SITE Stories: Internships the focus of Schreyer teaching grant

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This SITE Story is shared by Nicholas Rowland (njr12@psu.edu) and Thomas Shaffer (tls24@psu.edu). If you are interested in learning more about their project or have specific questions, please contact them directly.

Nicholas Rowland, Penn State Altoona Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Thomas Shaffer, Academic Internship Coordinator, have received funding and associated support from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE) for their proposal, "Enhancing Student Learning in Internships."  They will work with SITE Instructional Consultant Crystal Ramsay to revise an internship preparatory course, INTSP 370, to focus on helping students to reimagine the internship as an academic learning experience.

The current project is part of a larger effort by Rowland and Shaffer to recapture and clarify the learning half of the "workplace learning" equation for higher education. Current reform trends tend to emphasize the academy's need to get students thinking about "the world of work"--and the earlier, the better. This workforce development mentality, however, may undercut the institutional supports needed to integrate internships and other work-related learning opportunities more comfortably into traditional academic culture. While some reformers argue that a culture shift is precisely what is needed in higher education, Rowland and Shaffer focus on strengthening these institutional supports to encourage a convergence of interests among students, faculty members, colleges and universities, and employers.

The findings of the 2011 University Senate Task Force on Internships strengthen the argument for an academically-grounded approach to internships. Challenges identified in the Task Force  survey include a lack of resources to facilitate internships; insufficient support, recognition, or reward for faculty members overseeing internships; and a "concern that comprehensive student guidelines, standards for judging student performance, and mechanisms for tracking students and assessing the impact of internships are often lacking." 

Rowland and Shaffer contend that resources, support for faculty, guidelines, and evaluative standards will follow only if internships can be shown to be a credible academic pursuit with an identifiable role for faculty that leads to recognizable growth in students' abilities to think and act.  Presently, students almost universally, and most faculty members, tend to think of internships as a career-oriented endeavor to which the academy adds little if any value. Witness the Task Force's finding that it is commonplace for student grades in academic internships to be determined largely by host site supervisors' evaluation of an intern's performance in the workplace; or the unambiguously ambiguous language we use to talk about the faculty's role in internships (faculty members "oversee" or "supervise" internships--they do not teach internship courses); or our overwhelmingly passive approach to defining what constitutes a "good" internship (internships are presented to students and faculty most often as job descriptions, as a fait accompli that is external to a student's or a faculty member's influence).

Rowland and Shaffer suggest that targeting students' academic preparation for internships can, with time, address each of these concerns. Their project moves in this direction by creating a "conversational space" (INTSP 370) for students to consider together, with faculty guidance, the learning possibilities attached to a mix of internship opportunities. Their goal is to explore and clarify for students and for faculty what academic learning means in the context of workplace learning. With this expanded understanding of workplace learning, students and faculty can become active participants, together with a host site, in determining the content--and therefore the value--of an internship.

A critical component of the project is assessment. Rowland and Shaffer are involving undergraduates enrolled in Penn State Altoona's Integrative Social Sciences Research Lab in the design of a survey instrument that will tap (1) students' role identity (worker/employee v. student), (2) students' use of academic/disciplinary language to describe what they intend to learn as well as what they learned during the internship, and (3) the process students followed during the internship to gain the information, skills, or perspectives they believe to be most valuable to them. Surveys will be administered to students enrolled in INTSP 370 and to students pursuing internships but not enrolled in the class, both before and at the conclusion of their internships.

The success of Rowland and Shaffer's project hinges on a gradual expansion of faculty buy-in to their approach.  In effect, they are betting that the assessment data, together with a student cohort more attuned to academic learning in internships, will prompt a gradual increase in individual faculty members requiring students to enroll in the course as a condition of their acting as a student's faculty internship supervisor. This buy-in should be further assisted by a course design that enables students to enroll in the course either prior to an internship experience or concurrent with it, thereby accommodating students who receive last-minute internship offers.

Rowland and Shaffer anticipate that these changes will significantly increase course enrollment within 3-4 semesters. Short-term objectives include building and maintaining course enrollments sufficient for INTSP 370 to be a regular semester course offering.  Long-term objectives include a heightened and more consistent set of expectations than currently exists among Penn State students and faculty members regarding what undergraduate internships can and should entail.






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