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The Value of Internships: A Dose of the Real World in High School

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Katie Gavares spent three weeks in England during her junior year at High Tech High in San Diego working with British educators to incorporate project-based learning. It was a mandatory school internship, a standard part of High Tech High’s education program, and it left a lasting impact on her. High Tech High is a network of charter schools devoted to project-based and real-world learning and a leader in the movement to spread tools and tactics to deepen learning nationwide.

“I took away so much from my experience,” Gavares said recently on a Deeper Learning MOOC panel dedicated to the opportunities and challenges around internships for middle and high school students. “It’s different to be the lead on an all-day thing, and being in charge of having everyone understand a concept by the end of the day.” Gavares worked for one week with university professors and high school headmasters talking through how school structures had to change to make room for project-based learning. During the second week, she helped teachers develop projects, and in the third week she worked with students as they executed the projects.

“Because I saw such dramatic and quick changes, I felt like I was really getting through to the people I was talking to,” Gavares said. She’s still in touch with many of the educators she met during the internship and even does project-critiques with her teacher-partner in England. She says it was the most memorable experience of high school and helped make her the person she is today.

Gavares’ passion and excitement about her internship demonstrates the power of allowing students to collaborate with professionals in the real world. As a high school student, she brought expertise to British educators that they valued, and by sharing her deep knowledge of and personal experience with project-based learning from a student perspective, Gavares learned about some of the challenges that well-meaning administrators face too.

“The stakes were very very high and there was a high degree of uncertainty,” said Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Pictures Schools and a Deeper Learning MOOC panelist. Big Picture Learning is a non-profit that helps schools redesign systems based on student interests. “What she did had value to herself and to that organization and that made the stakes very high.” Gavares was invested in the project because of her positive experience with project-based learning and she wanted to do a good job for her partners. Her motivation to work hard and succeed were tied to a sense of purpose and the understanding that her work was valued.


She also gained valuable knowledge about where she’d like to grow in the future. “I’d like to get better at problem-solving,” Gavares said. “There were so many problems because English schools are so structurally different. And in these meetings we would come across the same problems. I was having a hard time not getting pulled down by this one barrier that we were really struggling with.”


Internships are a core part of the education at certain schools, and there are at least two ways to structure internships at this level. High Tech High chooses to send its students on their internships for a three-week chunk of time in either January or June. That model fits their scheduling needs best and it allows teachers to visit students at their sites so they can bring elements of that experiential learning back into the classroom.

Big Pictures Schools favor a model where students are working with mentors in the field two days a week. The internship is not an isolated experience, but a core part of the pedagogy. “We couldn’t run our school without our mentors,” said Joe Battaglia, Director of Curriculum and Instruction at The Met, a Big Picture school in Providence. They’re essential for us.” School administrators encourage the mentors to hold students to the same high standards they’d expect of employees. "We have an expectation that the work will be high quality and real because it raises the stakes,” Battaglia said.

Students spend a large portion of their week at internship sites, so it’s important that advisers check in with students and mentors and help make connections to school standards. “Our advisers create a specific individual learning plan and set of curriculum for students that are based on standards, but very rarely will it cover all of them,” Battaglia said. “But I also have a bias that I don’t think they’re all covered in a traditional setting either.”

The Met makes a calculation to cover fewer standards more deeply and to have advisers deeply involved in shaping the experience so that the student gets practice in areas where they have skill gaps. “The point isn’t to be proficient at the specific work of that place, but to learn problem solving, to collaborate, to be able to have a foundation to develop academic investigations,” Battaglia said.

To help link the internship experience with the classroom, there's plenty of documentation. Students keep a journal about what they’re learning through the internship and often take pictures and videos to chronicle their reflections. “We have structures of rubrics and scales and scaffolds to help them reflect,” Battaglia said.


The biggest value of the internship experience is social. “It wasn’t about learning a career or a particular job,” said Rob Riordan, co-founder of High Tech High and president of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. “The result for students, particularly for lower income families with fewer resources, was that this was the introduction to those networks. They were meeting mentors who were going to recommend them for summer jobs and other opportunities.” The internship helps student build social capital, while feeling like their work has a real world purpose.

High Tech High emphasizes that, while students should look for an internship in an area of interest, they should also carefully pick a mentor, a key piece of the experience. “It’s not about narrowly predicting what they are going to spend the rest of their life doing,” said Ben Daley, chief academic officer for High Tech High. “It’s much more about the relationship between mentor and student.” Daley tells students to choose a good mentor over what might seem like the perfect experience.

Mentors often get a lot out of the experience as well. The Met gives mentors a brief training on what to expect when working with adolescents and tips for how to explain knowledge they know implicitly clearly to students. “Many of [our mentors] feel like it's the first time someone valued the work,” Battaglia said. “They’re extremely well supported by the students and there’s a real deep human connection.” Teaching someone else who is interested can help bring passion back to the work for many mentors.


Internships take place in real workplaces and students work on real problems in a variety of industries. They offer tremendously diverse experiences to students, but don’t usually align with state standards, a challenge for public schools using this model.

“There’s going to be a less-is-more, a deeper focus,” Battaglia said. He’s confident that internship experiences are aligned with Common Core State Standard goals of creating students that can think creatively, problem solve and transfer knowledge. But his advisers also occasionally have trouble explaining to an internship mentor why a particular standard or skill should be incorporated into the experience. Mentors often say the skills aren’t necessary for the work and can become frustrated when seemingly meaningless learning goals are injected into the experience.

Students might also end up in internships for which they are under-qualified. Gavares described the experience of a friend, whose internship at the Salk Institute, was different than hers. That student had no idea what was expected of him on the first day and wasn’t sure he’d be able to live up to expectations. “The way they survived and ended up thriving was learning on site from their mentor and from other professionals on the job,” Gavares said. She noted that mentors often expect that kind of learning curve and it’s actually very realistic. “That’s one of the most exciting parts about the internship -- learning new things that weren’t expected from you.”


Ultimately, the internship experience is a taste of the real world, a glimpse into various fields of interest and an enticement for what school can help students achieve. But the experience often develops personal growth, as well.

“I think that internships are really, in essence, about an expansion of identity, of incorporating what you couldn’t have done before, and new relationships that you didn’t have before, into your sense of who you are,” said Riordan. “And that’s something that’s a rare commodity in our classrooms, but it’s there in abundance in the internship experiences.”

Teaching through the world of work can be messy. Students in both High Tech High schools and Big Picture schools have been fired from their internships -- a real and often appropriate consequence for various behaviors. Internships also require a lot of communication between students, mentors, and school advisers to make sure the student is getting to participate in real, authentic work, not playing a menial role in an office.

“They are not 'clean' systems,” said Battaglia. “If you are being responsive to kids and to mentors, you can try to rein it in, but there is always going to be some messiness, which is really healthy, I think.” For school leaders, choosing to incorporate internships takes some comfort with uncertainty and the ability to roll with circumstances as they change.

School leaders who have embraced the challenge have seen such positive trends in their high school students that they are considering how to bring similar, real-world experiences to younger students. “We’ve just started to look less at age and more at the capacity to do an internship,” Battaglia said. Some students aren’t ready for an internship experience in middle school, but others are and could benefit from the program. High Tech Middle schools have already seen good results working on real problems in the community as a full class.


“Very often we mispredict what our young folks are able to do,” Riordan said. “One of the things we’ve learned to do is to understand that a stretch for student is a good thing and that students often respond to that stretch and do things even we weren’t sure they could do.”

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