By Cathy Yarbrough

When applying for graduate school or their first jobs in academia or industry, students who major in one of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields traditionally have emphasized the technical knowledge and skills that they acquired during their university education.

However, twenty-first century science demands more than technical knowledge and skills. “International, cross-cultural teams define today’s academic science,” said Cheryl Matherly, vice provost for global education at the University of Tulsa (TU). To be successful, U.S. researchers must be globally competent and adept at collaborating with scientists in other countries.

Cross-cultural teams also define many industry jobs in the STEM fields, said Amy Henry, executive director of the Office of International Education at Georgia Tech (GT), which has launched a campuswide program to “globalize” the student body. “Companies want to hire college graduates with STEM degrees who have developed a broad global perspective and approach to problem solving,” said Henry.

STEM graduates whose résumés include international internships have an edge during job-hunting, added Jennifer Baird, director of TU’s Global Internship Program and International Plan. “Having a global perspective can influence the whole trajectory of a student’s future career,” she said. “It can open doors and help them obtain an international assignment or be appointed to head an international division.”

A global perspective also may influence the publication of scientific papers, said Yvonne Rudman, director for international partnerships and grants at Montana State University (MSU). Rudman referred to a recent University of Florida and University of Chicago analysis of 1.25 million STEM papers published from 1996 to 2012. The results suggested that scientific papers whose coauthors represent multiple countries have a higher chance of being published in prestigious journals and being frequently cited than do research articles whose coauthors are all in the same country.

“Research conducted by international teams may be regarded as being broader in scope and as having broad implications,” said Rudman. According to the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s “Science and Engineering Indicators 2016,” the number of scientific papers with coauthors representing multiple countries grew from 13.2 percent in 2000 to 19.2 percent in 2013.

“Capacity building around the world in R&D and human capital infrastructure, along with improvements in communications technology, has facilitated the interconnected nature and greater international collaboration in S&E activities,” the report noted.

TU, GT, and MSU are among the U.S. universities that have designed international internships to improve the global competencies and collaborative skills of their undergraduate STEM students. Through these international internships, STEM students learn the importance of being “flexible, adaptable, and familiar with environments different from their own and be comfortable in interacting with students and researchers from different cultures,” said Rudman.

Matthew Schauer, a computer science major at GT, said that his two overseas internships in Japan helped him to “understand what ‘culture’ is, what’s different from nation to nation, and what we all share…I now feel that I better know how to behave not only around Japanese people but people of all cultural backgrounds…This understanding will be indispensible in my future career.” During his internship, Schauer worked in computer programming in a research lab at Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT), just outside of Tokyo.

Overseas internships are not designed to encourage U.S. students to relocate and work in other countries after they’ve graduated. “Most of our graduates will work in the U.S., but their jobs will require that they work successfully in cross-cultural teams,” Henry said.

Universities that plan to build or expand their international internships for undergraduate STEM students can take a number of steps to ensure that their students obtain global opportunities.

  • Take advantage of faculty members’ research collaborations in other countries. Faculty can help staff to identify and recruit overseas scientists to host STEM students’ internships, she said. They also can help plan the internship and evaluate the student’s experience after he or she returns to campus. “We work hand and glove with our faculty,” said Matherly.

  • Turn to the university’s international research partners to assist in making connections that lead to new internship opportunities for STEM students. For example, one of MSU’s research partners, University of Tasmania, helped Rudman connect with the Tasmanian Land Conservancy and set up an internship at the NGO for SKC students participating in the wildfire project.

  • Jointly plan the students’ internship with the university or company that will be hosting the program. When organizing the wildfire research internship, Rudman and officials of the conservancy jointly designed every aspect of the students’ overseas experience, including their housing. “We drew up a contract that clarified the responsibilities and expectations of the conservancy, MSU, and the students so that there would be no misunderstandings,” she said.

    Internship or work experience programs that are not jointly planned by both the student’s university and the host institution often fail to accomplish the goals of both organizations. Henry recalled a university in Europe that did not consult with GT when it designed a program for U.S. students that identified the Atlanta-based university as one of its U.S. partners. “Our students have not taken advantage of the program as much as I would have liked because it does not meet our criteria,” Henry said.

  • Structure academic internships so that students will understand what they will be doing each day and why. TU depends on active mentoring relationships with students to help maintain and reinforce the objectives of the internship, said Matherly. During their internships, TU students also are required to reflect on their experiences in weekly e-mails to their mentors. “The key to a well-designed program is the quality of the mentoring and the integration of the reflections experience,” she said.

    To ensure that their students understand and achieve the objectives of their internships, MSU sponsors extensive predeparture orientation and briefing sessions for the students. When GT and MSU students complete their internships, they also are required to submit written reports describing their experience and insights.

  • Take advantage of the expertise of other administrative offices on campus. Henry turned to GT’s study abroad administrative staff for help in developing a set of health and safety procedures to guide students in internships at overseas companies. In addition, when a GT student applies for an internship through her office, Henry said that she contacts the dean’s office “to be sure that applicants are not on disciplinary warning or probation. This is a best practice of the study abroad program at Ga Tech.”

  • Seek grants and other sources of external funding to help reduce the financial burden on students and/or their families for travel costs and living expenses during the internship. “The expense of international internship programs can be a barrier that prevents many STEM students from participating,” Rudman said.

During their overseas work internships, GT engineering students receive salaries from their host companies. The salaries help pay for the students’ travel and living expenses. In addition to helping them to negotiate their salaries, Henry and her staff advise students about the work environments and cultures of the countries hosting their internships.

Overseas internships in companies differ greatly from traditional study abroad programs, said Henry. “When a student is in a study abroad program, he or she is a student. The student already knows how to be a student,” she said. “But in a work internship, the student is not a student but an employee. That’s something that the student may not know how to do.”

As a result, Henry’s office advises the students about adhering to the company’s work schedule and dress code. “We also tell them that they may not be working with people of their own age,” she said. In fact, the student may be the only intern in the department or the entire company.

In addition to advising students on how to secure an overseas internship, Henry and her staff teach a class for GT students and workshops on résumé writing, intercultural skills, and integrating their experience abroad into their professional and personal lives after they return to the United States.

Cathy Yarbrough is a freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia. Her last article for International Educator was “Global Health Matters” in the January/February 2015 issue.

This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of International Educator magazine.