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Editor's note: this blog was cross posted from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's website.

For more than 100 years, students have participated in internships to enhance their resumes with real-world experience. The term “intern” was first applied to medical students in the 1920s. By the 1960s, agencies, businesses, and organizations adopted the concept of internships, widening the scope beyond apprenticeships in trades and unions. Today, it’s common for high school, college, and postgraduate students to seek out internships.

In a normal year, PNNL places more than 1,200 students in internships to help close skills gaps and put them on a STEM pathway to launch them into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

But this is no normal year.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, impacts and uncertainties arising from the COVID-19 crisis have pushed many employers to make changes to their internship programs—some are even revoking offers to interns. Given the critical role internships play in the STEM pathway and student career development, and their value to PNNL and its sponsors, PNNL knew that retooling its program for virtual delivery was a necessity. Through collaboration with departments across the Laboratory, PNNL rolled out a virtual internship program in four weeks.

Lost momentum could have lasting effects

PNNL internships expose undergraduate and graduate students to STEM careers and business fields plus build goodwill between PNNL and dozens of colleges. Careful planning goes into recruiting and hiring students, and into matching their interests, career aspirations, and educational backgrounds with a diverse group of PNNL mentors. Without these internships, hundreds of future STEM employees would not receive the necessary training or exposure to the people, work, or experiences that make them desirable candidates.

“Canceling internships, even just for the summer, could adversely affect the entire STEM ecosystem, so we were committed to exploring options,” said Paula Linnen, executive director of External Affairs. “Any pause in our STEM workforce development efforts could have ripple effects on the pursuit or attainment of STEM careers for these young people for years to come.”

Reimagining the program

When faced with the challenge of reworking internships for virtual delivery, PNNL had several goals in mind: designing a stellar experience, designating a core team to build and implement the new program, and making resources available for both mentors and interns navigating this new experience.

“We thought about this from two perspectives: the students, and of our researchers who serve as mentors,” said Evangelina Galvan-Shreeve, director of STEM Education. To design a virtual internship experience around those two perspectives, the Gold Experience Team was created. This team will oversee the novel implementation of the program. They have already revised mentor training and developed a virtual toolkit with mentor resources. The toolkit includes information on how to develop and maintain a mentor-mentee relationship, tips for teleworking, and tools to help virtual interns have a meaningful experience.

Reinventing the delivery via a virtual internship

When PNNL’s first virtual internship program launches in mid-May, it will contain elements common to past PNNL internships. However, the delivery will be a bit different.

PNNL will ship laptops to interns before their start dates, onboarding will be done remotely, and the first-day walkabout—when the designated mentor introduces the intern to the wider team—will be replaced by a virtual team meeting.

Historically, PNNL’s internship roles also come with a variety of bonus experiences: networking opportunities, campus tours, social events, research presentations, and a final symposium where interns share their work with PNNL’s academic community. Maintaining these experiences in a virtual format was important to the Gold Experience Team.

“Beyond day-to-day work, key elements of internships are networking and exposing students to our national laboratory and its unique scientific opportunities,” said Galvan-Shreeve. “We developed creative ways to translate traditional internships to virtual internships.”

Galvan-Shreeve indicated that the virtual program will also include online Q&A sessions, researcher-led virtual laboratory tours, discussion groups, online networking with researchers, video-based professional development workshops, and invitations to virtual events like the PNNL Discovery Series—a series of talks by PNNL leadership. In addition, the research symposium will be offered virtually and, for the first time, students can invite family and friends. Further, interns will have access to social activities and an array of resources focused on wellness and career development. Interns and mentors alike will receive regular newsletters to maintain communication and enable a successful experience.

Tips for success in a virtual internship

Today, Animesh Pattanayak works at PNNL in cybersecurity research. His first exposure to PNNL was via a partially virtual internship in 2019.

“Internships aren’t just about the research – it is also about building connections. My mentors organized things like lunchtime socials and other activities to sit down and network – people shared their research, but also talked about their kids and pets,” said Pattanayak.

Pattanayak imagines that virtual internships can be as impactful as onsite internships, but students will need to proactively and intentionally communicate and mind their work areas.

“One thing that helped me be successful was having regular and consistent communication with my mentors. Also, having a designated workspace and creating the right environment to be productive,” said Pattanayak.

Careers ‘STEM’ing from virtual internships

Maintaining a summer 2020 internship program—even online—can have lasting benefits. The interns will have many of the same opportunities as their predecessors to cultivate their networks and build their resumes for a future career in a STEM field. Many, like Pattanayak, will pursue (and land) roles at PNNL or other national laboratories.

“The internship program was how I knew I wanted to come back to PNNL – it has an amazing culture,” said Pattanayak, who started his full-time position with PNNL in January. “School aided my growth, but there’s something unique about real, hands-on work. PNNL staff take a lot of pride in what they do, and as an intern you get a great sense of that.”