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Rescuing Internships During COVID: A Virtual Model for the Masses

The Creativity for COVID team and student participants.

The value of an internship is undeniable. They provide students with “real-world” experience, help build their networks and, in some cases, result in a job offer. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to offer internships virtually; a scenario that just isn’t feasible for many employers who are still weathering a storm of economic uncertainty. This means that internships will become even more selective and fewer students will be served. So, unless we change the model, over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of students will face a historically tight job market without marketable experience and skills. 

This summer, the Lab gave virtual internships a makeover when it launched Creativity for COVID—a 6-week remote internship experience that allowed four local employers to serve 100+ Washington, DC public school students. The model, which focused on solving the employers’ immediate challenges, was so successful that we believe it is the best way for high schools and colleges to democratize and scale internships, not just in the age of COVID but for the foreseeable future. We are pleased to see at least one DC- area university pick up the model this fall after seeing it in action.


How it worked:

  • We asked employers to provide us with a “design challenge question”
  • Instead of focusing on the experience gained working for an employer, the Lab trained students in creative problem solving and human-centered design
  • We coupled this asynchronous online learning with expert facilitation to help students apply a disciplined process to the employer’s challenge
  • Students worked in teams of up to 12, collaborating virtually on stakeholder interviews, empathy mapping and prototyping solutions
  • Students pitched their solutions to employers
  • Students who successfully completed all elements of the program were awarded a digital badge to recognize the rigor of the experience


How our model is different:

Students as consultants, not interns

Consultants are utilized to help organizations solve their problems, but can be costly. During this COVID moment, businesses, whether thriving or struggling, have had to solve some critical challenges on tight budgets. They need consultants, and students can help. The notion of outsourcing challenges existed pre-COVID (e.g., see Parker Dewey and Mindsumo), but this moment calls for more than a hackathon or “best idea wins” approach. It requires that students be trained in the art of creative problem solving and human-centered design, so they can provide employers with legitimate solutions. This model empowers students to be problem solvers, which many students had never experienced. Said one student, “…I never thought that I would be able to find a solution to rebuilding DC and making it creative.” 

Creativity for COVID featured three main components: an online educational learning experience, expert-led facilitation of student teams, and limited employer participation. 

While we designed this for high school students, this model can be implemented by colleges or universities to the benefit of students, employers, and the institutions themselves. Graduate students or faculty members trained in design thinking can provide facilitation at a ratio of 5-15 students per team.


Download the empathy map to view in full-size.


Employers as clients, not hosts

At a minimum, employers need to provide a design question for students (i.e., the problem they’re trying to solve). 

“This virtual internship program is a bright spot during a very tough year. We know we will be inspired by what the students envision for our industry’s future.” – Claire Carlin, VP Partnerships & Alliances, Destination DC Executive Director, American Experience Foundation 

They can be more active if they choose, participating in the student teams’ research, prototyping, and the culminating pitch day. The re-delegation of responsibilities and roles means that employers are able to be meaningfully involved for around one to two hours a week without the need for intensive oversight. Instead of worrying about keeping a handful of interns busy, a single employer can leverage the brainpower of dozens of students. More students equals more ideas. One Creativity for COVID employer, Destination DC, DC’s tourism board, served over 70 students through this model!

An industry-recognized micro-credential, not bullet points on a resume

An introduction to human centered design gives students a disciplined problem solving approach to follow rather than using loose brainstorming. Learners gained valuable skills and were exposed to what life inside their client’s organization might be like through their projects. Assignments like stakeholder maps, stakeholder interviews, and empathy maps gave students deeper and broader insight into the industry than traditional internships. Students who successfully completed the program end up with a range of design artifacts, experienced a professional pitch, and earned a digital micro-credential (a.k.a. badge) to bolster their LinkedIn profiles and stand out from other students. Students recognize the value of earning a credential in design thinking. When asked about outcomes of the experience, one student noted, “If they [employers] see that I have a credential or my design thinking [experience] they’re more likely to hire me because I have more experience.”



Things to consider if you’re running a similar remote internship

Students’ access to technology and their surrounding environment must be considered when designing a remote internship.

This model hinges on students’ access to technology to participate fluidly in a remote setting and an environment conducive to collaborating with classmates and professionals. While work arounds can be put in place, it is important to understand what students are and are not able to do. For example, don’t just ask about Internet access because that may be by mobile device, which would make learning very challenging. Understand as much as you can about your learners’ access to technology, capabilities with digital tools, or physical environment to inform design and support students and facilitators during the internship. 


Prioritize hands-on, guided learning time over self-guided learning.

In a remote setting where face-to-face interaction is already limited, prioritize guided and group learning over individual or self-guided learning whenever possible. Providing examples, visual demonstrations, and hands-on experiences through video calls is an effective way to provide engaging learning experiences.


Critical thinking, ability to manage ambiguity, and collaboration are the most important skills to have and develop in a remote setting.

Being able to manage ambiguity when approaching a complex challenge is essential. COVID has taught us all about the value of being able to think on your feet, and it is heightened in a high-stakes remote environment. Collaboration can be difficult remotely but it is core to this model. While students may have participated in group projects or played on athletic teams, a remote internship requires them to be disciplined, empathetic collaborators. 


Supportive facilitators have a profound impact on students’ experience and learning.

Facilitators are an integral part of this model, acting both as design thinking guides and professional mentors to students. One learner explained that she appreciated being able to talk to her facilitator about the concepts she did not understand and how she was very supportive, which helped her navigate a remote learning environment. The time that learners spend with facilitators should be prioritized and maximized throughout since they were the most impactful relationships. 


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