Two students show off a website they built at an end of summer event for ECSS internships.
Two students show off a website they built at an end of summer event for ECSS internships.

In 2012 five Chicago Public School high schools were designated as Early College STEM Schools (ECSS) meaning that students enrolled would have access to extra technology training and career readiness programs, with a pathway to an associates degree in a tech field baked into the curriculum.

This summer for the first time, over 90 students from these high schools completed internships with around 30 local business and STEM partners, as the beginning steps to pursuing technology careers in Illinois. The aim was to bring hands on job training to students hoping to fill one of the 300,000 STEM jobs projected to be available in Illinois by 2018.

Students between their junior and senior year who are in a ECSS school (including Lake View High School, Corliss High School, Chicago Vocational Career Academy, and Michele Clark High School) applied to one of the spots that featured internships with industry partners such as Microsoft, Cisco, and IBM, as well as startups through the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, including Breakwater Chicago and MATTER-based Tap Genes. Internships were paid, and many students had a chance to network within the company as well as receive tangible benefits, such as a Microsoft certification.

“The internships gave students the opportunity to meet IT professionals on a daily basis,” said Gretchen Koch, executive director of workforce development strategies at Creating IT Futures, the philanthropic arm of CompTIA that coordinated the program. “That is really important because most people haven’t a clue what its like to be someone who works in IT. They know what a teacher does, they know what a doctor does. But when you talk to them about IT as a career they …[say] I don’t know what that means.”

“The kids were learning a lot of new programming languages…over and above what they learn in the classroom,” she added. “But not only were they learning them, they were applying them to developing awesome websites and mobile applications for their clients.”

Students overhauled the Chicago Workforce Funder Alliance website during their internship.
Students overhauled the Chicago Workforce Funder Alliance website during their internship.

At an event on Thursday, students shared their stories of the summer, showing off websites and mobile apps, market research, and multimedia projects developed for corporations and startups. They mentioned they grew skills in teamwork, programming languages, and gained mentors along the way.

Digital Professional Institute employed two interns, and hosted 11 interns, all working on web design and video production. They offered space, equipment, and instructors to help students grow their skills and complete projects, such as an updated website for the Chicago Workforce Funder Alliance. “It is the ultimate in project based learning,” said Avi Levine, executive director of DPI. “They are learning new tools…and relaying it to real business needs.”

However, the supply will have to grow rapidly to meet the demand of the STEM job field, and companies are still experimenting with ways to get kids into the STEM pipeline.

“From a student perspective, just because there is an incredible demand for programming professionals, doesn’t mean that students are going to enjoy the topic,” he said. “How do you make this material accessible to all students. Different students have deferent aptitudes. How do you create course material that is engaging?”

After this summer, he is especially convinced that students having ownership over their work is going to be a big factor in showing them the outcomes that can come from a career.

Next summer CompTIA aims to bring the number of available internships to 175.