Research News

The future of internships is virtual

July 07, 2015
by Cliff White

The internship, a long-held tradition of the business world, is overdue for innovation, says David Williamson Shaffer, a learning sciences professor at UW-Madison who is an alum of the Peace Corps and MIT’s famed Media Lab.

Backed by $12 million in funding from private foundations and the National Science Foundation, Shaffer is creating internships infused with key findings from education research in his Games and Professional Simulations lab at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, part of the university’s School of Education.

Shaffer and fellow researcher Naomi Chesler, a professor in UW–Madison’s College of Engineering, have found that metacognition, or what Shaffer calls “reflection-in-action,” is a common trait among successful professionals. Shaffer and Chesler teamed up to create virtual internships to develop that ability in students.

The internships, designed to simulate professional science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs, encourage thinking on the fly, improving discretion and judgment and helping intern develop their ability to make sound decisions on important matters.

David Williamson Shaffer
“In many ways, businesses want the same thing as middle schools and high schools: tools to develop and assess complex thinking,” says Shaffer, a professor in the learning sciences area of the nation's No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology. “To succeed in the 21st century, schools need to be better at giving students those tools and businesses need to be better at identifying them in potential employees.”

So far, Shaffer and Chesler have created fictional internships within fictional companies involved in biomedical device design, mechanical device design, journalism and urban planning. In response to rising interest from businesses, Shaffer and Chesler are planning to build additional simulated internships in fields such as architecture, medicine and law. If all goes well, they’ll soon be used in professional workplaces, helping companies identify and prepare future employees, and also giving students a better feel for the type of work they’ll do in their careers.

Problems and Solutions

Shaffer developed the idea for virtual internships out of frustrations stemming from his own experiences in teaching history and math.

“The way students in my classes were thinking was not a good reflection of how people in the real world solve problems. In history, students thought that all that matters was names and dates. In math, they learned that all problems have correct answers you just have to know the right algorithm to get the answer,” Shaffer says. “The epistemology was wrong, and that bothered me.”

Naomi Chesler
That word, epistemology, is central to Shaffer and Chesler’s work on virtual internships. “It is a word that sometimes trips people up,” Shaffer acknowledges. But he says that it is an important idea, because it is a way of talking about how people make decisions and justify their actions.

“Every group of people who solve problems and make and do things in the real world has a unique epistemology: a particular way that people think about their work,” Shaffer says. Learning should be about developing these ways of thinking about problems in the real world, he argues.

From this point of view, education is not just shortchanging students in the way subjects are taught, but also in the way their learning is measured. “Standardized tests are really good for measuring basic facts and skills, but most real-world problem solving involves values and ways of making decisions, and the connections between the different facets of a problem,” Shaffer says.

In response, Shaffer’s team has developed Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA), a tool that measures the development of complex thinking. By scanning interns’ entries in their notebooks and conversations with peers and mentors via email and instant messaging in a virtual internship, researchers use ENA to measure how student thinking grows and changes over time.

“ENA looks at what a student intern says or does for evidence of the elements of complex thinking and then quantifies the observable pattern of connections,” Shaffer says. “As a student moves along in the internship, we can see how the connections he or she is making grow more complex and sophisticated.”

In the future, ENA will allow companies running simulated internships to train would-be interns in needed skills and to track the development of employees in their training and development.

Focus on Engineering

Shaffer began a project with Chesler and Mitchell Tyler, also in the College of Engineering, in 2008, to make engineering more accessible and exciting for students deciding on a career path. Their work was prompted by the acute national shortage of qualified engineers – a problem predicted to worsen in coming years.

The researcher’s response was to create the web-based virtual internship Nephrotex, in which students work as interns at a fictitious company creating machinery to treat kidney failure, and RescuShell, in which they design robotic legs for a mechanical exoskeleton used in search-and-rescue missions. To date, more than 800 students have used Nephrotex or RescuShell at four U.S. universities, the Munich University of Applied Sciences and a U.S. high school.

In fall 2013, Chesler and colleagues implemented Nephrotex and RescuShell in a new first-year undergraduate engineering course at UW-Madison. The course, based entirely on the two virtual internships, enrolled 50 students. The class was offered again in the fall of 2014 and is likely to become a regular offering.

The course received an overwhelmingly positive response from its participants. Shaffer and Chesler’s research shows that the virtual internships give students a chance to learn what it’s like to be an engineer and that the internships are especially effective in encouraging women’s interest in and commitment to engineering as a career.

“The best way to increase the number and diversity of the engineering workforce,” Chesler says, “is to recruit and retain more women in the field. It’s extremely exciting that these virtual internships could have that effect and could do so at a national scale.”

In response to student and faculty enthusiasm, the Games and Professional Simulations research group is working on a new grant to develop authoring tools that will let curriculum developers create their own virtual internships.

The Business End

In the near future, Shaffer and Chesler plan to make virtual internships available to businesses. As companies adapt to the 21st century economy, they need a wider range and depth of skills from their employees. With high-skilled employees expensive to hire, companies will need to be smarter about the hiring decisions they make.

“With virtual internships, it’s possible to see not just whether your intern designed the right widget, but how she did it and how well she collaborated with coworkers and treated customers,” Shaffer says. “That kind of knowledge is extremely powerful and valuable.”

Teaching interns skills they need in the workplace is an important part of virtual internships, Shaffer says, but companies are most interested in seeing if their interns can solve a problem they may not encounter until a high-stakes situation arises long after they’ve been hired. That’s the type of real-life situation a company may be leery of involving an intern in, but is an ideal scenario for the simulated environment of a virtual internship.

“If you’re an oil exploration company and your drilling engineer makes even a small mistake at a critical moment, it could be very expensive. Just preventing one mishap every 10 years could easily pay for the cost of a virtual internship program,” Shaffer says.

Heightened interest from schools, universities and businesses led the team to develop Syntern, a platform for creating and deploying virtual internships. With Syntern, companies can customize internships to build their company’s best practices into the simulation. Shaffer says he hopes to begin marketing both off-the-shelf and custom virtual internships soon.

“Traditional internships do some of the things that virtual internships do, but the growth and measurement of complex thinking—that’s something that is increasingly important to universities and to companies, and it’s something virtual internships do really well,” Shaffer says. “To combine the ability to teach complex problem solving in high-stakes situations, customize problems to a specific industry or company, and gain insight into how people think and work, virtual internships can be a critical tool for schools, universities and companies in the 21st century economy.”