Experiential Learning: Internships and Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Disclaimer: This process is currently under review. Please continue to utilize current processes, but please look for more updates in August 2024.

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Experiential Learning is a broad concept that allows for a structured student learning experience designed to occur outside the traditional classroom. It requires an academic component, or academic relationship associated with the student's academic discipline. Experiential learning typically falls into one of the following categories:

  • Required for academic credit
  • Required but no academic credit awarded
  • Not required but academic credit awarded
  • Not required and no academic credit awarded
  • Not required but certificate awarded or acknowledgment of completion

Experiential learning also requires on-site supervision of or a mentoring/teaching relationship with the student who is participating in the learning experience. Therefore it requires the development of learning objectives for participation, and an evaluation/assessment of the student's performance that is provided by the supervising department or unit to the academic program of the student's home institution or school.

Experiential learning opportunities at Iowa State University (for Iowa State students and non-Iowa State students alike) are provided in a number of ways, including:

Important Child Safety Information

Youth Internship or Job Shadow 

Youth internship or job shadow opportunities are offered at the discretion of supervising staff after receiving approval of their department/unit chair. In addition to department chair or unit director approval, youth opportunities require written parental permission consent agreement, background check for the youth supervisor and other opportunity participants over the age of 18, and if the student will enter a hazardous area (lab), safety protocol review by Environmental Health and Safety. Iowa State recognizes that there are additional responsibilities and requirements that departments/units must consider when a university opportunity involves youth/minors (children under the age of 18). Youth internships require on-site supervision by an Iowa State employee who is Faculty or Professional & Scientific (P&S) staff. These requirements are outlined in the Youth Activities, Pre-Collegiate Programs and Camps and/or the Children in the Workplace policies and procedures. 

Which policy applies?

Youth Activities, Pre-Collegiate Programs and Camps (YAP)

Generally, all organized programs for youth enrichment fall under the Youth Activities, Pre-Collegiate Programs and Camps (YAP) policy.  

Children in the Workplace Policy (CIW) 

Activities such as a one-day job shadow, tutoring or similar activities are exempt from the Youth Activities Pre-Collegiate Programs Policy, but have requirements found in the Children in the Workplace Policy.

Requests for Youth Internships or Job Shadows

Youth internships and job shadows are registered through the Office of Risk Management. Please visit this website and submit a youth internship request (will require logging in with your ISU Net ID). After you have submitted the online form, the Office of Risk Management will contact you regarding the participation agreement, background checks and other requirements. 


Internships are beneficial to both employers and students. They offer employers access to highly motivated students. Students benefit from internships by gaining hands-on experience and a chance to explore career options.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a temporary, hands-on learning opportunity that provides meaningful, career-related experience extending a student's education beyond the classroom. At Iowa State, internships can be paid or unpaid, for credit or not for credit, and for career-related experience at Iowa State or at an external (non-Iowa State) employer.

Students can learn about internship opportunities through their department or college Career Services Offices

The department/unit offering the internship program is responsible for ensuring that the internship is meaningful and will serve to enhance the student's educational experience and career development.

Internships are not:

  • Jobs or volunteer work that provide little or no opportunity for students to learn about their career of interest
  • Jobs or volunteer work that are unrelated to the student's academic discipline
  • Jobs or volunteer work with little or no training, guidance, and supervision

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued the following guidelines for a "Trainee/Learner" to assist in the classification of an intern:

Trainee/Learner Criteria:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the employer's facilities, is similar to training that would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the student and includes more than just routine work in the department or unit of the employer.
  3. The student does not displace regular employees, but works under the close observation of a regular employee.
  4. The employer provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student.* Occasionally, the operations may actually be impeded by the training since training and supervision require the mentoring commitment of the supervisor and the resources of the employer.
  5. The student is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
  6. The employer and the student understand that the student is not entitled to wages for the time spent training.

*If the internship is more a training/learning experience, than a job, it is typically acceptable if the employer derives some advantage from the student's service. However, the internship must be predominantly for the benefit of the student and not the employer.

Iowa State University Enrolled Student, or Non-Iowa State University Student?

This website serves as a central resource for Iowa State departments on internships for Iowa State academic programs, primarily for Iowa State students (such internships are managed individually by each college and the respective Career Services Office). In addition, the goal of this site is to provide new guidance and procedures for colleges/departments/units to manage internships offered to non-Iowa State students - to address the important compliance and risk management issues for this group of interns.

For Iowa State enrolled students: Internships required as part of the Iowa State student's major (and generally for credit) are managed by Career Services or other designated units within the respective colleges -- contact your college or departmental career services office.

For non-Iowa State students: The Iowa State department/unit has an obligation to report back to the student's home academic institution or school regarding the performance of the student working at Iowa State -- to allow the home institution or school to award the student academic or service credits or indicate in their records that the student completed the experiential learning activity at Iowa State. Additionally, the risk of audit for "misclassification of worker" is a concern for the institution as explained below, and the department/unit must provide a reasonable level of oversight for liability and safety issues for non-Iowa State students while they are in Iowa State facilities and working with Iowa State faculty/staff.

