Skip to main content

University of Michigan School of Information


Media Center

UMSI welcomes media inquiries

UMSI student interns gain valuable experience and inspire impact at community organizations

Tuesday, 08/30/2022

It’s all about where the rubber meets the road. 

At least, that’s how David Parker, a University of Michigan Master of Science in Information student, describes his summer. David, alongside dozens of UMSI students, participated in the Global Information Engagement Program (GIEP) and the Citizen Interaction Design Summer Fellows program (CID), two social-impact programs taught by Engaged Learning Office staff/lecturers. 

Offered through the Engaged Learning Office, teams of interdisciplinary students are paired with social sector organizations, including nonprofits, governments and art organizations. 

The result? A summer of students working together to solve real world problems while fostering intimate relationships with community members, mentors and peers. 

“I’ve always had a desire to help people with technology,” David says. “I wanted experience working with low resources and helping nonprofits tackle big issues. This program was a great opportunity to do that and test my skills and really see what happens when the rubber meets the road.” 

David worked with the Detroit Community Technology Project. With 25% of Detroit residents lacking internet access, DCTP seeks to close the technology gap by helping residents install neighborhood governed internet structures. 

David’s team consisted of students Sarah Kim, a Master of Health Informatics student, Neha Kumari, an MSI student, and Preetam Shokar, an MSI student. 

The team’s challenge included creating an online and interactive version of the 20 week training DCTP offers to residents and organizations interested in setting up their own internet structures. 

The social justice mission of DCTP is what attracted the four students to the internship.

Students stand in front of a colorful building with a metal gate
Masters students Preetam Shokar, Neha Kumari and David Parker stand in front of MJs North End Ice Cream Parlor, a Detroit business that receives its internet connectivity from the DCTP project.

“As someone who grew up in the Detroit metropolitan area, it was hugely meaningful to be able to give back to the community,” Preetam says. “Having experienced those gaps, coming to an institution like U-M, learning and then being able to take the experience and concepts and knowledge back to my community and help was really big for me.” 

The social justice model of these Engaged Learning Office programs is integral to the structure of the program and what most students say attracts them to this type of applied, immersive internship experience. Students are encouraged to think about problems in a culturally responsive manner while working on gaining a stronger understanding of personal biases, power and privilege. 

The internships last two months, but before being paired with a community organization, students take a three week course that largely focuses on team building, self awareness and equity and inclusion. 

“They really are learning how to be curious and inquisitive,” says Kelly Kowatch, director of the Engaged Learning Office. “They’re getting the experience of applying their classroom learnings in really complex, real world situations.” 

For most students, fostering connections with their mentors and investing in local communities is what feels most meaningful. For example, one student team spent their summer in Dearborn, Michigan helping design an interface system for the Dearborn Administrative Center

“It’s so fulfilling seeing the investment and how other people are responding to your work,” says James Benjey, an MSI student working with the Dearborn team. 

James’ team included MSI students Jake Leslie and Zhaohui Zhao. Their task was to create a system that was accessible and multilingual while helping residents connect to Dearborn government services in a timely manner. 

The team describes learning about Dearborn, having tons of conversations with residents, touring the city and connecting with employees of the Dearborn Administrative Center to learn about their needs for the system. 

“We did a ton of contextual inquiry,” says James. “As a newcomer, you’re never going to be an expert on the community, so a big focus of our work was finding those experts.” 

While most MSI students are given opportunities to intern with big tech companies, Zhao says working with a local government gave him the chance to work directly with future users of his product. 

“We’re talking to our future users, learning about their concerns and needs,” he says. “We’re collaborating liberally with our project partners and are able to really experiment. It’s a great atmosphere and communication style that I enjoyed.” 

Still, the freedom to play didn’t come without challenges for students. Nonprofit organizations and local governments are sometimes falling behind on technology. Data collection can also be tricky for smaller organizations with limited staffing and resources. 

This poses unique challenges and opportunities for students to help nonprofits gain access to  user research and come up with innovative solutions despite small budgets, aging technology and little to no data. 

“We’re a small team,” says Jessica Williams, interim executive director of The Heidelberg Project. “Without the students, it probably would have been years before we began wrestling with a data collection process and creating a system of data analysis that works for our stakeholders.” 

The Heidelberg Project is a nonprofit arts organization in Detroit that hosts artists in residence as well as an interactive outdoor art environment for patrons. MSI students Jun Xue and Yangqin Yan worked with Dana Gentry, a student pursuing her Master of Urban and Regional Planning at U-M. 

Students stand near large painted clocks on a Detroit street
Master of Science in Information students Jun Xue and Yangqin Yan worked with Dana Gentry, Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at U-M.

The project sought to create a data measurement tool designed to collect and measure impact as described by visitors to the Heidelberg Project. The students had to work from scratch, but Williams says they ““showed up, plugging themselves in wherever they could.” 

“We had no data and no baseline,” Gentry says. “Even for questions like ‘How many people have visited? How many are coming from Detroit?’ From outside Michigan or even the country?’ With no system of data collection, we had freedom to come up with so many suggestions and possibilities.’” 

Ultimately, the three were able to create an evaluation tool, implementation guidelines and recommendations for data impact analysis that are accessible to Heidelberg employees and help the organization quantify the value of the art to patrons, stakeholders and grant funders. 

“This was a very practical experience for me,” Yan says. “I’m more of a technical person, but it gave me the chance to meet different people. I learned that many data problems are not about the data itself, but about people and relationships.” 

Noor Hindi, Marketing and Communications Writer at UMSI


Learn more about exciting internship opportunities through the Engaged Learning Office by visiting their website.