Redefining Internships

February 27th, 2021 - 9:36pm

COM student Rune NorderhaugCOM Student Rune Norderhaug selected for NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program

Paid summer internships have been an important way for students to gain skills and professional resources for future careers and academic growth. Typically, students apply for internships within their field of study to acquire industry connections and expand a specific skillset for their discipline.

College of Marin (COM) physics and astronomy instructor Dr. Antonino Cucchiara wants students to see internships as something that will broaden their knowledge and skillset regardless of the subject or project they work on. Cucchiara wants to open students to the limitless possibilities of what internships can do to build their confidence and give them a competitive edge in pursuing their career and academic goals.

Each semester in COM’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Center, Cucchiara and chemistry instructor and STEM Learning Coordinator, Paul Daubenmire talk with students about the importance summer internships can have for their future.

“We let them know you can spend summer getting paid, getting research experience, networking in the STEM community, and getting advantages to use for your transfer application,” says Daubenmire. “Along with other STEM faculty, we say to students ‘let’s look at what you have’ and ask ‘now, what are opportunities you thought about but didn’t think you could do?’”

Cucchiara talks with students about widening their opportunities by looking at internships in astronomy. He understands it may not be most students’ primary subject of interest but most of the internships he discusses are for community college students who don’t have research experience. Also, internships in this field usually have broader acceptance criteria, such as not requiring grade point average or other academic data that may limit students from applying.

He explains why being in an internship is important whether a student wants to go directly into a career or if they want to transfer to a four-year institution. He reviews in basic terms what interns do and how it helps them in the future, such as giving a presentation on a final internship project gives them public speaking skills.

Additionally, interns work in a professional team environment with people in different seniorities to learn communication skills. They gain mentors and industry connections they can call upon for letters of recommendation. Interns attend workshops gaining professional business skills and developing relationships with those in the organization and with other interns.

Internships are touchpoints students go can back to for advice throughout their academic and professional career. This can be especially important for students who are unable to get that from family or community members. Ultimately, internships diversify a student’s academic résumé and the experience gives students confidence for where they go next – an ambitious career or competitive four-year institution.

Cucchiara has former students who attended internships talk about their experiences. COM alumna, Odaiclet Piccinini, who is now at UC Berkeley studying cognitive behavioral science, attended the virtual meeting last fall to talk about her astronomy internship at Northern Arizona University.

Her presentation “shattered the door to the idea that you only do these internships if you are interested in the topic,” remembers Cucchiara. “Oda presented on all of the techniques and the skills she learned during her astronomy internship which will be useful for her cognitive science major work at Berkeley. We stress these aspects all the time. No matter what your major is, if you want an internship you will learn skills you can apply.”

Cucchiara often recruits students from his introductory physics and astronomy courses to attend the internship presentations. Last fall sophomore biology major Rune Norderhaug heard about the presentation in Cucchiara’s astronomy class and decided to attend.

Other points Cucchiara explains to students are the range of astronomy internships available and how to find them, like National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Stanford, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and UC Berkeley, just to name a few.

Norderhaug decided an internship could be just the thing to help him build his skills and experience, and give him an academic advantage. A local NASA internship specifically for community college students piqued his interest. Norderhaug wanted to go to the University of Oslo since he had both American and Norwegian citizenship, and was looking for a way to boost his transfer application.

“My GPA has been recovering, which leaves some difficulties as I’m not able to get into everything I would like,” says Norderhaug. “I recommend students try and apply for some of the internships because you may get one that is more forgiving. Before, I felt like it was very difficult to get into an internship or something similar. Students should still try because it can be very important and helpful for later.”

A submitted internship application and two interviews later, Norderhaug received the news he was admitted into the spring semester NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program. For five weeks Norderhaug, as a paid intern, will work on design challenges virtually with engineers from different NASA centers around the country in a variety of STEM fields. He will compete with other interns for a four-day, in-person learning experience at one of NASA’s centers.

Norderhaug is one of Cucchiara’s first students to be selected for a spring internship which shows how the pandemic has altered internships with many now being offered online. Professor Daubenmire sees it as an opportunity for students to explore national internships.

“We’ve learned that distance can play a big factor in what internships students choose,” reflects Daubenmire. “Students were okay with something in the Bay Area, but if an internship involved leaving California it was a foreign idea to them, especially if their family didn’t understand the opportunities it brought. For some students, having digital internship opportunities gives them more experiences and prospects. Distance is no longer a barrier. In general, it’s been welcoming that we can now offer that during this time.”

Norderhaug is excited to start his internship. “It will be exciting to work with other students interested in the field and to have access to the resources from a place like NASA while working on a project. It is always interesting to work on those to see how your brain works while learning all of the new information. While my major is biology, I do enjoy a lot of astronomy-related things, especially in age-related science. There is a lot of overlap because of the space environment and how our bodies react to aging.”

After graduating from COM in spring, Norderhaug plans to transfer back to University of Oslo to complete his bachelor’s degree and return to the United States for graduate school in gerontology. He wants to explore why and how humans age in order to find ways to comfortably expand the limits of time.

Discover how COM's STEM Center can help you succeed. Contact Professor Daubenmire for more information.