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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Asking more from internships

    If you tried to imagine a school that’s the opposite of the UA, Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., would probably be it. The school has just 700 undergraduates and offers degrees only in science, mathematics and engineering. Oh, and it’s bizarre: Students have a penchant for riding unicycles around campus, and the administration turns a blind eye to underage drinking and supports students’ attempts to prank each other.

    But, the differences between our campuses aside, a school like Harvey Mudd can teach our university a few things. Despite the fact that it’s a relatively new college (it was founded only 50 years ago) and draws from a small student body, the school has set new standards in the provision of opportunities for real-world training with corporations available to nearly all undergraduates – something we could, and should, see here at the UA.

    Thirty-five years ago, the college established a program that assigns teams of undergraduates to businesses and faculty mentors. Each team solves an advanced technical problem over the course of an academic year, devoting approximately 12,000 hours to finding a solution. They have worked with companies and organizations like NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and even Tucson local Raytheon to solve problems that have saved the companies millions of dollars.

    It’s nice that the students are saving corporations money, but the program offers much more than that: Students are able to make contacts and gain valuable technical skills in their fields of interest – the quintessence of an internship experience. It’s also a financial boon for the college, as the companies who use the services provided by the teams of students compensate the school for the use of its resources. Pretty much, it’s win-win-win.

    Could the UA implement a similar program? There are obvious logistical difficulties in attempting to replicate a program that’s been effective for a campus of 700 on a campus of 32,000. But even a quick look at the way our university administrates internships and off-campus opportunities shows that we could definitely be doing more.

    Internships in most departments are student-directed affairs. Though students are often alerted to opportunities by department staff, the ultimate responsibilities for finding placement and justifying university credit are their own.

    This plan offers little departmental oversight. Students often earn credit for internships that revolve around tasks such as filing and mailing, which may have little to do with the stated educational goals of their major.

    That isn’t to say that these internships aren’t worthwhile. It’s certainly important for students to have a taste of real-world working environments, in which tedium can be a major part of daily work.

    The benefits of hands-on, student-centered education in real world businesses shouldn’t be restricted to expensive, private universities.

    The question is whether these types of activities should be credited ones, given that a department’s granting of credit for an outside activity should be confirmation that the student has learned skills relevant to the focus of his or her academic major.

    We can ask much more of our departments in helping us find opportunities to actually apply the skills we’re supposed to be learning.

    The department leading the way at the UA is agriculture and resource economics. Though its numbers are small, this department is pioneering new and innovative ways to offer its students the same kind of opportunities as those available at small private schools like Harvey Mudd.

    The graduate students of the agriculture and resource economics department have the option of participating in a program in which they use their econometrics skills to complete a project over the course of a semester, using proprietary data from American Express and Touchstone Energy. At the culmination of the semester, the students present their findings to the corporations.

    Satheesh Aradhyula, an associate professor in the department, emphasized the fact that “”students see the real relevance”” of what they learn in the classroom when their work “”affect(s) decisions about millions of dollars.””

    This program was started in 2002 by agriculture and resource economics professor Gary Thompson and is already bringing clear benefits to the department and student participants. American Express just promised the department $40,000 annually in donations for the next two years, students have been offered terrific jobs in the companies they’ve worked for and the participating companies get first dibs on these extremely qualified students for filling future positions.

    The benefits of hands-on, student-centered education in real-world businesses shouldn’t be found in opportunities restricted to small, expensive, private universities like Harvey Mudd. The agriculture and resource economics department is showing the rest of the campus what’s possible; it’s time for everyone else to start playing catch-up.

    Lori Foley is a senior majoring in English and international studies. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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