Time to Flip the Internship Upside Down: Education, Imagination, and Industry

Aloha AI, SURF

Internships are great in theory—students get to learn from industry professionals, gain real world experience in a controlled environment, and walk away inspired to focus their education and change the world. But in reality, things aren’t quite so rosy. Often, professionals are too busy for their interns, leaving students with little to do and little to gain aside from a line on their resume. In fact, bad internships are so ubiquitous that it’s common to hear jokes about interns doing nothing but fetching coffee for the office. Other intern programs are structured like classes, where interns are doing mostly theoretical work, perhaps learning about a wide range of industry tools, skimming the surface without interacting with real problems or clients. These programs give students information and know-how but fail to engage students with the realities of the industry.

That’s not to say that professionals don’t care or don’t want to commit time to their interns. In most cases, the opposite is true. Industry professionals see the value in real-world experience for students and recognize that good internships can build a pipeline of potential employees. They want to help students just as much as students want to learn. The real problem is that the goals of industry and education often don’t align, making it difficult for students to learn and professionals to mentor.

From an education standpoint, the more exposure to real world jobs and experiences, the more prepared a student will be. A well-structured internship with an engaged mentor can affirm (or disaffirm) career aspirations, foster soft skills, and demonstrate how knowledge learned at school can apply in the real world.

From an industry standpoint, however, valuable internships require professionals to dedicate a significant amount of time to working with students, taking away time from project and client work. Every hour spent with a student is a work hour that will need to be made up elsewhere, making internships impractical for many companies, especially smaller ones with less manpower. And so, when a company is approached to work with students, unless they are able to dedicate resources towards developing an in-depth internship program, the result is often lackluster—a one-off mentorship session, a tour of the company’s facilities, or even just a monetary donation towards new equipment.

As much as a professional may want to help, traditional frameworks don’t leave much room to do so.

Last year, during a groundbreaking partnership opportunity between Oceanit, the Department of Transportation, and Hawaii Technology Academy (HTA), Oceanit’s Ian Kitajima devised a new internship model that has the potential to solve this disconnect and bring the ostensibly opposing needs of industry and education together.

In June 2020, Deputy Director of the Department of Transportation Highways Division (DOT Highways), Ed Sniffen, contacted Oceanit with a proposal to improve traffic patterns along Farrington Highway leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) and student input. With the enthusiastic support of Director of Partnerships & Innovative Learning at HTA, Mary Wenstrom, 17 high school students, an objective, and a small team of Oceanit technologists, Kitajima set to work imagining how to best serve both the DOT and the students. “And from there we just designed it,” Kitajima explained to a group of educators at the end of the internship. “Literally, after every session ended, we were designing the next session and adapting.”

As Kitajima and Wenstrom worked together to create a program that both involved the students and met project milestones, a logic for this new internship model soon revealed itself.

The model they developed is called Kilo, which means ‘observation’ in Hawaiian, and rests on three pillars: real projects, real clients, and innovation.

In this framework, a three-way partnership is formed between a company, a client, and a set of students. At the center is a project—a problem the client has that requires the industry expertise of the company to solve. The company gives the students the tools to address the problem, providing mentorship and guidance as they work on the project together. The students and the client interface directly, and the students come to understand the motivations, limitations, and possibilities associated with the client and the problem. The end product is a deliverable ideated, designed, and presented by the students.

What sets Kilo apart from more traditional internship models is the interaction between the students and the client. Whereas in a normal internship, student-client interaction is limited at best, the Kilo framework requires students to become well acquainted with the client and their industry, providing vital context to the work being done.

On the other side, the client is able to engage with students in a way that might otherwise be impossible without the presence of the company. Working through this three-way collaboration allows students to see how the company’s industry innovations can apply to the client’s work, stoking interest in not just the work that the company does but the potential within the client’s industry as well.

The benefits of Kilo are multi-fold. As the interns are built into the project, professionals are able to simultaneously focus both on their work and their interns, offering mentorship for the full life of the project—for weeks, months, or even years. Students gain valuable industry knowledge, learning and becoming comfortable using real tools and innovations. The client’s project is strengthened by creative, enthusiastic student perspectives. And the workforce of tomorrow becomes empowered to think creatively to draw cross-industry connections that can facilitate the innovations that shape our future.


The Students

For this inaugural internship, students were tasked with coming up with ways to improve traffic safety along Farrington Highway using AI. It began with a briefing on the significance of the project where Sniffen challenged the students to think beyond roads and transportation. This project, he emphasized, should be aimed at improving quality of life for the area’s residents and helping the DOT learn to better navigate community building. Sniffen also gave the students an overview of what the DOT does and what kinds of infrastructure they should be thinking about as they proceed.

