For Jeffrey Hong and Ben Lueders, a partnership established last year between the University of Houston and the Smithsonian Institution translated to very cool summer internships.
Hong, a junior construction management major, and Lueders, a fifth-year architecture student, were awarded highly competitive summer internships at the Smithsonian’s Office of Facilities, Engineering and Operations.
Both were among five UH students who spent three weeks at the Smithsonian’s various museums and programs during the summer of 2015, as part of the partnership’s inaugural year. That left them wanting more, and they said the longer internships—and more time in Washington D.C.—would allow them to dive deeper into work related to their majors, as well as provide more time to experience the city.
“I loved working at the Smithsonian and being in Washington, D.C.,” said Hong, who wrote about his experience during both internships on his blog “Snoopy Goes Exploring.”
The internships are part of an agreement signed last year by UH and the Smithsonian, something Alison Leland, associate director of the Bonner Leaders Program in the Honors College, said is about spending time in the nation’s capital, in addition to the actual work performed during the internships.
“The first part of the experience is Washington, D.C.,” said Leland, who also teaches political science. “I want students to envision themselves living and working at a place like the Smithsonian and how that may inform their thinking about the future.”
Paula Myrick Short, senior vice chancellor/vice president for academic affairs and provost, said the partnership holds great promise for both students and faculty.
“We want to offer our students a broad range of opportunities to enrich both their academic learning and their experiential learning,” Short said. “The Smithsonian partnership is a great step in that direction.”
Mary Ann Ottinger, associate vice president for research, said this partnership has tremendous potential to expand far beyond student internships. Ottinger, a biologist, has had a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian, starting when she held faculty and administrative posts at the University of Maryland, and she continues to be involved in the Smithsonian’s panda conservation project.
At UH, she is working to build links between the University and the Smithsonian, which has affiliated institutes all over the world, including Space Center Houston.
The first year—when five students spent three weeks in Washington, D.C. for mini-internships—was a great success, leading to a larger group heading to the nation’s capital this past summer. In addition to Hong and Lueders, who spent most of the summer there, eight students did the shorter program.
William Monroe, dean of the Honors College, said the internships offer students from his college and across the University of Houston the opportunity to learn from some of the nation’s top researchers and technical specialists.
“The Smithsonian’s reach is so broad,” he said. “That means students in all disciplines can work toward their professional goals and immerse themselves in all that the Smithsonian and Washington have to offer.”
The three-week internship is new for the Smithsonian, Leland said, and she has worked with Smithsonian officials to create a curriculum—touring museums or programs, mixed with meetings with researchers and others affiliated with the organization.
The Smithsonian hopes to expand the short-term internships to other universities, she said.
But Ottinger is also interested in creating connections for UH faculty, both to work at Smithsonian facilities—in addition to its 19 museums and galleries and the National Zoological Park, the Smithsonian has research programs around the world—and to share their expertise with the institute’s researchers.
Some faculty members already work with the Smithsonian, and those ties aren’t affected by the agreement. Archaeology professor Ken Brown contributed research and artifacts he discovered at Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture, set to open this fall. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, professor of electrical and computer engineering and members of his Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory participated in the 2015 Innovation Festival held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
But the agreement will create new opportunities for faculty, as well, in fields ranging from education to technology and the life sciences.
“If we can build this connection, it helps the arts, it helps the art-engineering interface,” Ottinger said. “It offers more internship opportunities for our students. The Smithsonian is so huge, with so many facets.”
That meant an organization better known for natural history and art was able to find appropriate internships for students studying construction management and architecture.
Lueders’ project for the summer involved creating a database of best practices in maintaining historic buildings, as well as practical information about materials used in the Smithsonian’s new construction. That provided an introduction to the pragmatic side of architecture, the counterpoint to architecture’s artistic design component.
Hong also worked in the facilities department, where last year he took part in tasks ranging from geospatial mapping to renovations for the dinosaur exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. This year, he was involved in the renovation of several exhibit halls.
And he brought back his blog, “Snoopy Goes Exploring,” which in 2015 caught the attention of the Smithsonian and was featured on its website. This year Snoopy brought a buddy, Winnie the Pooh, and they hit the ground running. Hong and the creatures have visited tourist spots—including the 35th National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service—and he also used the blog to showcase some of the work he did as part of his internship.
Mainly, Snoopy and Winnie, along with Hong and Lueders, have experienced Washington, D.C.—riding the Metro, hanging out among the national monuments on the mall, experiencing life in a densely populated big city.
And that, Leland said, is part of the secret power of an internship with an organization like the Smithsonian.
“At UH, we attract students whose family backgrounds are from all over the world, but many of them grew up in Texas,” she said. “I’m all about wanting them to have those experiences.”