TIMESTEP, ELE Optics, and Arizona FORGE: creating opportunities for students in STEM

Jan. 21, 2021

FORGE recently got to witness the powerful transformation that takes place when students have the opportunity to gain real-life industry experience. In this week’s newsletter, we’ll introduce you to the TIMESTEP program and share the story one of their interns who worked alongside ELE Optics, a FORGE Ahead resident startup. We hope you will be inspired to think of ways to create more experiential education opportunities for students in your sphere.


For any undergraduate student, it can be a challenge to ensure you are gaining the right experience for after graduation, whether you are applying to graduate schools or entering the workforce. But for students coming from underprivileged backgrounds, the current academic and social norm renders this feat nearly impossible. Underprivileged students, many of whom are first-generation, are less likely to have access to resources and information surrounding the measures they should take to stand out on a graduate school application or get career training. Major-related classes provide little information on these subjects, and many students don’t know how or where to find opportunities for real world experience. And the University of Arizona regularly welcomes over 30% of first-generation freshman, students who come to the university without the benefit of generations of college "know how" behind them.

Dr. Gurtina Besla, an associate professor of astronomy at UArizona, is determined to address this problem and level the playing field. This is why, in the Spring of 2015, Besla created Tucson Initiative for Minority Engagement in Science and Technology Program (TIMESTEP). When asked why she decided to create the program, Besla responded:

“In exit surveys, we have found that students majoring in Physics and Astronomy were often graduating without having a job lined up. While, in the long-term, employment rates for recent graduates are high, many graduates take about a year before getting their first job. This adds a lot of stress to students, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds. This situation largely arises because the Physics and Astronomy majors (across the country) do not standardly include industry connections or industry job placements. Furthermore, employers are often unfamiliar with the wide range of skills that Astronomy and Physics students possess, including coding skills.”

TIMESTEP is a bi-weekly discussion group focusing on topics of professional development for undergraduates in STEM fields at the UArizona. The meetings are supported by multiple professors in Astronomy and Physics including Dr. Ewan Douglas, Dr. Tim Eifler, Dr. Vasilis Paschalidis, Dr. Eduardo Rozo, and Dr. Nathan Smith. 


According to Besla, “The main challenge is to provide students with experiences that make their resumes competitive on the job market. This program directly addresses this challenge.”

Students who attend the meetings hear from professionals within the field and receive mentoring from faculty members. Mentors provide hands-on help with resume building, applying to graduate school, and achieving a research position, but discussion reaches farther than just academic assistance. TIMESTEP is also a space for conversation about the imposter syndrome, unconscious bias and stereotype threat, mental health, diversity, and race in academia.

Furthermore, students participating in TIMESTEP have the opportunity to gain real world experience in their respective fields. Thanks to funding from the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, TIMESTEP offers an internship program that connects students with paid internships at local science and technology businesses. STEM Students with financial need receive preference for these opportunities. Dr. Ewan Douglas, assistant professor of astronomy and assistant astronomer at the UArizona runs this program with Besla. 

TIMESTEP's internship program has proven to be a game-changer for students in STEM, particularly those coming from underprivileged backgrounds. Out of the students participating in this program between 2018-2020 45% were Female, 50% were URM students, and 65% were Low Income. 89% of students report the program is helping their motivation to continue their degrees and cohort graduation rates are high.

According to Besla, not only does TIMESTEP’s internship program “provide UA undergraduates in Astronomy and Physics with industry experience to support their career aspirations,” it also provides feedback to UArizona STEM programs about employers’ expectations. This feedback loop ensures “curriculum offered to students provides them with the skills needed by industry,” says Besla. “Through this program we also learn about employer expectations and needs, allowing us to report our findings back to departments and ensure that these skills are embedded into the standard curriculum. This program thus has the potential to ensure that lab courses are in keeping with modernizing industry standards.”

The internship has also markedly impacted student interest in staying in Tucson post graduation. After participating in the program, 24% more students say they are likely to seek post-graduate employment in Tucson. 

With the help of TIMESTEP and the Thomas R. Brown Foundation, Elizabeth Champagne, an undergraduate at UArizona double majoring in Physics and Astronomy landed a paid internship at ELE Optics. ELE Optics is an optical consulting and software development company founded by UArizona alumni Jeremy Shockley and Isaac Trumper. The team also participated in FORGE’s Advanced Entrepreneur Program and are now a resident startup at FORGE Ahead, where they receive individualized support in growing their venture.

Champagne was inspired to intern at ELE Optics because she wanted more research experience. She confessed to having very little research experience beforehand and she “wanted a better look at the tech sector. Most professors and career prep events talk about grad school” she says. “I really didn't know much about the private sector.” Thanks to her work with ELE Optics, Champagne learned a plethora of technical skills, including a programming language called Rust, which she used to code a module for ELE Optics. Without this opportunity Champagne would have only experienced coding one-person projects for herself, or classroom directed projects.


With ELE Optics, Champagne was empowered to expand her coding from class assignments to a real-world project.

Her experience with ELE Optics also enabled Champagne to get a better understanding of her career outlook. Champagne says that for her “going into industry is a lot more of an option now. I kind of assumed that industry equaled defense, and I wasn't certain how I felt about that. But the company I worked for is very academic, they design tools for scientists, so it's possible to go into industry and still work closely with scientific research. I learned that industry is a lot broader and more diverse than I assumed, and that I have more options than I assumed.” Without the help of real-world internships, undergraduates like Champagne may never have recognized the variety of industries to with they can apply their skills. In fact, 100% of Astronomy/Physics majors participating in TIMESTEP's internship program reported knowing more about the jobs available to graduates with astronomy and/or physics degrees.


Champagne was not the only one who gleaned value from this internship experience. ELE Optics founders Shockley and Trumper found that helping Champagne learn new, valuable skills while providing her with the opportunity to develop a business mindset was immensely rewarding.


When asked why they were initially interested in partnering with TIMESTEP, Trumper explained there were multiple benefits. “The opportunity to work with a brilliant undergraduate student at the University of Arizona and provide a summer internship experience that broadened their skillset,” he said, “and furthered our vision as a business” was appealing. His partner Shockley added that he is “excited by the brilliance and creativity of young minds.” A particularly enjoyable aspect of the internship, Shockley says, was, “integrating our intern into our daily routine and watching the growth she demonstrated in such a short period of time.” Trumper also found Champagne’s growth in key elements like programming and business mindset especially gratifying.

 

Shockley and Trumper encouraged other employers to consider taking on a student intern. “In addition to having practical assistance from an intern,”

Shockley explained, “the intangible benefit of optimism can't be undervalued when bringing on a student intern. Knowing the future will be filled with brilliant, creative, and competent young people helps me stay optimistic in the greater business context.”

Trumper advises those considering an intern to “go into the experience without expectations for what the intern will produce but have clear guidance that allows them to thrive. Be open to their learning / working style and fuel their excitement.”


At FORGE, we are excited to create even more real-world experiences to help students be better prepared for the needs of industry. We hope that sharing success stories like these further demonstrate the value of empowering students to engage with entrepreneurship regardless of degree.