Federal Agencies and NSF INCLUDES Network Members Share Best Practices in STEM Virtual Internships


By Evangeline Ambat, NSF INCLUDES Coordination Hub

As the coronavirus pandemic continued into a new year, the NSF INCLUDES Coordination Hub launched into 2021 with a focus on virtual STEM internships, hosting two webinars with federal agencies and a live Twitter chat. The webinars were well attended and engaging, sharing valuable insights into best practices for recruiting, welcoming, and managing virtual interns, and highlighting the many ways in which the scientific teams at U.S. federal agencies are taking effective action to broaden participation in STEM. 

The first webinar on January 28 focused on “Best Practices in Virtual Internships” and featured presentations from representatives from two Federal agencies and two NSF INCLUDES National Network Alliances: Laura Corey, Program Analyst, U.S. Geological Survey; Tymisha Robinson, Human Resources Specialist, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)​; Micheal Fultz, West Virginia State University, First2 Network​ Co-chair of Immersive Experiences working group, and Gabe Hanzel-Sello, National STEM Director for Growth Sector, STEM Core Alliance​.

Presenters shared many best practices they had developed around virtual internships:

Planning for a virtual internship

Consider the suitability of the project. Look at the work that needs to be done and think about how it might be done remotely. For example, if it is lab work, can it be done remotely?  What equipment or access will the intern need, or can they get by without it? Is that allowed? How will you get the interns things they need access to ─ can you ship them appropriate materials? Consider the intern’s environment as well ─ do they have reliable internet at home? Do they have a quiet place to work?

Reach out to business units and technology centers to see what their interests are in hosting interns. 

Recruiting interns

Partnerships are a great way to create, fund and manage internships. Look for a partner organization whose missions and goals align.

Post internship announcements with enough time to gather enough applications to have a significant applicant pool for the selecting officials and managers.
Create a social media presence. Host Twitter chats and participate in virtual recruiting events.

Create a process flow for the recruitment team. Identify roles and responsibilities, timelines, timeframe for announcements, and a comprehensive onboarding plan in the virtual environment. Consider hosting half-day orientations with keynote speakers.

 “To reach first-generation students, make the phone calls. Send multiple e-mails. Spend time talking with college recruiters, the science teachers’ associations, the people who are in contact with the students that you want. Be relentless in talking, conversations, get to know them so that they feel that the participants feel comfortable spending time with you during these immersion programs.” Micheal Fultz, First2Network

Preparing for the interns

Train mentors and offer professional development.

  • Host a professional development seminar series with young mentors in your organization to share ideas.
  • Train mentors ahead of time. For some it may be the first time they've had a leadership role and may need a little help and guidance. Involve mentors in recruiting and social conversations with interns.
  • Offer a periodic professional development lunch chat with all the interns in the program.
  • Establish a reading or discussion series to bring interns and mentors together when they cannot gather in person.

Develop customized materials and training for interns and their managers, for example:

 “One of the things that was really important because sometimes in the virtual environment especially starting out it can be really awkward between that manager or that supervisor and that extern. So we created toolkits for our managers and for our interns with various activities.” Tymisha Robinson, USPTO

  • Training manuals for managers on hosting a virtual intern, writing learning activities, supervising in a virtual environment and tips and pointers to enhance the externship experience.
  • Virtual onboarding packets for interns ─ send them out early to get important information out and receive everything needed in advance back in a timely way.

Be sure to have needed documents readily accessible for both the managers and the externs throughout the program.

 “When developing programs, with or without partners, consider student needs and their professional growth. Cohort models are great if possible. Pay attention to the institutional culture they'll be entering.” Laura Corey, USGS

Onboarding interns

Consider a social media welcome via Instagram or Facebook.

Encourage students from different internship sites to meet virtually prior to the internship start: it can help build a rapport prior to starting.

