The American Institute of Physics hustled to keep the pandemic from canceling its scholars’ summer by converting its in-person program into a virtual one that AIP hopes will retain the education and camaraderie.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began closing down the nation, the American Institute of Physics realized it wouldn’t be able to host its Society of Physics Students (SPS) Summer Internship program in person. However, AIP didn’t want to cancel it.
“Most summer internship positions have been canceled, so there really is a lack of opportunity,” said Brad Conrad, director of SPS. “These internships are really influential. One of my goals is that students don’t just have something to put on their resume, but that the experiences will be meaningful, memorable, and carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Determined to keep the SPS internship alive, AIP decided to transform the program into a virtual experience. Traditionally, a prime benefit of the program is that students in a variety of physics disciplines can network with each other while working at tailored internships at various locations in the Washington, DC, metro area.
“They all go to different work facilities … ,” Conrad said. “But they all live together—the past few years has been at a George Washington University dorm. In the evening, they’d form groups and get to know each other and explore DC.”
Because students are placed at different locations—including national labs and AIP member societies like the American Physical Society—converting the program to virtual was tricky.
“One of the things we were cognizant of is every location has a different set of criteria,” Conrad said. “Each entity had to go through their own approval process, and they had to make sure they could do it virtually.”
Some organizations had to alter the project they had planned for the interns, while others had to change mentors for the program. “We got a couple mentors who said they had too much going on, and they found a close colleague, so the students could still participate,” Conrad said.
He noted that every organization accepting an intern went above and beyond to make the switch to virtual work.
“Our main concern is the education of the students and making sure they have a good summer,” Conrad said. “It was a good amount of work to make sure they weren’t just sitting in front of the computer eight hours a day.”
That work included giving students opportunities to interact with other interns—as they would have if they were living in the same housing unit. “We are trying to make it as close to the in-person summer as we can,” Conrad said. “We will be doing social events on the weekends, game nights, virtual tours.”
In addition to the virtual get-togethers, the program will include hands-on activities. “We are going to be mailing them kits, and in short, without going into too much detail, it’s going to be an experiment. One student has to do the thing, and the other student has to predict what will happen,” Conrad said. This will encourage teamwork and camaraderie.
The program started this month, and so far, so good. “The number-one goal is to make sure they are getting a rewarding experience,” Conrad said.