The National Ecological Observatory Network’s (NEON) Undergraduate Internship Program provides undergraduate students, particularly those from traditionally underrepresented groups in science and engineering, mentored opportunities to conduct challenging and engaging STEM-related projects in the areas of engineering, ecology, GIS, atmospheric science and computer sciences. These internships provide students with real-world experiences in STEM related fields, specifically designed around NEON’s mission of providing ecological information and infrastructure. These diverse projects lead to interdisciplinary intern cohorts that vary from the single or near-discipline environments of many REU or URIP cohorts. Using both case study methodology and pre, post and annual follow-up surveys over the past 5 years, we evaluate how the NEON Undergraduate Internship Program provides the students with STEM-related skills, exposure to other STEM-related career paths, and supports the students during completion of their undergraduate program and into their careers.
The interdisciplinary nature of each NEON cohort allowed interns to better understand other STEM career paths. Additionally, collaboration with other local REU/URIP programs were found to inform and enrich the NEON internship program including collaborations to offer scientific communication workshops, co-hosting poster sessions, and providing opportunities to network. During the internship, students’ skills improved and new skills were learned through formal training and through individual work during the program. Like with many other REU/URIP programs, we found that mentors are key to the interns’ success as they move through the internship program and for continued support after the program has ended. We found that the needs of each intern are diverse and unique, creating a one size does not fit all scenario. Interns felt providing flexibility (e.g., selecting relevant seminars to attend) in what they participate in could better meet individual needs. The benefits of a multi-disciplinary research internship program for the student are accompanied by challenges to creating a cohesive experience for the program coordinators. However, through collaboration and intentional focus on diverse experiences, the NEON Undergraduate Internship program has been successful in retaining and reinforcing intern interest in STEM career paths.