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IT Interns in Prince George's County, Md., Find Solutions to Big Ideas

Office of Information Technology interns are participating in experiential and project-based learning centered around science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

by / July 12, 2013
Prince George's County, Md., Office of Information Technology internsPrince George's County OIT

For young people, summer can mean the perfect opportunity to make some extra money. It's also good for your run-of-the-mill internship. But at the Office of Information Technology (OIT) in Prince George's County, Md., you won't find interns running errands, filling cups or filing paperwork. 

"What we wanted to do in OIT this year was something a little different, something a little more meaningful," said Sandra Longs, project manager for summer youth for the OIT. 

Indeed, the department's 10 high school interns are busy finding solutions to big ideas, and learning under OIT's wing, as well as from private industry, public education, university students and the federal government. All of this experiential and project-based learning is centered around five pillars -- science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or "STEAM." 

While the OIT has previously participated with other agencies in the county executive’s office summer youth program, this batch of students -- coined the STEAM Dream Team -- is a part of something newer and bigger. 

The STEAM Dream Team is the first of many programs within OIT's bigger STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) project -- programs that are in the works and imagined as an IT career pipeline for students from kindergarten to college age, said Vennard Wright, CIO for Prince George's County, pictured.

Wright has been thinking for awhile about some iteration of the STEAM Dream Team as a way to help students enter the IT field. An IT pipeline would open doors to students in Prince George's County, he said, where there is a "huge performance gap that seems to be widening around minority students." 

But this is a two-way street, and Wright said he hopes the students' creativity will rub off on the county. As a father of two teenagers, Wright knows how technology is woven into young people's lives and how they often see what adults do not.  

And so the OIT has built its summer internship program to nurture this inborn creativity -- the interns are engaged in project-based learning, are challenged to take on a role from one of the STEAM pillars, and are then asked to present a complete idea to a government issue, together. As the capstone project, the paid interns are competing in two teams to see which group can present the best solution to a local government issue. 

From a list of possibilities, one team has chosen to find a creative way to teach technology to senior citizens, while the other team opted to develop a way to increase standardized test scores and dropout rates at local public high schools.

Longs, who provides impartial support to the teams, said her role should not be confused as a leadership one. "They come to us with their vision and we just help broaden their thoughts to see how big they can really think," she said.

Six students from Bowie State University’s Department of Computer Science, however, do offer some direct counseling to the interns as a part of a coop program that awards them college credits for their summer service, Longs said.

As added preparation, the STEAM program was front loaded with a host of trainings, including some from Lockheed-Martin and Cisco, on such things as iPad use and how to successfully present an idea. The students also attended an intensive scientific knowledge management course that equipped them with the skills to apply scientific thinking to all aspects of life, Longs said. Additionally, the program includes visits to organizations such as Smithsonian Institute and local centers of educational excellence for more hands-on learning. 

The idea, Longs said, is to get even more cutting-edge technology firms and higher education centers on board as future participants in STEAM and STEM. The OIT, she said, is in talks with Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland so that students there will have additional opportunities for career support and training.  

Throughout the program, the OIT's interns are also rotating through a number of the OIT's own disciplines including GIS, networking, application development and telecom where they are exposed to internal experts relevant to their work in the program. 

So far the feedback is positive. "The kids are absolutely enjoying this process," Longs said. "I can tell you this -- I can definitely see the growth in them." And, of course, they are also happy to be employed. Wright said: "No. 1, they're happy to have summer jobs."

The STEAM Dream Team will conclude July 26, six weeks after the program's kickoff, when a panel of judges makes the winning decision between the two presented ideas based on the creativity, viability and impact -- and iPad Minis are the prizes.

While the internship will end, it won't necessarily be goodbye -- Longs said some interns may return next year as mentors to a new group of tech-savvy students who will be invited to a not-so-ordinary internship experience at the OIT.  

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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