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– February 11, 2015
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Traditionally, the summer fellows program engaged incoming and current graduate students in economics and finance in courses taught by a wide range of respected scholars. In 2012, AIER partnered with the Eastern Economic Association (EEA) to survey the economist community at-large. The purpose of this survey was to examine the gaps in undergraduate students’ preparation for graduate study in economics.

The results identified crucial areas for improvement. The most frequently cited gaps in undergraduate economics education were the ability to think critically and creatively, to attain the more intuitive understanding of economic concepts, and to acquire strong research and writing skills. In 2013, AIER altered the Summer Fellowship program in response to the weaknesses identified by the economics community. The idea behind the revised summer program was to bring the summer fellows in closer contact with AIER researchers and offer practical experience in applying research methods to topics relevant to AIER’s readers. This brief presents our initial assessment of the new Summer Fellowship model.

INTERNSHIP DEBATE
In both the academic and business worlds, there is much deliberation about whether internships are valuable extensions of classroom learning. Proponents contend that internships make connections from the real world to the material covered in the classroom and prepare students to enter the profession (see, for example, Rigsby, Addy, Herring, and Polledo (2013) and Cameron, Freudenberg, and Brimble (2013)). The caveat is that for these connections to be meaningful, clearly structured partnerships between higher education institutions and employers have to be built and maintained. (For a discussion of experiential learning, see Gazley, Bennett, and Little (2013)).

Others are convinced that even though real learning goes on during internships, this learning is not focused on academic knowledge, but rather on other valuable life and work skills that have little to do with the intellectual exercises of the seminar room. One group of scholars argues that “without rigorous, guided reflection on the [internship] experience,” students “generally do not learn much beyond what one gets from a part-time job.”[1] Hughes and Moore (1999) and Moore (2013a), among others, suggest that the nature of a student’s participation in workplace activities has a major impact on that student’s knowledge acquisition. As a result, either educators or workplace internship coordinators need to track whether or not the learner uses that knowledge. Writing with an eye for maximizing the potential of internships for all stakeholders, Starr-Glass (2006) recommends that students, academic institutions, and hosting organizations such as businesses, develop mechanisms to optimize learning opportunities and help internship programs to be viewed “as long-term human and social capital investments, benefiting all those who engage in the process.”[2]

In the business sphere, human resource professionals advocate that a “well-structured internship program can energize your enterprise.”[3] While it takes time, energy, and resources to recruit and sustain interns, internships are about more than providing work experience to young people, more than recruiting new staff members, and even more than marketing the organization to young people’s social networks. Above all else, strong internship programs can benefit a company by increasing productivity, morale, and diversity. (For a discussion about the benefits of internships for companies see Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) multiple publications.)

THE AIER APPROACH
These insights are reflected in the AIER Summer Fellowship Practicum, which serves our mission while incorporating cutting-edge practices that provide an experiential learning opportunity for students interested in applied economic research.

The AIER Practicum is competitive, with an 18 percent acceptance rate, and draws students from some of the best universities and programs across the country. During the two-month residential program, interns are partnered with AIER researchers and immerse themselves in current AIER research projects. The young scholars’ work is significant and is central to the successful completion of each project.

We select fellows based on the match between each applicant’s skills and interests, and the scope of the Institute’s agenda. We prefer candidates whom we expect to integrate well into our team and who are ready to experiment, innovate, and take on challenges. Since we need various levels of research support, we look for people with diverse skill sets and fields of study. We welcome undergraduate seniors, as well as those pursuing a master’s or a doctorate.

The AIER Summer Fellowship Practicum consists of three components: research, education and culture.

Research Component
According to the experts in the field as well as to the consensus in the literature (see for example, Baker, Wysocki, and House (2008)), the intern and the host company derive the most benefits when the intern is assigned to a specific, well-defined project. Consequently, the Fellowship’s research component engages students in actual research projects. Working closely with AIER research staff, summer fellows are immersed in economic research for a well-defined project with specific, identifiable tasks. This approach enhances a student’s understanding of economic concepts, theories, and methods, and provides an opportunity to develop research, writing, and presentation skills—and to do so in the context of a real-world application.

In the summer of 2014, research topics ran the gamut of AIER projects (Table 1). Some interns helped with the development of an Employment Destinations Index, others aided in the evaluation of our Statistical Indicators of Business-Cycle Conditions, and still others worked on the development of a financial literacy curriculum for women who are survivors of domestic violence.

