Mechanical Engineering Professor Tariq Khraishi is working hard these days to keep up with the fruit of his own success. Over the last year, he and his colleague Sue Buffington have arranged internships with local companies and agencies for more than 100 engineering students.

Khraishi says he didn’t imagine where his National Science Foundation grant would take him. In 2011, Khraishi and co-principal investigators received an NSF grant for $2 million to pay stipends for UNM freshmen and sophomore engineering students to serve summer internships with companies and agencies in New Mexico. Some interns serve in research positions with UNM School of Engineering (SOE) faculty members. 

The five-year grant was designed to pair 75 students each summer with companies, agencies and faculty members that needed help. Khraishi wanted the students to get actual experience working with professional engineers on a particular project so the students could get a good sense of what it means to be a professional engineer or computer scientists. 

The grant also paid for students to attend professional conferences and present their work in poster sessions. That proved to be an important element in keeping the students interested. “The students had great enthusiasm for attending the conferences and presenting their work to professionals,” said Khraishi. “It helped them understand how the engineering profession works and how engineers develop and promote their own careers.”

What he didn’t expect was the reaction of the companies they were working with. The companies wanted more interns than Khraishi had students. Companies like Intel, Emcore and Eclipse Aviation wanted older interns that they could potentially groom and hire as employees. New Mexico-based national laboratories were also enthusiastic about taking students. And everyone wanted to meet with groups of students so they could find students that fitted the organizational culture.

The grant only paid for freshmen and sophomore students, but Khraishi and Buffington began talking with seniors and graduate students as well. Khraishi began asking for and receiving money from the state legislature to pay for student internships not covered by the grant. This year, the New Mexico Environment Department has asked to talk with student engineers who might want to work with them on developing ways to monitor environmental projects in the state.

The program is now in its third year and the benefit to students is becoming clearer. They don’t drop out. The program has lost only one student, who transferred to another school. More than 60 agencies and companies, including the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority, Arizona Public Service, Dow Chemical, Fiore Industries, Honeywell Aerospace, Newport News Shipbuilding, the New Mexico Gas Company, Robocasting, Tempur-Pedic, and UNIRAC, have taken interns from UNM since the program began.

Scott Price, VP at Loadstorm, has hired several UNM Interns.  He says, “We currently have five interns in Java coding or Web Performance Lab, and it is working well for us. I believe we will hire them as full time employees as they graduate, so it is a great strategic staffing process as we grow”.

Over the past year, 85 students have been part of the NSF grant program, and more than 100 students have been assisted outside the program, says Khraishi, who is now an assistant dean in the SOE. Buffington is now the internship coordinator for SOE’s Student Services.

The NSF noticed the success of the program as well. When Khraishi, Buffington and other colleagues went to Washington D.C. in March 2014 for their third year review, their program officer and other panelists were pleased with the results both inside and outside the bounds of the grant. A summary statement of progress the UNM team received said, “They have strong institutional support and are building partnerships with industry, national laboratories and state agencies. Their model for growing an internship program is possibly one that could be adopted by many institutions.”

For Khraishi and Buffington, the next step is documenting exactly what happens to the interns. They already have some evidence about companies hiring the interns on a part-time basis while they complete their education. They estimate of the impact of the intern’s pay on the state’s economy over a 12 month period is nearly a $1 million. Now they want to document exactly how many interns stay and work for the companies beyond their formal internship and how many are permanently hired after graduation.