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Inferences from STEM case studies (Pt. 2): Internships

In Part 2 of "Inferences from STEM Case Studies"—a three-year case study of a residential summer program for undergraduates in an elite university—I report on the research internship. My evaluation for the client university focused on the value of the internship as seen, respectively, by the students and their faculty mentors.

The case study is based on two electronic surveys (pre- and post-program); a comparison of the expectations and experiences of program participants with undergraduates engaged in research during the summer, but not in this particular program; focus groups of students and faculty; and phone interviews with faculty who had been mentoring undergraduates in the program for at least two summers.

Student participants overwhelmingly endorsed the residential aspect of the program. STEM students seek a supportive community as they enter into the unfamiliar (for first-time researchers) world of scientific research. Having a fellow traveler who is likely to be experiencing some of the same concerns, frustrations, self-discoveries, and joys can help normalize the experience and provide reinforcement and inspiration. Living with other STEM majors provides a support group different from others on campus. Nonparticipating students, i.e., those with a research internship, but not in the residential program, confirmed this: Sharing research experiences in a collective setting such as a residence hall with those who understand hypothesis-testing and experimental design, regardless of major, may be a more valuable form of professional socialization than that to be gained in a research laboratory.

The faculty perspective, however, departed from this view. All faculty interviewees had hosted program students (and other undergraduates in their laboratories/research teams) for at least two summers. Some had also delivered a guest lecture, attended a meal function, and all were enthusiastic about the program. The near-dozen represented a spectrum of opinions, though most confessed limited knowledge of the program's community-building elements.

Three themes emerged from faculty interviews: first and foremost was the central role of research in instilling or reinforcing in undergraduates their capability to contribute to science. Second was the program's effectiveness at  nurturing independence among a talented cadre of students. The program helps students develop "telling-showing-doing" abilities, and does so by enabling them to more readily approach faculty. This experience also induces mentoring by forging a bond that goes beyond canned lab coursework to reveal the opportunities that research holds. The third theme goes to the heart of the program, namely, the importance of retaining more undergraduates in science majors. To achieve that objective the program needs to support—intellectually, socio-emotionally, and financially—underserved students.

While gender parity was not an issue for the program, race/ethnicity/nationality was. Few Blacks and Latinos have participated. As the pre-post survey data revealed, minorities felt less connected to the university before participating in the program. They felt comparably connected afterwards.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the more effective the experience in exposing the student to the research life, the less they realize—and report—\"work-life balance."

Indeed, most interviewed faculty see the residential aspect of the program as competing for the students' time with their laboratory or research team. The faculty seek to have the students' primary allegiance, and by summer's end program participants are torn by the need to participate in an evening dorm event versus returning to the research lab to make a contribution. While faculty tout the role models (faculty, postdocs, graduate students, lab technicians) to whom students are exposed, students cite the residential culture of the program as most valuable. The clash of demands on one's time is not lost on students or faculty.

In sum, trying to reconcile undergraduate intervention programs with career preparation beyond research internships can be challenging. Students must sort this out for themselves, which is probably the way it should be—though persistence in a STEM major may suffer, with faculty at least partially to blame.

Related Links

  • The value of a research experience for retaining undergraduates in STEM is well-established. See the Education Forums published, for example, in Science.
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