During the Fellowship, each student was responsible for delivering research results in a formal presentation in front of the research department as well as in written format. The written pieces are often used by the staff in their continued research on a project after the student leaves.

The ten students accepted to the program in 2014 included one Ph.D. candidate, two students with master’s degrees who were entering Ph.D. programs, three students in master’s programs, and four undergraduates. The interns were enrolled in programs that ranged from agribusiness to applied economics and political economy. We had representation from a range of U.S. locations, including Washington State, North Dakota, California, Texas, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. Students represented five foreign countries–Ukraine, Burma, China, Thailand, and India–in addition to the United States.

The structure of the research component helps interns learn the steps of the research process from literature review to methodology to data acquisition and analysis and eventually to the dissemination of findings in a public presentation and in writing. Under the guidance of AIER staff, each student gains the expertise and confidence to innovate, think creatively, and apply textbook theories to real-world problems. The goal is to allow students to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the final outcome when they embark on the exploration of an idea.

Another important aspect of the research component is the opportunity to learn how to apply the tools of economics and gain an appreciation for their strengths and weaknesses. Working among AIER researchers, students go beyond learning how to run an econometric model and experience the power of the economists’ tools for interpreting the world. Rustin Partow, one of our summer fellows, reflected on his “Eureka! moment” by saying, “I had been taught a lot of economic models, but this was my first experience trying to earnestly use a model to clarify a real-world problem.” Pukitta Chunsuttiwat, another fellow, acknowledged that the most important learning occurred when “translating theoretical frameworks into tangible products.”

At the conclusion of the program, the interns were unanimous in their praise of the research aspect of the Practicum. Students specifically told us that they were able to delve more deeply into their topics; that they became more proficient in a specific research methodology; and that they improved analytical skills, such as formulating a research question, gathering and analyzing information, and designing and testing the solution to the problem at hand. In addition, they noted the value of being engaged in a positive, professional, and productive work environment. One of the fellows noted: “I don’t think I have ever been to a more welcoming work environment than here.” And another student said that the “internship at AIER has been truly rewarding, both in terms of work and life experiences.”

Educational Component
In order to include an educational component in the Summer Fellowship Practicum, we invite scholars to share their research.

Topics covered last summer included interstate migration, the internationalization of the Chinese renminbi, business ethics, the Federal Reserve’s history, sweatshops in the global economy, the intersection of securitization and bankruptcy, and data analytics (Table 2). Interns also participated in mathematical theory seminars delivered by program observer and AIER member, Dr. Kenneth Driessel.

The educational component also includes career-building skills acquisition. In addition to the content focus of their work, summer fellows enhance their skills in the use of statistical software, database management, regression analysis, smoothing techniques, written and oral presentation, and collaborative work. They are also exposed to working in a professional office environment.

For some students this can be a challenge, as they learn how to ask for assistance, to disagree with a “supervisor,” to voice suggestions to improve a procedure, and to manage a long-term assignment. These skills are transferable to any career path and will help students be productive contributors in any work setting.

In 2014, the educational component of the program contributed a great deal to the intellectual life of the Institute over the summer. One student confirmed that by saying, “In addition to my own research, an active engagement in other activities such as educational seminars … led to a climate of intellectual excitement among the interns and researchers.” In other cases the seminars had tangible benefits for the students, as illustrated by this comment by Lyudmyla Kompaniyets: “I appreciated the invited speakers; this was where I got … [many of] … my own research ideas.”

Cultural Component
A cultural component is included in the Practicum in order to create group cohesion and strengthen bonds with AIER. Our location provides the opportunity for students to explore the rich cultural and natural resources of the Berkshires. We try to balance organized trips with students’ informal exploration on their own.

In the summer of 2014, the interns explored downtown Great Barrington, walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, and celebrated the Fourth of July at the re-opening of the Clark Museum in Williamstown. They also visited the historic Saratoga Race Track at their annual College Day event.

In addition, students volunteered to share their home-country cuisine, to showcase their musical talents, and to compete in friendly sports matches. Both interns and staff enjoyed a taste of the Persian, Italian, and East Asian cuisines through a series of home-cooked dinners prepared by different students.