The next step was to give the students the tools necessary to move forward with the project. Oceanit’s AI and machine learning team, led by Dr. Mark Kimura, worked closely with students to teach them how to use our Aloha AI platform to read and analyze the data they would collect, how to write algorithms, and how to use AI to automatically perform calculations. Students were able to really get to know and use cutting edge industry technology—not just watch demonstrations.

And then, the students blew everyone’s expectations away. They were more engaged, more enthusiastic, and more creative than anyone expected. Wenstrom recounts, “The students wanted to get really in-depth. Ian had said before, ‘I don’t know if we’re getting too in-depth with them—maybe this should be a bit more surface level.’ But overwhelmingly, all the kids were like, ‘I want to try it myself now. I want to get up and do it.’ And all of our assumptions fell away.”

The key was context. At every step of the internship, Kitajima and Wenstrom made sure to highlight the relevance of the things they were learning—not just for the project, but for the students themselves. For example, early on, Kitajima pointed out that the more tools you have in your toolkit, the more of an asset you are for your company or team. “Having kids hear that—all of a sudden there’s purpose. It’s not like, ‘Oh, why do I have to learn another software?’ Instead, it becomes, ‘Oh, I get to learn another software!’”

Students also came to understand how their school education fits into the real world. As they were faced with a real project, suddenly all the seemingly disjointed memorization that schoolwork entails came together. While it’s easy to see how math and science classes are useful for technology-related projects, Kitajima emphasizes that “when they’re giving a presentation in front of the director of DOT, you bet spelling matters too.”

Another important factor was trust. Kitajima and Wenstrom constantly solicited student feedback and shaped the program around what the students wanted to do. “So many companies are hesitant to do internships, especially with high school students,” Wenstrom observes. “In their minds, they may think that the kids aren’t ready. But Ian said, ‘I’m going to facilitate and guide this and see what comes out of it.’ And it was just as good, if not better, than any internship program I have observed or researched in almost 20 years in education. It is rigorous and relevant to what students care about and it helps them build the skills and dispositions they will need to thrive in companies and organizations in the future.”

Students were also encouraged to use the full range of their creativity. Utilizing Design Thinking techniques, students were tasked with coming up with questions that could contribute to improving traffic safety. The focus of Design Thinking is to create real-world, human-centered solutions founded on empathy and creativity, and nothing is off-limits. Students were instructed to come up with as many questions as they could, drawing inspiration from each other’s ideas. Over the course of four sessions, the students came up with more than 100 questions and collectively selected 12 to send to the DOT for review. This step was the backbone of the project, and these questions laid the foundation for how data was collected and analyzed—the internship truly put students at the center.

With these two factors, context and trust, students felt that their contributions were genuinely valuable and gave their best efforts to the project. As Kitajima explained in a wrap-up meeting, “When we work with these students, we don’t know who they are. I have no history with them. I just know what I see and how they interact with us. So when Mary told me at the end of the semester that they were initially worried about a particular student, I was like, really? Because to me, she seems like a superstar — she’s confident, she’s contributing, she’s engaged. I almost felt like the students that the teachers were most concerned about were the superstars in this program. Maybe because it’s not traditional education.”

The Client

All of this, however, would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of Ed Sniffen and the Department of Transportation. Sniffen is a huge champion of student engagement and believes that it’s critical for the future of the DOT—and the state of Hawaii. “Education isn’t within our jurisdiction, but it is within our connection. Through students, we can engage with the community. And in the end, it’s going to be their infrastructure in five to ten years. If we involve them in the process now, hopefully they can point to an improvement and say, ‘Hey, I worked on that.’”

When students are involved in a project, community engagement naturally follows as their families, friends, and greater school community hear about what the students are doing and by extension what the client is doing. For the client, this offers not only the opportunity for good PR, but also has the potential to save a project from future problems. If community members learn about a project early on and have any issues or objections, they can be addressed in the beginning stages, before too much time and money have been spent.

Sniffen also recognized that going through a company like Oceanit to reach students could be the key to building the DOT’s future workforce. Generally, students looking to enter the field of artificial intelligence and innovative technology are not very likely to consider working for entities such as the Department of Transportation. On the other hand, however, the DOT would greatly benefit from young, highly educated workers who are trained in the latest technologies and can bring new points of view to the table.

Through this Kilo internship, students were able to see first-hand how innovation can be applied to areas that seemingly lack innovative movement, expanding their ideas of what is possible for their future. And the client—the DOT—was able to engage with precisely the kind of future workforce it’s looking for in ways that they could not have done alone. Sniffen explains:

“We’ve had in-person interns before, but students were just working on what was in front of us right now. That’s not what DOT needs—we already know how to do that. We don’t want new engineers to get stuck in the same processes. We want them to be forward thinking. With our old internships, we were pushing people towards our current reality, and that’s not where we want young people to go. Our forte isn’t high-tech. But there are people like Oceanit who are comfortable there, and we want to get there ourselves. Bringing on a high-tech partner allows us to give students the experience that we’d like to [show them], as well as our own staff.”

