KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A group of 45 undergraduates from across the United States recently completed a 10-week internship with the UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. This unique opportunity allowed the students to gain hands-on experience and begin their careers by working alongside UT and ORNL researchers for 10 weeks.

The SMaRT Internship Program is run through UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute. The students in the program not only get to work alongside the researchers but receive one-on-one mentoring.

“The UT-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute is a unique program where we train future leaders in science and technology through collaboration between UT and ORNL, where scientists from ORNL and professors from UT mentor students who come from different parts of our country, and then they get to learn theory and knowledge with the context,” said Sudarsanam Suresh Babu, UT/ORNL Governor’s Chair of Advanced Manufacturing Professor.

One student described the experience as a confidence boost that allowed him to put what he learned in school into practice.

“Because when you’re in school, like you’re just kind of working in the theoretical and then you get here and it’s like, ‘oh, it’s real, like I can do things. I can make research. I can create things,” said Elliot Weaver, a mechanical engineering major at Arizona State. “You just don’t get to do in school and that’s been the best part, the knowledge.”

Each student had a specific project they were working on related to their field of study and future career goals.

The internship program has been running for three years now, having launched in 2021, just a few months after the joint UT-ORNL institute was established. The inaugural year saw 18 students participate in the program. The program is now looking to continue growing.

“I get goosebumps all over to see that grow. As a student, when I was young, I didn’t have this opportunity,” said Babu. “But the only thing is we need to grow. We need a lot of students who need to learn this contextually so that they can start companies, they can become future leaders.”

Babu went on to share what he hopes students get out of the program.

“I want to make sure that they are not afraid to ask questions and they don’t take no for an answer when the challenges come. They learn how to persevere, but also they know how to work in a team atmosphere and learn from others and then are not afraid of getting criticism when they are wrong. But they learn quickly, fail quickly, learn fast. And make a change across the board,” said Babu.

In addition, 20% of the 2023 class have opted to return to UT for grad school in one of their joint graduate programs.

“The most important thing is this is a well-kept secret here in UT and ORNL and now if we can perpetuate this message and get a lot more students even from K-12 to come here and think about how to learn quickly and also get into the STEM arena, even if you are following other passions. Everybody should be STEM aware so that they can innovate across the board,” said Babu.