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The Student Engineers' Council provided engineering students with an opportunity to participate in an internship program remotely. | Video: Matthew Linguist / Texas A&M Engineering Communications

As members of the Student Engineers' Council (SEC) saw their peers struggling with obtaining summer internships or having their internships canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kiersten Potter, SEC president, had an idea. Within a few weeks, and with the help of Rodney Boehm, they developed a plan to provide engineering students with an exciting opportunity to participate in an internship program remotely.

“I wanted students to be comfortable with changing the way that they think,” Potter said. “Even though I [the student] don’t have anything structured to do, I can still make a tangible impact by taking my own initiative. This sheds new light on engineering entrepreneurship and shows students a different side of engineering they are not typically exposed to." 

What started as a simple idea by Potter for the SEC's members developed into a program that spread across the College of Engineering, with nearly 350 students involved. Boehm, the director of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program at Texas A&M University, played a significant role in turning this idea into a reality. As a mentor and professor of practice with 35 years of industry experience, Boehm understood the importance of summer internships.

“We jumped in with both feet,” Boehm said. “We found a way in literally three weeks to put together a 12-week summer program that included a mixture of training as well as practical teamwork activities.”

The internship is split into four phases: application, training, teamwork and presentations. The application process began in April when students filled out questionnaires to determine their internship status, strengths and a project statement.

During training, students attended daily mandatory sessions for six weeks, plus 30 hours of elective sessions. These ranged from personal development courses to guest speakers from companies across Texas.

“The training sessions were essentially built to target four different focus areas which are relevant work experience, oral and written communication, teamwork and interpersonal skills, and creativity and problem solving,” Potter said.

In the teamwork phase, students were split into over 70 different teams. They began working for companies with a mentoring professor of practice.

“We professors of practice have used our experiences in running companies and in various roles in other companies to tailor the student experience to be as much like an internship in a company as we can possibly make it,” Boehm said. “We can help them see what their jobs will look like inside a company.”

Mark Semmelback, vice president of Sentry Technologies, has utilized Texas A&M interns for over 15 years. He expressed a need for students to help with market research for several of his company’s products. When the SEC internship came to fruition, this became an excellent opportunity for interns to see a different aspect of engineering.

“Our goal for the teams was to learn how to look at a product, how to categorize what does that product do and then go out and look for applications for that product,” Semmelbeck said. “Both of the teams have come up with close to 10 potential new applications for our hardware.”

The teams have a Zoom meeting once a week to collaborate on ideas and receive instructions. Although this is not a traditional internship, it provides insights into the engineering industry.

“We’ve been able to give these teams real-life projects that we’re working on that look at the growth of the company into a new area,” Semmelbeck said. “A lot of engineers won’t even be exposed to that in their jobs for several years. To have that early on gives students a much fuller view of what a company needs from them over a longer time period.” 

Nick Tann, a senior computer engineering major, is one of the students working with Sentry. After his summer plans were canceled, he decided to apply for the SEC internship.

“It ended up being the best replacement that was available for those who had their internship canceled,” Tann said. “I wanted to gain some experience, and I didn’t get that opportunity. I found a way to do it, and I went with it.”

Tann was the team lead and coordinated meetings between his team members, Boehm and Semmelbeck. His favorite part of the project was researching markets for Sentry’s products. He said it was an unexpected part of the program, but an essential part of understanding the engineering industry. Tann’s testimonial to this program's usefulness was accompanied by dozens of others sent to Potter.

Students will complete their internship by creating a presentation to convey what they have learned.

Another critical aspect of the SEC internship is the research component. Working with Texas A&M’s Department of Education, an ongoing study has taken place to determine these kinds of programs' success at skill development. Boehm said the research can demonstrate to other schools how the program was implemented and demonstrate its effectiveness.

The layout and design of this program sparked interest in other universities such as Purdue University and The University of Texas at Austin.

“We believe through this experience our students have developed an entrepreneurial mindset,” Boehm said. “We see this as a critical skill for all students that are engineers, and we hope that this program continues on next year. Our students are telling us that they’re enjoying this program so much. We want to be able to offer it next summer and to a whole new set of students.”