"The key to all of this is to give the students something meaningful to do," says Tom Soderstrom, chief technology officer of IT at JPL, "something that actually gets used or at least tried. Something that's not a make-work project."
Computerworld gleaned details from three organizations doing just that, and reaping the rewards season after season: JPL, the White House and utility company We Energies. In each case, employers invested time and personnel, in both planning the internships and in working with the interns themselves. And in each instance, the organizations were rewarded with innovative ideas, increased efficiency and, in some cases, talented full-time employees.
Read on for ideas on how to turn your interns into assets before another summer day goes by.
Jet Propulsion Lab
Lesson learned: Challenge interns, but keep requirements loose enough to encourage innovation.
Value gained: Patent applied for; student-developed software in process of being deployed.
JPL is a poster child for great internships. That's probably not surprising, as education is one of the missions of this federally funded research lab that is managed by the California Institute of Technology. It has 30 different programs and brings some 500 students (both college and high school) into the organization in a typical summer, according to Paula Caterina, group supervisor of university recruiting in human resources at JPL.
What may be surprising to some is the extent to which interns are allowed to not only stretch their intellectual wings but also do real projects that are used in real NASA missions.
The emphasis on internships comes from the very top. JPL Director Dr. Charles Elachi started as a graduate student summer intern more than 35 years ago. "He's always stressing that we need to capture the imagination of the students and JPL as an innovative, fun, exciting place that's always coming up with new research," says IT CTO Soderstrom.
Indeed, on the JPL website, Elachi declares that interns are the future of JPL. "I consider Student Employees to be among the lab's most important and valued staff members," Elachi states. "They are often the source of many new ideas because nothing seems impossible to them, and that's right in line with our line of work. We are in the business of making the impossible possible."
Both Kern and a fellow intern -- Andres Riofrio, an 18-year-old who had just completed his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara -- so impressed their JPL mentors with their research that they were asked to give a talk on cloud computing to the entire lab. "Both Alex and Andres were doing things that are significantly more advanced than what a lot of the rest of the people in the lab were doing," says Khawaja S. Shams, lead cloud architect at JPL.