And so, because this project was framed as a Kilo internship, the DOT received two deliverables: the project goals themselves and a seed of thought placed in the minds of the future workforce of Hawaii.

A student presents their final findings from the project. This student analyzed traffic data to determine whether there were any trends or patterns for different vehicle types.

The Company

For Oceanit, the Kilo internship model sits at the intersection of a number of our longstanding pursuits and stands as an embodiment of our philosophy towards education and innovation. Oceanit takes great pride in our island home and believes that Hawaii’s diversity of people, culture, and ideas can make it a global hub for groundbreaking innovations and technologies. Many young people, however, don’t think that’s possible here, opting instead to pursue careers on the mainland. We believe that through education, outreach, and providing a good example, we can reverse the state’s critical brain drain problem. Kilo is the latest step in that endeavor.

For almost as long as we’ve been a company, Oceanit has hosted cohorts of summer interns, shuttling them through a structured program of seminars and project work which culminates in the presentation of a project proposal on any topic of personal interest. Our intern program is aimed at college and graduate school students in the fields of engineering and design and encourages students to keep their talents here in the islands by giving them a first-hand look at what is currently being done and what is possible.

Kilo, on the other hand, allows us to make an even greater impact by starting this process much earlier. Given the deeply interconnected nature of the program, the Kilo model is appropriate even for high school students—as demonstrated through this pilot program with the DOT. If we want to convince Hawaii’s talented young people to stay or return to the islands to work, reaching them during high school is key. By the time students are applying to college, many have already made up their minds about finding opportunity on the mainland rather than here at home. By hosting a Kilo internship, companies can show students how they can use their higher education to make a difference in their own community.

Another important distinction is that Kilo internships run for the full length of a project—whether that’s weeks, months, or even years. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for mentorship and industry insight as students and professionals work together on all stages from ideation to wrap-up—not just three months of work on whatever happens to be going on at the time. Of course, our summer internship program will exist for as long as universities have summer vacation, but Kilo opens up another door towards achieving our goal of building innovative industries in Hawaii.

On the technology side, the Kilo model has given us an opportunity to stretch and test our work a relatively new sector for us—artificial intelligence. Oceanit turned its attention towards the potential of AI about five years ago, considering its usage for a wide range of applications in areas as diverse as disaster recovery, medical diagnosis, and retail. Most of this research and development has been in-house, with the occasional outside partner allowing us to use their facilities as experimental sites. This DOT traffic project was one of the first chances for us to apply our AI research to real client work.

As this internship was centered around a group of students with little technical knowledge, it was the ideal backdrop for a technology that we are still easing into. The project wasn’t too complex, nor did it build upon decades of pre-established company expertise. In fact, student input and ideas might contribute to where we decide to go with AI in the future. The Kilo internship framework gave us the opportunity to further advance our AI innovations, building out our capabilities and project portfolio, which has already begun to generate more work for us in this sector.

For AI researcher Mark Kimura, Kilo also answers a personal philosophical conundrum. “I don’t want to work just for money—I want to feel useful to the community and society. But at the same time, I’m too old to ignore life after retirement, and I’m not quite ready to work for a nonprofit and just subsist. Kilo has the potential to be a great solution for this disconnect. I get to work on a real project from a real paying client who wants to involve students. And if we can find more clients like DOT, this model could actually transform local education and the future workforce.”

Whereas traditional internships may teach students about what an industry is currently like, Kilo internships have the potential to show students what an industry can become, giving them valuable insight to the world that will exist as they enter the workforce and inspiring them to create new pathways that do not yet exist.

Kitajima recounts the moment he recognized how impactful the Kilo model could be:

“As we watched the students present their findings using data generated by artificial intelligence, I looked over to Ed Sniffen and thought to myself that we just cracked the code on how to prepare our students for the future. We prepare them by letting them create the careers of the future. I later said to Ed that DOT Highways doesn’t have an ‘AI Application Specialist,’ but today we watched the birth of a new DOT career created by students.”

Kilo is still a work in progress, and Kitajima and Wenstrom are continuing to refine the model with a second internship with the DOT, this time focusing on speeding. Kitajima also has plans to include other schools in projects with the public library system and the Kohala Center.

But Oceanit is not the only company that can employ a model like Kilo. Kitajima challenges other companies to think about the kinds of projects that will work well with students on board. It can be done within any industry; it doesn’t have to be “kid-friendly.” By itself, the DOT isn’t especially exciting for students—it was the professionals involved that made this project so engaging. As long as industry professionals and clients are excited to mentor and trust in the students, the potential is almost limitless.