types of experiences they are looking for. Even go so far as whether they’re interested in the private or public sectors — the work and therefore experiences will be very different.
You should also help them to understand what is expected of them as an intern. This will often differ from field to field. Cybersecurity interns often have varied experiences that reflect the administrative and technical needs of businesses. Indeed, the role can vary further depending on whether they’re seeking a security analyst, engineer, or management internship. This is present across most STEM fields. So, it’s important to be as specific as possible so they can find the most relevant and enriching post.
One of the big pluses of a STEM internship is a chance to understand how it fits into the practicalities of real life. The idea of a STEM career can be abstract from the outside and informed by outdated ideas. Spending time in an industrial setting gives a very real sense of what daily activities actually entail, how they serve the priorities of individual organizations and workers’ places within the structure. This is vital to help students understand if a career in the field suits their sensibilities.
However, one of the more challenging practical life experiences it can introduce students to is living on a strict budget. Not all internships will be paid — although, thankfully, this is starting to change. If you teach high schoolers, it can be worth connecting with parents about the subject. Many parents will already be adopting strategies to make sure they can invest both in their own future and the college tuition fees for their children. This isn’t easy and can take a lot of planning to achieve. As such, the earlier you can talk to them about potentially factoring internship living expenses into their plans, the better it is for everyone involved.
A STEM education goes some way to give students the knowledge they need for a rich career. But a relevant internship can be a powerful force for enhancing their skills and giving insights into how it applies on an industrial level. For your students to take the best advantage of the situation, it’s important to prepare them for the experience. Focus on their soft skills, discuss what is expected of them, and review practical forms of support. These steps can ensure their internship is a powerful force in their life.
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