At the conclusion of the Practicum, students presented their research in an open forum where all AIER employees and interns were present. Their presentations were in a professional format, identifying all parts of the research process and offering concise and understandable results. After that, we put them through a reflection exercise, similar to that of a classroom discussion, where they contemplated the skills they acquired and the strengths and weaknesses of the program. Their reflections showed that the relationships with their respective supervisors taught them how to develop a work ethic, prioritize competing tasks, and manage their time. Our decision to include this reflection exercise was based on economic education research suggesting that guided feedback helps students formulate and articulate their ideas about the knowledge and skills acquired during the internship.[4] As a result of their Fellowship experiences at AIER, these students are better prepared to meet the new academic and interpersonal demands they will face in their education and professional careers.

IT MAKES BUSINESS SENSE
Through the long history of the Fellowship’s existence, we have learned how to make the program valuable to both AIER and the students. The experience helps our staff sharpen their own focus, manage a new person’s expectations, and accommodate their inquiries, all while meeting the Institute’s objectives.

As students participate in diverse and engaging projects, they improve their knowledge and learn the life skills of collaboration and teamwork. We find that this win-win situation encourages energy and creativity within the staff. When students leave, they leave behind a better AIER — an AIER that has gained new perspective and thinks innovatively about new issues.

Our experience demonstrates that those who question the value of interns to their company might want to consider not only the valuable material that interns produce, but also the intangible benefits of new energy, new ideas, and new ways of doing things. The young generation is a group of adaptable, self-motivated problem solvers who add value to any company.

The AIER Summer Fellowship Practicum program has been selected as one of the Top 10 Summer Fellowships of 2015 by ProFellow, the largest online community of active fellowship seekers and university advisers, and the go-to source for information on professional and academic fellowships.

CONCLUSION
AIER furthers its education mission by creating comprehensive programs for students interested in economic research. We pursue our business goals by assigning well-prepared students to ongoing research projects. The AIER Summer Fellowship Practicum in particular is set up as a rigorous, guided research experience, deeply rooted in the tradition of scientific inquiry. By hosting students on campus and exposing them to the economic research process, we help them broaden their knowledge, gain practical experience, and become successful participants in the global workforce. 

Bibliography
Baker, Gregory A., Allen F. Wysocki, and Lisa O. House. “Industry-Academic Partnerships: The View from the Corner Office.” International Food and Agribusiness Management Review 11, no. 3 (2008): 57-80.

Cameron, Craig, Brett Freudenberg, and Mark Brimble. “Making Economics Real—The Economics Internship.” International Review of Economics Education 13 (May 2013): 10–25.

Gazley, Beth, Teresa A. Bennett, and Laura Little. “Achieving the Partnership Principle in Experiential Learning: The Nonprofit Perspective.” Journal of Public Affairs Education 19, no. 3 (Summer 2013): 559-79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23608971 .

Hughes, Katherine L. and David Thornton Moore. “Pedagogical Strategies for Work-Based Learning.” IEE Working Paper No. 12, 1999.

Meinert, Dori. “Fresh Faces: A Well-planned Internship Program Can Energize Your Enterprise.” HR Magazine 58, no. 11 (November 2013). http://www.shrm.org/publications/hrmagazine/editorialcontent/2013/1113/pages/1113-internships.aspx

Moore, David Thornton. Engaged Learning in the Academy: Challenges and Possibilities.  New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013a.

Moore, David Thornton. “For Interns, Experience Isn’t Always the Best Teacher.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, (November 18, 2013b).
https://chronicle.com/article/For-Interns-Experience-Isnt/143073/

Moore, David Thornton. “Analyzing Learning at Work: An Interdisciplinary Framework.” Learning Inquiry, no. 1 (2007): 175-88.

Rigsby, John T., Noel Addy, Clyde Herring, and Donna Polledo. “An Examination of Internships and Job Opportunities.” Journal of Applied Business Research, 29, no 4 (2013): 1131-43.

Schawbel, Dan. Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Starr-Glass, David. “Enhancing the Transformative Potential of Business Internships.” Managing Global Transitions, 4, no.4 (Winter 2006): 285-97.

 


[1] Moore, “For Interns, Experience Isn’t Always the Best Teacher.”

[2] Starr-Glass, “Enhancing the Transformative Potential of Business Internships,” 296.

[3] Meinert, “Fresh Faces: A Well-planned Internship Program Can Energize Your Enterprise.”

[4] Moore, “For Interns, Experience Isn’t Always the Best Teacher.”


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