Mi STEM Forward Program Leads the Way for Student Success

Michigan is leading the way in diverse mobility technologies, with Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC) leading the nation’s top university innovation clusters in preparing the greatest number of graduates (14,800+) for careers in the mobility industry.

This alliance of the state’s three leading research institutions – Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University – contributes to a vibrant Michigan economy by leveraging intellectual capital. In the past five years, the URC has conducted more than $542.4 million in mobility-related research and development specific to the future of mobility, including work on autonomous vehicles, crosswalk and curb sensors, cybersecurity, consumer experiences, and the social changes this new technology will bring. 

Producing new ideas and bright young minds helps plant the seeds of new industries. Through the Michigan STEM Forward program, students from Michigan universities are matched with employers in leading innovative companies of all sizes. 

The Michigan STEM Forward program places more than 500 Michigan college students into STEM-focused internships at leading innovative companies each year. STEM Forward is administered by Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic engine in Southeast Michigan, and with funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). In addition to attracting more students to STEM careers, the program seeks to keep students in Michigan once they earn their degrees.

“The program arose from the imperative that the state has to retain more of its upcoming talent in the state after they graduate,” says Ben Ernst, Michigan STEM Forward program manager. 

“We lose a certain percentage of our college graduates to other parts of the country every year. The idea is that if we’re able to place more of these students — either while they’re in school or immediately after they graduate — in internships with companies that are in Michigan, they’re far more likely to put down roots and to stick around,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Ben ErnstNot only is the internship valuable to the student, but it also provides a cost-saving way for companies to onboard new employees. Michigan STEM Forward handles the administrative tasks of hiring, timesheets and payroll, and pays 100% of the student wages directly, sending an invoice to the hiring company for half of those wages, including 12% to cover payroll taxes.

Ernst says the program’s participation rate and the response it’s generated have been exciting. 

“As of Sept. 6, we have 380 separate employers who have signed up, and they have submitted 590 individual job postings,” he says. “We’ve got 2,213 students who have applied, sent in their resumes and been added to the talent pool, and we’ve placed more than 500 interns around the state.”

Ernst is even more proud of the talent retention rate, as that’s an integral part of the program’s mission. 

“We took a survey of all the students we placed last summer, and of the respondents, 97% of those students still remain in Michigan at this moment. Of that number, 72% of them are employed somewhere in Michigan, and of that number, 61% were offered a full-time position from their host company at the conclusion of their internship.”

For Michigan State University mechanical engineering student Ross Davis, 21, his internship with Blueflite started last summer. Brighton-based Blueflite offers a drone-based logistics platform for faster and more cost-effective deliveries. His typical duties included using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to design drone mount hardware parts. He also learned how to edit firmware on the vehicles to provide sensor capabilities. Davis is continuing his internship again this fall, and says the experience gave him foundational professional experience in the drone industry. Battery pack photo courtesy of Ross Davis

“After the internship, I went back to school and began researching drone infrastructure solutions,” he says. “I was able to be effective in that role because of the skills in software, design, and drone systems level awareness gained at the Blueflite internship.”

Davis says his work in design ideas, delivery-use cases, and drone vehicle capabilities is important now, and poised to be even more so in the future. “Some market studies suggest the drone industry will grow significantly in the next eight to nine years,” he says. “Colleges and programs need to be ahead of the curve in getting students familiar with these vehicle systems, so that when demand grows, we have the ability to provide quality engineers from Michigan to advance the technology.”
The important research and development that the URC institutions conduct help form start-up companies, including Repela Tech, who creates eco-friendly marine coatings. 

For Wayne State University chemical engineering student Renee O’Neill, 21, learning about the complexities of start-up companies, including Repela Tech, proved invaluable. O’Neill was connected to the Michigan STEM Forward program through her network at Wayne State University. In her daily duties, the intern conducted product testing for Repela Tech. 

“An internship with Repela Tech was important to me because their goals and values aligned with mine in terms of creating eco-friendly solutions that make our environment better,” she said. “I had never worked with a start-up company, so understanding both the business and the product development sides of a start-up was a large portion of what I learned. I also learned the importance of eco-friendly solutions along with their impact on the environment.”

O’Neill considers her experience a valuable one, which broadened her post-graduation career interests to include possible employment at start-up companies. Her experience also encouraged the idea that students can stay and thrive in careers right here in the state. 

“I do think this program helps students stay in Michigan,” she said. “Because I was given the opportunity to intern in Michigan, I was able to see what this company can offer and made me realize how many more opportunities there are in Michigan as well. Since Repela Tech is creating a coating solution for boats/ships that could be used in any state, it definitely gives me perspective that I can stay in Michigan and still have an impact on many other places.”

University of Michigan student Nolan Bridges, 26, studies mechanical engineering and is an intern with Traxen, which uses technologies to promote safe driving, efficient fuel use and big data for the heavy duty trucking industry. At Traxen, he develops data analytics solutions using Python, databases and data visual libraries.

Bridges says his internship is an important step along his career path, and he has enjoyed learning about start-ups. “Everything is fast-paced and any changes we make to our product don't need to be approved by many people, which is the case at larger companies,” he says. “I've also been given the opportunity to stay as an intern for the fall semester, which made this internship even more valuable. I'm very excited to keep helping Traxen succeed as much as I can.”

Michigan STEM Forward Internships are available to students all throughout college and even post-grad. Many interns revisit their internships for multiple semesters, summers, and some even begin working part-time. Ernst constantly receives feedback from employers about the meaningful contributions their interns give to their organizations on a daily basis.

“We’re excited to work with the MI STEM Forward program so students from our three URC universities not only can bring their talents to Michigan companies, but so they can learn the skills that will make them even more valuable to Michigan employers,” said Britany Affolter-Caine, URC executive director. “It’s a mutually beneficial partnership that will help keep Michigan on the cutting edge of innovation in the mobility industry.”  

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at spohn9@gmail.com.