Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

Knoxville Business News Tennessee Mountain Scenery Background
August 03, 2023 | Shannon Smith

SMaRT interns finish a summer spent in the labs of UTK, ORNL

One goal of the SMaRT program is to bring the interns back to UT as graduate students. Twenty percent of the interns from the first two years of the program are now applying for or enrolled in UTK graduate programs.

Don’t you wish you spent your summer playing with a robot for college credit? Some students are lucky enough to say they did.

Dozens of undergraduate STEM students are headed home from Knoxville this weekend after 10 weeks of hands-on research thanks to an opportunity from the University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge Innovation Institute (UT-ORII).

These 45 rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors came from 26 colleges and universities across the country to take advantage of the resources and research staff at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), University of Tennessee, Chattanooga  (UTC), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), as part of the 2023 Student Mentoring and Research Training (SMaRT) Summer Internship program.

Students are split between different faculty mentors into four different focus areas:

  1. Electrochemical energy systems
  2. Advanced science and engineering of materials and manufacturing
  3. Predictive systems biology for circular and sustainable economies
  4. Autonomous, smart, secure, and resilient energy systems

Dr. Tony Schmitz oversees three of the interns in category 2.

“This is the third summer that I’ve had smart interns, and I’m an enabler, right? I have equipment, I have things to work on, and the SMaRT program provides intelligent and motivated students,” he said. “And when you put students who are interested in doing research together with research and access to facilities, then you have the opportunity to do good things.”

Schmitz’s interns worked on programming a donated assembly line robot from Denso, a regional partner. They created a gripper piece for the arm-like robot and programmed it to pick up markers and write and draw designs, logos, and words they programmed.

The work they did will expand beyond the 10 weeks they spent in the manufacturing lab. New to UTK last fall was the establishment of a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, where UTK works with four other universities on advanced manufacturing research.

“So what the SMaRT students were able to work on was the University of Tennessee robotic training cell and use that to carry out a demonstration activity,” said Schmitz. “It’s not just work in my laboratory, but also this giant consortium of five universities and multiple companies where their work will live on, because we’ll take what they did, share it with the other universities, and continue to grow.”

The interns also take back to school with them an understanding of how their subject area can be applied outside of the classroom and into the real world.

Schmitz’s intern Jasmine Conner, a rising senior in biological sciences and medical technology at Mississippi State University, said even in a non-engineering field, she’s seeing the parallels between manufacturing and medicine.

“My focus is more towards cell study in the cancer area, so I feel like with robotics it can help a lot when it comes to surgical procedures.”

Intern Fernando Billups, a rising senior at Tuskeegee University majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in material science, wanted to join the SMaRT internship for more experience on the research side of engineering.

“I would definitely say my biggest takeaway is the opportunities and network capabilities that they offer here,” he said. “ORNL is one of the top national laboratories, and it just opened up a lot of pathways and different things that I’m interested in.”

Aeries Hoskins was the youngest of Schmitz’s interns, a rising sophomore studying computer science at Tougaloo College. He still has time to figure out what to do with a computer science degree, but said the SMaRT internship showed him he has options.

“One of my biggest takeaways is career path opportunities,” he said. “Because at first, I would think about going into cybersecurity or software design. But with this, I’ve thought about going into manufacturing robotics, because of how fun and hands-on and interesting it is, and because of how it can benefit the future.”

Schmitz said it’s this kind of realization that makes an undergraduate hands-on lab internship worth it.

“It changes the context of what you’re learning,” he said. “When I was an undergraduate, I played football, so that’s what I did outside the classroom. I never did an internship. I never did a co-op. The only framework I had for the stuff I was learning was within the classroom and any laboratory courses. That’s fine, but it’s not at all like the experience that you can get through a summer in the SMaRT program. And then when you return to take more classes, your feet are kind of planted firmly on the ground in terms of why is this important to me.”

One goal of the SMaRT program is to bring the interns back to UT in a few years as graduate students. Twenty percent of the interns from the first two years of the program, 2021 and 2022, are now applying for or enrolled in UTK graduate programs.

Schmitz has recruited two former interns back to UTK for graduate school and hopes to do the same each year going forward. “Hopefully I’m three for three,” he said.

If you or someone you know would make a great SMaRT intern, learn more here and get ready for the summer of 2024.

Don’t Miss Out on the Southeast’s Latest Entrepreneurial, Business, & Tech News!

Sign-up to get the Teknovation Newsletter in your inbox each morning!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

No, thanks!