Maintaining a relationship with interns

  • Have a weekly check-in that includes time for personal conversations with your intern ─ spend a few minutes getting to know them.
  • Set reasonable goals and hold them accountable and check in often especially early on. Plan to check their work regularly and provide support along the way.
  • Maintain continuous communication. Discuss how the intern is doing, complete mid-point evaluations. Get feedback from the intern on whether anything is needed for that manager to be more successful or for the intern to get more out of the experience.

 (We found) multiple ways to engage students: “engage them with their classmates and engage them in research, engage them with the student support services. Whatever we could do to ignite the passion that they need to be successful when they get into college.” Micheal Fultz, First2Network

Keep Zoom meetings exciting. Take breaks in the middle of long meetings and have the interns come back with something from their household they want to share: a personal pet, a favorite spice, anything that will be a little bit of a conversation starter. Get them outside for a little exercise, fresh air ─ when they come back, they’ll be more energetic.

Intern activities and professional development

Host an internship presentation. Give students five minutes to discuss their project details and their broader experience. Practice in articulating their project will help them incorporate it into their resume and in other professional settings.

 Encourage students to socialize and engage in a virtual environment. Set up virtual social events, mixers, a virtual movie night. 

  • Provide opportunities to showcase the skills they had, the things that made them unique, or their personal talents. 
  • Provide opportunities for students to develop personally as well as enhance their technical skills and professional networks.
  • Connect students to the STEM professional societies. If possible, have professionals talk with the interns about their jobs. This will help them envision having those jobs themselves one day.
  • Look for opportunities to bring in faculty and professionals with complementary skills. “We contracted with an adjunct faculty to provide additional supplementary mentorship. Our students had gone through engineering graphics or CAD course work, working with the company to make electrical circuit boards and there was a software that specializes in doing engineering design for circuit boards. We had the adjunct faculty lead a mini 3-hour class for our students on that specific software. That took some of the burden off our employer partner and allowed him to really focus on the mentorship and the project, but not have to teach the whole technology.” Gabe Hanzel-Sello, STEM Core

Build a strong virtual cohort. Some of the ideas around virtual team and community building: 

  • Have fun host a talent show or a dance party. Use watercolors and markers to tell stories in the chat on Zoom calls.
  • Find opportunities for interns to lead activities for each other without staff or mentors.

Finally: Equally as important as planning and onboarding is to provide a warm program wrap up for the interns and their supervisors. Plan it a few weeks before the program ends to thank the interns, get their input/feedback, and encourage interns to return in the future if they want to.

You can access the webinar recording, chat and other resources related to the webinar in this discussion post in the National Network online community.

Twitter Chat
Hub_Virtual_Internships_Twitter_Chat.jpgTo continue our conversation about the challenges and opportunities in virtual STEM internships, we hosted a live Twitter chat on February 12. The  panelists for the chat included Claire Raftery from the National Solar Observatory, Jasmin Graham from the Marine Science Laboratory Alliance Center of Excellence (MarSci-LACE), Nyla Rogers from QEM Network, Jazmine Alexander, a Ph.D Candidate in Environmental Sciences at Florida A&M University and First2 Network students Keyzar Dominguez from West Virginia University, Alisha Joseph from Marshall University and Aida Jimenez from University of Charleston.

You can view all the tweets from this hour-long Twitter chat here.

Students: “Build a profile in USA jobs now! Include your unofficial transcripts and create a resume that cites your experience ─ and be expansive. Under each training or job, list the skills you learned, tasks you managed, etc. Use powerful action words that get attention and set alerts for jobs and pay attention to the e-mails when they come in. Especially in federal agencies, jobs are sometimes posted for a very short time. You don't want to miss an opportunity. Look across the government. In addition to USGS, there's the Forest Service, there's FEMA and others that have internships in STEM fields. Watch the news for stimulus information. There will be a lot of new postings. And finally, the government hiring process is slow, much slower than the private sector. Patience is going to be key.” Laura Corey, USGS