Too often STEM students enter their freshman year of college and find a disconnect between what they learned in high school and what is expected by college professors in preparation for the freshman courses in calculus, science and English composition. As a result, some students struggle academically. In addition, the perception exists (and in many cases it is reality) that the STEM courses are more time-consuming than for non-STEM majors, leaving less time for extracurricular activities and part-time jobs than their friends have. Often students enter college, not really knowing what a career as an engineer is about. For these and other reasons, students opt out of engineering or physics, when they could have been an excellent physicist or engineer, supporting industry’s and their community’s need for more technical talent and skills.
In today’s work environment, industry wants graduates to be “work-ready”, already familiar with the work culture. So we have two significant problems: a lower retention rate than desired and higher expectations by industry than can be achieved within most STEM programs. And we continually hear that there are many technical jobs that employers are having a difficult time filling.
I would like to propose that one approach is more collaboration between universities and industry. We can both provide industry with more graduates who are “work-ready,” and improve student retention (i.e. more graduates) through a shared vision and appropriate actions to provide internships. If most students could land an internship in the summer before their junior and senior years, the experience would convince many of them to stay with a STEM major (because they like the experience!) with students more motivated to continue in their major (despite the difficulty of the STEM courses) and they would also gain work experience, ready to lead a project in their field upon graduation. Often mentoring and experiences during the internship also help a student decide on a career pathway.
Successful internships require a great deal of collaboration with both the university and the employer mentoring the student in his/her internship. Quality improvement thinking such as Lean Six Sigma can be useful in mentoring of interns.
In my article “The Collaborative Role of Industry in Supporting STEM Education” published in the Journal for Quality and Participation (October 2014), I discuss how transitioning from academic studies to the workplace is a mentoring process and make recommendations for supporting STEM students in their career planning and internships. These include:
View internships as a mentoring process by both the university and employer
Improve university career planning programs so that they support students in developing networking skills
Industry scale up on available internships
Provide more internships locally
Show interns the “big picture” of the company, encouraging them to consider the company for future employment.
Engage interns in discussions and team meetings, as a learning experience.