Paid or Unpaid Internship?

Non-paid internships must meet the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) guidelines for classification as a Trainee/Learner and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) guidelines regarding minimum wage and overtime (OT). If an internship meets the six criteria listed above, the position can be categorized as a Trainee/Learner position and does not need to follow minimum wage and OT regulations.

Paid internships (for career-related experience at Iowa State) are permitted for any pre-approved program; the intern should be paid via a stipend (a 1099 MISC is issued for tax reporting).

For a career-related experience at an external (non-Iowa State employer) site, payment for the internship should be made directly by the external entity, not Iowa State.

If the internship does not meet the DOL classification criteria for a Trainee/Learner, an employment relationship exists and you must use a regular employment process and pay the employee at least minimum wage.

Developing an Internship Program at Iowa State

Developing a successful internship program requires planning and organization so that neither the department nor intern is disappointed with the experience. Following are some basic questions that should be answered if you are contemplating a program:

  • Why do you want to develop an internship program? What do you hope to gain from it? How will you achieve your goals?
  • What will your intern learn and gain from the experience that relates to the student's academic discipline? What tasks/responsibilities do you want your intern to perform? Who will train and supervise your intern? How will the intern be evaluated upon completion of the internship?
  • What resources will be needed? Will you pay your intern? How much?

The Department's Responsibilities

Your primary responsibility as the supervisor of an intern is to ensure that the internship you offer is meaningful and will serve to enhance the student's educational experience and career development. An internship should NOT be viewed as a form of "cheap labor." The Iowa State department/unit must:

  1. Ensure that the proposed internship meets the "trainee/learner" criteria according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (If the criteria are not met and the steps for getting on the "pre-approved program list" will not be taken, then you have an employment situation. For Iowa State undergraduate students, process a HIRE as an Hourly Student Worker; for non-Iowa State students, contact your University Human Resources Delivery Team to pursue other employment options.)
  2. Complete the "Internship Program Request/Approval" form (PDF, 140KB). Obtain the approval of the department chair/director, and dean/vice president. Submit the form to the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost. Once your program is approved by the college and received by the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost, it will be tracked on a "pre-approved program listing" and you will not be required to submit annually unless there are substantial changes to the program.
  3. For each intern participant, complete a "Participation Agreement" form (PDF, 89KB) and forward it to the department chair/director for approval. Have it signed by the participant. Each completed form should be retained by the department, with copies provided to the dean or Career Services Office (depending on your college), and to the participant.

Appointing an Intern

  • When you are ready to make an offer, complete the "Participation Agreement" form (PDF, 89KB) (see step 3 above)
  • For non-U.S. Citizens, complete the DS2019 and DS7002 forms through the International Students and Scholars Office (using the CyStart electronic process)
  • Contact your University Human Resources Delivery Team to have the intern added to Workday 
  • Provide ongoing feedback and, at the conclusion of the internship, an evaluation

How Many Hours Do Students Work?

During the academic year when students are attending classes, they usually work 10-20 hours each week. During the summer, or if students are committed to a full-time co-op position, they usually work full-time. The U.S. Department of State requires a minimum of 32 hours per week for an international student intern while at Iowa State as a Visiting student who is enrolled outside of the U.S.

Paying an Intern - What Is Appropriate

Students and employers can benefit greatly from well formulated, paid internship programs as students complete their degree requirements and prepare for their career field. For paid internships, the amount can vary depending on the nature and demand of the career field, academic requirements and the job-related tasks involved.

Procedure for Paid Intern (Pre-approved program, and paid via a stipend): The payment in Workday is made via the "Supplier" set-up and a "Supplier Invoice" which must indicate whether the intern is a Non-Resident Alien for purposes of tax withholding - contact your Finance Delivery Team member for processing the payment.

Resources for Recruiting Students

Departments may post internship, cooperative education program, and research experiences for undergraduates opportunities at the Undergraduate Research website, by contacting the Honors Program Office.

Departments may also post internship opportunities on CyHire which serves employers recruiting students in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Ivy College of Business, Design, Engineering, Human Sciences, and Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU)

Undergraduate research and creative expression is defined as student engagement in scholarship (e.g., research or creative project), which is supervised by faculty or appropriate academic professionals and which leads to systematic discovery, application of knowledge, or product of creative expression. This work may support other professional research, or may itself be made public and subject to scholarly response.

Getting involved in research provides students a valuable opportunity to learn more about their field of study and make a difference in today's world.

For researchers with National Science Foundation (NSF) grant funding, adding an REU supplemental grant is a great way to obtain funding to support the inclusion of undergraduate students in your research project.

REU opportunities are posted on the Undergraduate Research website.

Departments/Units offering REU programs are encouraged to follow the same procedures as for Internship Programs. Stipend payments are submitted via a Supplier Invoice to the Controller's Office. So as not to create a financial hardship for students, stipend payments should be made on a regular basis or at least on an incremental basis; not in a lump sum at the end of the experience. Please consult the funding organization's website for additional stipend guidelines.




Student in a lab


Lori Sutton,
Administrative Assistant,