Internship Program Strengthens Links Between In- and Outside Classroom

Carol Peters ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute
From top to bottom: Melecia Wright ’11 making the artificial substrate she and Thinh Vu ’12 devised during their Development Grand Challenge internship in South Africa; Molly O’Connor ’11 follows a root as part of the mapping process, the spatial distrubutions of root systems will be compared between sites of different mean annual precipitation; Fatu Conteh ’10 (white pants) at the site of one of the wells with some of the workers in Ethopia; Yin Liang ’11 at the State Key Lab of Material Synthesis, Wuhan University of Technology in China, where she was a Siebel Energy Grand Challenge intern; Fatu Conteh ’10 shown meeting and listening as Hassen Yesuf ’10’s father explains to them the purpose of their visit.

When the more than 100 students who completed internships this summer through the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Grand Challenges Program returned to campus, they had at least one more commitment.

As a culminating experience, they were required to report on what they learned during their experiences with faculty, research labs, governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit organizations and industry enterprises in more than 20 countries. On two Fridays this fall, the students participated in the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges Summer of Learning Symposium.

“I have come to appreciate the importance of practical work in one’s educational experience,” said senior Fatu Conteh, a chemistry major who spent the summer working on a selfinitiated project to establish five hand-dug wells in Ethiopia as a Development Grand Challenge intern. “I got the opportunity to put faces to the problems I discussed in the classroom.”

The PEI/Grand Challenges internship program stresses faculty mentoring of students as they engage in summer work that complements their academic studies. The internship application process and debriefing of students upon their return to campus in the fall is an important element in shaping the summer experience in the context of the students’ academic program. By linking the summer internships to the classroom experience, students can enrich and extend the knowledge they gain at Princeton and beyond, according to Katharine Hackett, associate director of the Princeton Environmental Institute/Grand Challenges, who directs the internship program. “The internship program serves a unique role in our students’ educational program,” she said. “It allows Princeton undergraduates to leverage their classroom experience and intellectual capacities in real-world settings and through practical contributions.”

The scope of the PEI/Grand Challenges internship program is broad, and it reflects the diversity of student academic backgrounds and their interests in environmental topics. These include energy, climate, infectious disease, global health, sustainable development, conservation and environmental justice. One-third of the interns worked on faculty-led research projects. Half of the assigments were in foreign countries, including Botswana, China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Ghana, India, Italy, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique,  the Netherlands, Peru, Saint Lucia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Thailand. Students from 25 academic disciplines participated—a reflection of the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

The Summer of Learning Symposium panels were organized around Grand Challenges topics in energy, health, development and sustainability. Hosted as two day-long events, the symposiums enabled students to share the details of their internships and research projects, preview their papers and discuss future research and independent work. The panels were moderated by faculty and others with research or professional expertise in the subject areas.

Panel topics were selected and grouped to ensure that students who had worked on similar topics, but from different academic perspectives, presented together so they could learn from each other’s findings and experiences. Several students expect to extend their summer research as they develop their senior theses. A number reported on upcoming publications or policy briefs to which they had contributed. Some left the villages in which they worked better places for local inhabitants, and others were able to conduct graduate-level research alongside faculty in lab and field research.

In the area of health, interns studied disease microbials, therapeutics, antibiotic recognition, drug resistant strains, and policies aimed at disease spread and prevention with particular emphasis on malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/ AIDS. Development Grand Challenge panels addressed sustainable challenges facing the African continent, with students discussing issues such as resource scarcity, biodiversity preservation and poverty in rural Africa. Specific projects focused on issues at the intersection of water, land, climate, human populations and biodiversity.

Energy and climate change panelists discussed a range of technical projects, including work on fuel cells, hydrogen purification, water diffusion and solar cells. Several students traveled to Bermuda to study the effects of climate change on corals, reef sediment microbiology and human waste pollution. Additional internships addressed sustainability issues on a local to global basis. Several students contributed to campus sustainability initiatives, including work with the Butler College green roofs and University Dining Services’ purchasing metrics. Others examined energy efficiency dynamics for low income residential properties in Trenton and made contributions to local land conservation and invasive species eradication projects.

Hackett said, “The Grand Challenges program was founded with a vision of combining the best of Princeton’s research and teaching for a broader impact on influencing solutions to the world’s most intractable environmental challenges. There is evidence through our students’ internship experiences that we are doing just that.”

The PEI/Grand Challenges internship program is a signature program of environmental studies at Princeton and the Grand Challenges Initiative. Grand Challenges was launched by PEI in 2007 in cooperation with the Woodrow Wilson School and the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Internship opportunities available through PEI/Grand Challenges including an archive of past internship projects can be viewed online.

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