Summer Internship Research Report

This is an excerpt from the 2020 Annual report to the NSF. We hope this will help potential new sites gain a flavor of how the internships work.

In 2020, the First2 Network, led by the Immersive Experiences team, planned and executed 9 virtual 2-week internships for rising freshmen (N=77) and upper-class undergraduate mentors (N=22), a scale-up of over 100% from year 1. Internship sites, selected in January, 2020, included: Fairmont State University, Green Bank Observatory, High Rocks, Marshall University, University of Charleston, West Virginia State University, West Virginia University, the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and WVU Institute of Technology. By April, all sites were faced with going virtual, and all sites elected to give it a try. 

The goals for the internships were to engage interns and mentors in authentic STEM Experiences, facilitate engagement and leadership of student mentors, build community among students in STEM majors and build relationships with faculty.

All Site leads met and planned together for several weeks prior to the start of the internship. Site leads got to know each other, share ideas and resources, and adopt common norms and practices for remote learning: don’t spend more than 4 hours a day on zoom, spend a quarter of your time on fun and social relationship building, include breaks of at least 30 min between sessions, send learning materials and care packages to interns.  In addition, a common platform for social interaction, Discord, was adopted used by most internships.

Site leads had to adapt their original research projects to a virtual setting and in some cases develop new ones. Many of the new research projects included some kind of field work that could be done from home. Several sites investigated existing citizen science projects.

A team led by High Rocks provided a virtual 2-day training workshop to student mentors prior to the start of the summer internships, in which they learned and practiced techniques for building relationships in a virtual environment, making meetings interactive, and generated ideas for fun virtual social activities. Students worked collaboratively to produce a tool kit document for use during the internship which included these techniques, and ideas as well as practical tips related to running online meetings.  

Eight of nine internships took place over the same time period allowing all students to take advantage of virtual inter-site events like lab tours, and industry panels. In general, most research internship sites adopted similar schedules that began with a half hour mentor-led morning meeting which was largely social in nature. The “instructional” portion of the day occurred from 9:30-12:00. During this time, STEM research leads delivered research project tutorials.  After lunch students had time for project work, interspersed with occasional tours or presentations from industry, or college sites. We participated in a few inter-site professional development sessions from 3:30-5 PM, and mentors led the rest. Evening time (7-8 PM) was social fun time and mentor-led sessions ranged from online games, to movie watch parties, to art projects.  

Site leads developed change ideas to test during the internships, and launched 14 Plan Do Study Act cycles in the NILS online system.  Site leads communicated with each other during the internship via the new First2 Network Social website, and developed a comradery over shared experience that would not have happened in conventional face-to-face internship settings, where each site would have operated independently.

Site leads reported some challenges to hosting the internships virtually.  The most cited challenge was the long periods staring at a computer screen.  Faculty noted that the time required to prepare and implement the virtual internships exceeded that of a face-to-face experience. The program lost students who decided a virtual experience was not for them.  The virtual program reduced the amount if interaction between mentors and interns.

Students who participated in 2020 virtual internships demonstrated statistically significant improvement between pre- and post-testing on six measures: School Belonging, STEM Identity, Knowledge About Research, Attitudes and Behaviors About Research, Personal Skills, and Research Skills. In other words, 2020 interns had a stronger sense of school belonging and STEM identity after participating in First2 Network internships, as well as stronger knowledge about knowledge about research, improved attitudes about research, increased personal skills, and improved research skills. In addition, interns consistently rated their experiences highly and described myriad ways in which internships enhanced their capacity. Valued most highly by interns was the opportunity to build relationships with similar students, mentors, and STEM faculty—that is, the opportunity to develop their STEM social capital.

Artifacts from the internship including the mentor training toolkit, a summary of the research projects and a sample schedule are included as a supplemental document (pdf).