Colorado Interns Steer Their Careers to Space—Or Cyberspace

By Jim Chido

Colorado Springs Remote Internships

"We've gone up from 27 high school and college interns last summer to 36, despite COVID-19," notes MITRE's Kelly Gerschefske. "Our programs are thriving and haven't backed down. That's a success story."

Many of the three-dozen high school and college students who interned remotely with MITRE in Colorado interned with us before. What motivated them to return? Why does MITRE offer the internship programs? And how are the programs thriving despite COVID-19?

We turned to the interns and mentors for answers.

"Very few companies invest in hiring high school students full-time for summer internships," says MITRE's Martin Douglas. "But we've found that great high school interns become greater college interns and, ultimately, top-tier MITRE employees."

Douglas helps direct MITRE's Early High School Internship Program (EHSIP) at our Colorado Springs site, where MITRE supports space and cyberspace programs for its U.S. Department of Defense sponsors.

The EHSIP effort at Colorado Springs is one part of the corporate effort initiated in summer 2018 by MITRE President & CEO Jason Providakes to hire young, talented ninth and tenth grade students. It operated at six MITRE locations this summer.

Tina Cox is a space domain mentor for the EHSIP interns at Colorado Springs. "Our goal is to get high school students excited about STEM careers," she says.

They're succeeding, according to the students.

"This internship has provided me so much knowledge about the way our world truly works and the capabilities computers provide," says EHSIP member Shawn Cunningham.

High school senior Hojin Han agrees. "This internship gave me professional work experience. I know now that I definitely want to go into the cybersecurity field."

Early High School Interns Make Their Mark

The eight-week EHSIP at Colorado Springs provides those interns an understanding of how warfighters use space and cyberspace to enhance their capabilities, and how to defend critical assets. They learn about drone technology, orbital mechanics, and space mission architecture, and get to delve into artificial intelligence tools. They apply what they've learned to a problem at the intersection of both domains.

This summer, they analyzed how proposed low-earth orbit satellite constellations could improve satellite communications available to the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy while it's in the Arctic Circle. "The interns have been involved every step of the way, including the initial meeting with the sponsor, to understand what's needed and expected," says MITRE’s Kd Johnston.

"This was the first year that our high school interns contributed to government projects," Douglas adds. "The work they did was amazing."

Shifting Gears During a Pandemic

Each year, our Colorado office receives several hundred applications for high school and college internships. After students get the nod, the mentors begin meeting in February to match the interns and plan the summer's programs. First year EHSIP students work together in a fairly structured environment, whereas returning high school and college interns are individually matched with tasks.

As one of the college intern coordinators, Gerschefske matches students with projects not just at Colorado Springs, but at our Tampa and San Diego sites as well. "The main things are finding the best fit and giving the interns the best experience."

This year, however, the COVID-19 epidemic threw them a curve.

"We couldn't leverage much of what we did the year before," Johnston recalls. "We had to come up with plans to keep the interns engaged while working remotely."

For example, the mentors converted In-person meetings to daily virtual meetings via MS Teams.

"We get an update on our work, do demonstrations, and get feedback from the mentors," says Rishi Yarlagadda, a high school senior. (For more comments, see "Voices of the High School Seniors," below.)

The interns also used instant messaging, email, and Skype phone calls to stay engaged.

"The daily standups keep me focused and on task and add a social aspect to the workday," says college intern Lily Zephyr.

"We've forced ourselves to be even more communicative with the interns,” says James Tippets, who coordinates the college interns. "COVID-19 has changed our mindset."

Making an Effort for Next-Generation Professionals

The Colorado Springs interns also benefitted from programs introduced MITRE-wide to keep interns connected. One was spawned at the site: The Early Professionals Series. There's a different topic weekly, from an overview of the U.S. military to financial planning to workplace professionalism.

"It's all about sharing and developing these folks not just as analysts but as professionals and adults," MITRE's Nancy Ericson says.

"I'm really impressed by the quantity and quality of the programs available to us, especially given the challenges of doing so remotely," says Christian Ridings, a college intern. "The existence of these resources underscores MITRE's dedication to the holistic development of their interns."

"Mentoring the next generation of geniuses is an awesome experience," says high school cyberspace mentor Lara Suarez. "The interns bring a whole new perspective and way of seeing and solving problems."

"If you want to grow a new generation, you better put in the effort," Tippets says. "Even if they don't end up working for MITRE, they will be better professionals."

—by Jim Chido