Photo: Alison Yin for EdSource
Juniors attend physics class at Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif.

As schools and businesses across California and in other regions of the country remain closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some companies are also cancelling summer STEM internships and student research positions.

On Monday, more than 20 groups including Girls Who Code, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions signed an open letter urging STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) employers across the country to come up with contingency plans for summer internships and scientific research positions that aim to draw women and underrepresented students into the STEM workforce.

The letter is aimed at companies nationwide, but some STEM advocates are worried about California students, in particular, as several of the largest technology companies are based in the state.

“While these have not been independently confirmed, at the time of this writing the number of reported 2020 summer internship cancellations has more than doubled in less than one week, and many federal and academic research experiences have also been canceled,” the letter reads.

Authors of the letter cite concerns about how reducing internships for students could hurt the pipeline for STEM fields, many of which employ workers in high demand during the ongoing public health crisis.

“The aspirations and pathways of our nation’s emerging technologists and engineers are at risk,” the letter says. “Mass cancellations of internship programs could have an irreversible, long-lasting impact on the science and technology talent pool, causing a loss of diversity and a deficit in talent availability that could affect the science and technology sector for years to come.”

California is home to many of the world’s leading technology companies and scientific research institutions. But black and Latino students, as well as women, make up only a small fraction of those enrolled in STEM majors, internships and student research positions. Eliminating internships cuts off opportunities to make STEM fields more diverse, said Lili Gangas, chief technology community officer at the Kapor Center, a nonprofit that researches and advocates for more women and black and Latino employees in STEM.

“I would like for these companies to really think about the income loss for these students. For some, this was their chance to provide for their families,” Gangas said. If there isn’t an internship in the area where they live, students could end up in other career paths outside of STEM, even if that’s what they are majoring in, she said.

Companies that have cancelled their summer internship programs include Yelp, Glassdoor, StubHub and the National Institutes of Health. There is no formal list, but students across the globe have started a crowd-sourced list of cancelled internships with more than 70 companies so far.

Other companies, such as Google, have already announced they will move internships online. Cloudflare, an internet security company, announced last week that the company will double its internship class for Summer 2020, which will take place remotely.

Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which runs an internship program for high school and college students in the Sacramento region, also plans to offer its program virtually for students and will be sending equipment to students so they can connect online.

“Internships and apprenticeships can really change a student’s career trajectory, and that’s what is lost if we lose some of these work-based learning experiences,” said Jared Amalong, career technical education coordinator for the Sacramento County Office of Education. “These are authentic experiences that complement what’s in the classroom.”

Making a remote internship meaningful and equitable for students will be no simple task. If students are working from their home, “they may be living with four people in a small apartment while others might have a big house with less distractions,” Gangas said.

It’s important to push for job-based learning to continue, but it’s equally important for companies to be honest about whether the opportunity can benefit students and if the environment is even conducive to learning, said Kirsten Lundgren, director of tech talent services at the Kapor Center.

Gangas and Lundgren suggest that companies figuring out what to do should consider mentoring and apprenticeships, which typically have fewer education requirements, such as a specific major or certain classes completed, than traditional technology internships.

They also see a potential bright spot for students outside of California’s major tech hubs, which often look to local universities for recruiting: “This could also be an opportunity for these companies to rethink how they identify talent,” said Gangas. “Maybe this can provide an opportunity for less geographic and school-focused recruitment.”

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