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Hartnell College Pilots Micro-Internships

When Dr. Mohammed Yahdi joined the mathematics department at Hartnell College seven years ago, he was surprised that many of his students, bright and full of potential, balked at pursuing internships.

Some didn’t think they had the capabilities, others lacked confidence, and far too many simply couldn’t afford to participate in an eight- or 10-week internship when they were already working jobs to pay rent, support families or just get by. 

Yet an internship experience can significantly benefit a student’s career track, so Dr. Yahdi found a way for students to tap into the key benefits of the internship experience with smaller investments of time. 

Yahdi, now interim dean of math, science and engineering at Hartnell, piloted a micro-internship program in which students participate in research and project-based learning experiences in 25-hour commitments. 

Funded by a five-year $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant for Hispanic Serving Institutions, his micro-internship model, ESTEEM (Engaging STEM Transformational Experiences for Early Momentum), now finishing its third year, is getting noticed.

Yahdi was recently invited to present about the micro-internship program’s successes at the 2021 Innovations Conference of the League for Innovation in the Community College, held online March 1-4. 

Increasing representation matters at Hartnell, where the majority of students attend part-time, about half are age 25 or older, 75 percent of students are Hispanic, many the first in their family to attend college, and 85 percent of students hold off-campus jobs.

“The abbreviated format is more accessible to many of Hartnell’s students,” said Yahdi, “and helps to increase the pipeline of underrepresented students into the STEM workforce.”

While many students only apply for internships near the end of their academic journey, Yahdi sees advantages to engaging students early in their educational journey: Micro-internships can be less intimidating to students, who often avoid applying for opportunities because they don’t feel qualified, and the experience can help them clarify career paths, build confidence and increase student retention. By taking part in project-based experiences working with teams of other students, students build resumes and confidence and nurture important soft skills such as communication, problem-solving and collaboration that employers need.

More than 443 Hartnell students have participated in the short and flexible internships, working in teams under faculty and lab technician mentors, and some have even been able to take part in more than one. Those students have also benefited from writing about and presenting their work at conferences. 

Boosting the number of underrepresented students in STEM careers matters from an equity standpoint: Yahdi said both Hispanics and women are underrepresented in those fields, but workers in STEM-related fields earn 35 percent more, on average, than workers with the same level of education in non-STEM occupations, and earning gaps (by demographic) are narrower than in other fields. 

The micro-internship program is already seeing increased representation and retention: Female students made up one-third of the interns in the program’s first year, increasing to about half in its second year. 

Other preliminary results: 66% gained meaningful knowledge and experience, and many gained significant confidence to pursue STEM majors and careers, with increased support from their families in pursuing a STEM career.

Eventually, Yahdi would like to expand the base of mentors beyond academia and build collaborations with STEM-related industries in the region.

Yahdi sees the micro-internships as stepping stones that build competence and confidence. “The goal here is for it to happen early, to be short-term, and low-stake, and by doing so, to reduce barriers and inequalities inherent in the internship paradigm.”

Ultimately, Yahdi said, the goal is to close the internship gap, reducing the barriers that keep students from participating while also making it easier for mentors to take part.

“The idea is to bring it to them,” says Yahdi.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Mohammed Yahdi.