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Virginia Tech, Urban Alliance reshape internship program for high school students to focus on STEM

May 9, 2016

Yemina Riquelme, at left, and White House Senior Technology Advisor Nancy Weiss

Yemina Riquelme, at left, talks with White House Senior Technology Advisor Nancy Weiss
Yemina Riquelme, at left, talks about 3-D printing with White House Senior Technology Advisor Nancy Weiss during an Urban Alliance STEMployment event at the Virginia Tech Research Center—Arlington.

Urban Alliance launched a High School Internship Program for under-resourced youth in 1996. Since then, more than 2,000 students in the metropolitan D.C. area, Baltimore, and Chicago have graduated from the program, which has focused primarily on job skills.

In 2014, talks with Virginia Tech about hosting Urban Alliance interns led to a new twist on the successful program: Internships that offer a college pathway for students interested in careers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects.

Virginia Tech and Urban Alliance quickly agreed to partner on a pilot, and in 2015 AT&T generously stepped up to provide funds for participating students’ paid internships, as well as other program costs.

“The Urban Alliance partnership is a creative initiative that leverages talent in the community and allows Virginia Tech to expand opportunities for Virginia youth from under-resourced backgrounds,” said Afroze Mohammed, associate director of Strategic Alliances in the Office of Economic Development.

Mohammed and Nick Stone, director of National Capital Region Operations, collaborated with Urban Alliance to develop a grant proposal for a STEM-based internship track and marshalled support to implement the pilot program and to make it part of the InclusiveVT initiative in the National Capital Region.

As a result of the partnership, four Arlington County high school seniors are interning at Virginia Tech in the National Capital Region:

  • Yemina Riquelme, mentored by Kenneth Wong, professor and associate dean of the Graduate School in the region
  • Andrea Rodriguez, mentored by Pamela Murray-Tuite, associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department
  • Alejandra Rodas-Calderon, mentored by Guoqiang Yu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering
  • Vanessa Lovo, mentored by Jennifer Carter, associate director of Continuing and Professional Education

Riquelme said she knew “absolutely nothing” about 3-D printing when she arrived at the 3-D Printing Lab at the university’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church. About two months into the 10-month, 20-hours a week internship (which will end July 30), she was teaching 3-D printing classes that Virginia Tech offers as a public service to the community. Not content with just knowing enough to teach the classes, Riquelme spends considerable time researching and learning new software.

“I had heard about how Urban Alliance really prepares students before sending them out to the workplace and my expectations were met. Yemina was ready to be helpful and productive from the very first day,” said Wong.

Rodriguez, who plans to study civil engineering in college, said she “was super excited to learn that I would be going to the civil and environmental engineering department at Virginia Tech for my internship.” Under Murray-Tuite’s direction, she learned to analyze data, working on a grant-based study to determine the impact the Metro's Silver Line has on area traffic since it opened in July 2014. 

“The work Andrea has been doing — inputting data and interpreting results — is a real contribution to the project,” said Murray-Tuite. The professor said she is impressed with Rodriguez's independence and initiative to learn more on her own.

“I think these students are very capable, and it is important that Virginia Tech offer them these kinds of opportunities,” said Yu, who trained Rodas-Calderon to work with image processing software at the Computational Bioinformatics and Bio-imaging Laboratory at the 

Virginia Tech Research Center—Arlington.

Yu said the time-intensive work Rodas-Calderon is doing greatly benefits the lab. She also helps edits papers for doctoral students whose first language is not English, one of which has already been submitted for possible publication, he said.

A key new component of the pilot is the new STEM-based curriculum, from which 65 Urban Alliance student interns in Virginia are currently benefiting. Jim Egenrieder spearheaded the STEM curriculum development with input from Beverly Bunch-Lyons, associate professor of history, and Charles Britt, a STEM educator formerly at the Northern Virginia Community College. Egenrieder is Virginia Tech adjunct faculty for both the Natural Resources and Environment/Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and in STEM Education and is a STEM program developer for local schools and community college partners.

“Urban Alliance is committed to providing young people early, meaningful job opportunities and is delighted to be partnering with Virginia Tech and AT&T on this STEM internship initiative,” said Eshauna Smith, CEO of the Urban Alliance. “So far, we’ve seen a phenomenal transformation in all interns’ self-confidence, and we are thrilled that they are developing skills in important STEM fields that will put them ahead in the future.” 

Stone noted that Virginia Tech and the Urban Alliance will evaluate the pilot program and look for ways to extend it by pulling in more STEM-focused host organizations and schools and developing more and better pathways for interns to earn STEM-based college degrees on the way to STEM careers. 

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