Each June through August, a dozen high school students from around North Idaho have the unique opportunity to work hands-on with area tech companies, from drone manufacturers to motion-control technology creators.
The annual immersive internship program, which celebrated its fifth year in 2017, is part of the University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene’s Digital Innovators Generating New Information Technology program, known as DIG’NIT.
“The goal is to engage high school students in a program that will provide meaningful experiences that will expose them to interesting, tech-focused careers and motivate them to continue on the academic path needed to enroll and succeed at a four-year college or university,” said Charles Buck, executive officer of UI Coeur d’Alene.
The DIG’NIT initiative began in 2013 to promote careers in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In addition to the internship, DIG’NIT holds annual summer camps ranging in topics from coding to cybersecurity to cosmetic chemistry. The internship program helps create paths to college for area students with high potential, but limited opportunities.
“The university has a commitment to promoting college and career readiness so students have the tools needed to successfully continue on the path to college,” Buck said.
The program is part of a suite of offerings at UI Coeur d’Alene aimed at developing the tech industry in North Idaho. This fall, the center also began offering a dual-credit course in computer science, computational thinking and problem solving. The course is available to eligible high school students, with course fees covered by Idaho’s Fast Forward program. The dual-credit offering complements UI Coeur d’Alene’s new computer science bachelor’s degree, offered in partnership with North Idaho College.
“Students in middle and high school may not be aware of the computer science profession as an option — they take biology, physics, math and chemistry, so they get direct exposure to those career options,” said Robert Rinker, an associate professor of computer science in UI’s College of Engineering. “Students also learn about using computer applications, like Word and Excel, but they don’t see the programming and design that goes in behind the scenes.”
It’s all about exposing students to new career possibilities in the high-demand tech industry.
About 21 companies have participated in the DIG’NIT internship program since 2013. The program started with one company, iShoutOut, a communication mobile platform company, and has grown to 11 companies hosting 12 interns each summer. This past summer Empire Airlines, Esterline, Exbabylon, ExtraTech, Gizmo, Intermax, JEB Commerce, Knock Marketing, Silverwood, Triple E Tech and xCraft joined the list of past companies, including Frontier Communications, Innovation Collective, Flying Mammals Inc., and Kootenai Health in providing a wonderful opportunity for students.
“The most profound lesson I learned as an ExtraTech employee was the importance of adapting to new environments, asking questions, and taking it upon yourself to absorb as much information as possible from those around you,” said Crista Falk, 16, a DIG’NIT intern from Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene. “I came into this internship position with previous knowledge of computer programming languages, but I was immediately submerged into a company of employees who all share a common vocabulary, all of which was completely foreign to me.”
ExtraTech Systems works with original equipment manufacturers to address industrial motion requirements. It provides interfaces and reliable software platforms to support control system design and operational needs. ExtraTech controls over 20,000 machines across North America and has been in the industry for 25 years.
At ExtraTech, Falk spent her internship programming, revising and debugging code. This exposed her to an abundance of computer science technology on a daily basis. Falk plans to be a software engineer and wants to study computer science in college, with an emphasis in artificial intelligence and machine learning. The teen aspires to work in a field that uses robotics and machine learning to benefit humanity, whether that be through biotechnology, autonomous robotics or something yet to be developed.
“ExtraTech helped me realize the potential of software to impact physical electronics and perform tasks that have a significant affect in the lives of people, beyond the capabilities of markup languages or simple scripting programs,” Falk said. “After learning how to manipulate programming software and motion control equipment using high level programming languages down to direct numerical control, I know that I would thrive in a future job related to robotics software. I have loved programming machines since I first joined the FIRST Robotics club, but after this internship, I see the opportunity to translate my passion into a fulfilling career.”
The internships are a pipeline to connect students with the computer science industry and allow them to explore the wide variety of work the field encompasses.
The internships benefit the employers, too, who often enjoy helping the students identify a potential career path. Garth Seay, 18, a senior at Lakeland High School in Rathdrum, interned at Empire Airlines over the summer.
“I believe that both our intern, Garth, and I gained valuable experience from this internship that will serve to better inform our future endeavors,” said Aaron Start, information technology manager at Empire Airlines. “My favorite part of the internship was being able to assist a young individual that is just starting on their higher educational journey to gain insights into the IT industry and the corporate environment. I hope that the insights that were gained will help Garth in making tough educational and career decisions moving forward.”
To be eligible for the internship, students must be at least 16 and have completed at least the 10th grade. They must also be familiar with technology, programming or coding. The program is eight weeks and lasts from June through August. Interns gain hands-on experience shadowing professionals in the STEM industries and are compensated for their time.
To learn more about the program visit, www.uidaho.edu/dignit.
• Article by Katherine Hoyer, UI Coeur d’Alene