Academic Internship – Why We Need to Push High School Students Out into the Real World

For the last 12 years, High Tech High schools, located in San Diego, California, have propelled students out into the real world through an academic internship immersion that takes place in the 11th grade. During this three or four week period, depending on the HTH school, students utilize the 21st century learning skills that they have developed and nurtured throughout grades ninth and tenth (skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking) in a variety of work environments, including non profit, government, education, and small business. Their learning goes far beyond what would be expected.

It would be expected that a workplace immersion experience would help students understand what a “typical” work day looks like. They get up early, inevitably are extremely tired their first day of work (hitting pillows as soon as they get home), and learn how to navigate the complexities of varied workplace personalities, the intricacies of diverse work groups, work/life scheduling, and social monitoring (no longer can they freely text and take calls). What they don’t expect is a general lack of expectation of what they can and do accomplish.

When they first arrive, they are often greeted with a long list of activities to accomplish. At first, the list seems daunting, but they quickly find that they blaze through the list in lightening speed. What appears to the host site as a list of activities that will take the student four weeks to accomplish is typically accomplished in a week or less. Not only are site mentors encouraged by the eagerness of the student to get the work done, they are often amazed at the quality of the work and the efficiency of completing it. Wikipedia entries, web sites, videos, even more mundane tasks such as database work and filing, are expeditiously completed, leaving students asking for more work. It is usually at this juncture that the mentor makes an important connection – our students are only limited by the expectations that we have of them.

And, thus we come full circle. Not only do internship mentors have to re-evaluate their expectations of a student intern and what they can accomplish, the students have to re-evaluate expectations of their own personal abilities and self-worth. Both mentor and intern are victims of self-fulfilling prophecies forged through inauthentic expectations. We expect students to do well on tests, conform in the classroom, and follow a set course of prescribed learning that educators (who probably haven’t spoken to a student in years) have set forth in policy and curriculum meetings far away from schools and learning environments. Mentors expect that “high school kids are just high school kids.” They expect that they will have to constantly manage them, that they will be on their Smartphones – texting away to friends at different internship sites, and they expect them to struggle with some, if not most, of the tasks that they have outlined for them. Students expect that they will struggle, that it will be hard to connect and understand what is expected of them, and that they will fail because, of course, they are “just kids.” What both groups find is that they have to create a new set of expectations.

Part of the reason for the success of the Academic Internship program at High Tech High is clear development of workplace expectations through the practice of resume writing, cover letter development, many, many conversations between students and teachers, support staff, and former interns, and events like Interview Day (where community members interview prospective interns in a group setting on campus) held at High Tech High Chula Vista. All of these opportunities lay a great foundation for the work that will be accomplished on the internship site. The amazing opportunity for both students and their future employers alike is the unspoken learning within both groups that is forged through the creation of new sets of expectations developed through interaction and connection. It is even more critical to re-evaluate and set new expectations for our students during middle school and high school where their self-identity and belief-in-self translates to increased awareness of opportunities, including additional academic choices and career paths.

If future employers have low expectations for high school students (and increasingly for college students who often have had little to no workplace preparation) and high school students have low expectations of the work they can perform, we will not move forward fast enough to create innovators that will provide solutions to our current wicked problems. The single greatest vein of untapped potential we have in the world is the inventiveness of our students’ minds. To mine it, we must “get them out!”


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