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Faculty internships in environmental health: planning and implementation.


The faculty internship, in which a faculty member works temporarily for a government agency or a private business, is a concept that is becoming popular at universities. This paper discusses how a faculty internship can be established and it reports on the advantages of the internship for the sponsoring academic institution, the sponsoring agency, and the professor. In addition, suggestions on structuring, implementing, and evaluating the internship are offered. The information is based on the experience of the author, who served as a faculty intern for the environmental health division of a county health department in rural west-central Indiana. Some of the benefits of the faculty internship include improved teaching methods, practical experience, community contacts, and increased internship opportunities for students. The faculty intern experience can enhance classroom theory for students and the implementation of practice can be clarified for the educator (Hirst, 1996; Lantos, 1994; Levy, 1988).

The National Environmental Health Science and Protection Accreditation Council, which accredits undergraduate and graduate (master's-level) environmental health programs nationwide, requires that each student complete an internship or practicum class. Many faculty members in environmental health programs, however, have not had the experience of practice in the field. Faculty internships could be used as a means to bridge the gap between academician and practitioner (Lantos, 1994). The planning stages of the internship are the most important step in implementing a successful practicum experience. The internship has to be structured in a way that will be beneficial to the professor, the university, and the sponsoring institution. The faculty intern and the sponsoring institution need a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the internship (Lee, 1988).

Faculty Practicum Experience

An environmental health faculty internship program or practicum experience involves a faculty member working for a specific amount of time in a company, a not-for-profit organization, or a government agency, participating in everyday activities. Ideally, the faculty member will be on leave or sabbatical from his or her academic institution and become a temporary full- or part-time employee of the sponsoring organization (Kulesza, 1994; Lantos, 1994).

In the author's opinion, flexibility is one of the biggest assets in setting up the practicum experience for the faculty intern. This flexibility could be reflected in the length of the internship, activities performed by the faculty intern, and compensation. Different internships can be negotiated depending on the needs, resources, and limitations of the faculty member, the university, and the sponsoring institution or agency. The activities and duties of the faculty intern may also vary widely. They could include working on specific short-term projects, serving on special teams, conducting inspections, sampling and monitoring environmental pollutants, and so forth. Compensation may also vary since most tenured faculty who take a sabbatical leave receive full salary for one semester or half salary for two semesters from the university. For a summer internship, in which the faculty may not be on salary from their university, the faculty intern and the sponsoring agency may negotiate compensation. Another possibility for covering the cost of the faculty member internship is an exchange program in which a faculty member switches positions with a practitioner in the field of environmental health (Lewis, Kagle, & Peters, 1988).

At the beginning of the faculty internship, there should be a clear understanding of the goals and objectives of the internship, those of the faculty intern, and those of the sponsoring institution or agency. Also, the goals and objectives should be as specific as possible (Duffy, 1987; Tabacchi, & Stoner, 1986). The goals, objectives, and job description should be in writing, and copies should be distributed to all parties involved.

The Internship Experience

Faculty internships should be beneficial primarily for two groups of professors. First are those professors who, after earning doctorates, enter the teaching profession without any environmental health practicum experience. Second are those who have worked full time as environmental health practitioners but have been out of the field for a significant number of years with little or no contact with the "real world" of environmental health practice. The author falls into the first category. The discussion that follows highlights his experience in developing and implementing a faculty internship in a county health department in rural Indiana.

The author's proposal included a faculty internship at the Environmental Health Division of the Vigo County Health Department in west-central Indiana in the city of Terre Haute. The Indiana State University faculty sabbatical application and approval process is a competitive one, requiring a sound application proposal for a semester or a year of sabbatical work. A faculty sabbatical leave can have some impacts on the department, the university, and the students. Early planning helps address impacts such as course teaching, student advising, and service on university committees.

Site Selection

Previous to the application process, during the summer of 2001, while supervising student interns, the author made contacts with their supervisors and communicated his interest in doing a faculty internship for one or two semesters at their facilities. To the author's surprise, many of the supervisors were open to the possibility. After some follow-up interviews with the prospective personnel, the author narrowed the sites to three: a private environmental testing laboratory, a federal chemical depot, and the local health department. The federal chemical depot came off the list after September 11, 2001, because of security reasons. So the decision was between the privately owned environmental laboratory and the local health department. After meeting with the administrators of both sites and learning about possible roles during the internship, the author decided to work for the health department. This site offered the opportunity to obtain a broader range of experience in the various areas of environmental health science.


The health department is a governmental agency with a limited budget. Faculty rates of pay for such an internship had not been established. The author's compensation was set at the same rate as that of any student intern. Indiana State University (ISU) compensates faculty on a full-academic-year sabbatical with 60 percent of their salaries, plus benefits. The health department provided a vehicle through which the author was able to conduct field work. Since the author was still an employee of ISU, no other benefits were paid by the health department.

Length of Time of the Faculty Internship

The faculty internship experience lasted a full semester (August to December), four days a week, six hours a day. The author did not choose to work five days a week since the sabbatical proposal also included the completion of other projects: studying to obtain national certification as a Food Safety Professional and a Registered Environmental Health Specialist, and contributing to scientific publications and research. The length of the practicum was negotiated between the sponsoring governmental agency and the author, on the basis of the author's goals and objectives. Other studies (Comptom, 1990; Krogstad, Stark, & Lytle, 1981; Lee, 1988; Levy, 1988) suggest that a practicum shorter than two months may not be long enough to be successful.

Faculty Intern Activities

The health department was very flexible and provided the author with the opportunity to engage in many different aspects of the environmental health sciences. The author's activities during the internship were many and varied. Basically, they fell into two categories: observation and training, and practicing what was observed and learned. Training and practice were obtained in the following areas of environmental health:

* restaurant inspections, temporary-food-establishment inspections, plan reviews of new restaurants, and licensing of food establishments;

* lead inspections of homes with children who had elevated blood lead levels;

* licensing and inspection of private septic systems;

* public-swimming-pool monitoring (i.e., for bacterial water quality, safety, and pH levels) and water sampling for child care centers;

* consultations/inspections regarding humidity, mold, and proper ventilation; and

* vector and rodent identification (mosquito species and other insects), pesticide application for mosquito control, and dead-animal removal (Indiana was significantly affected by the West Nile virus during the period of the internship).

These experiences enabled the author to have many contacts with the general public, although there was a limitation in some activities. He did not have opportunity to directly receive complaints from the public, but he did assist with site visits in response to those complaints.

Faculty interns can gain a great deal of experience under the supervision of environmental health specialists at a county health department. The author also brought expertise to the health department and was able to educate its staff in some areas. He demonstrated the use and calibration of equipment (e.g., a pH meter) and co-authored a proposal for funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on handwashing education for schools and restaurants.

Benefits of the Internship Program

The greatest benefit of a faculty internship is improved teaching performance. The faculty member gains hands-on experience and knowledge, and a practical perspective. Other studies (Friedlob & Trapnell, 1988; Gibson, 2001; Hendricks, 1993) support this view of the experience. In addition, other faculty interns have had enhanced teaching effectiveness as one of their major objectives (Levy, 1988). Now the author can provide real-world examples, based on his practical experience, of some of the concepts covered in courses. He can show photographs and material collected during the internship as well as share new ideas and concepts learned during the internship. The internship renewed his enthusiasm for and interest in the environmental health sciences profession. Another benefit of the experience is enhanced respect among students, colleagues, and practitioners for field work. The internship may also open new career opportunities for the faculty member as consultant or researcher and may lead to the development of educational programs for other practitioners and the general public.

For the students, the greatest benefit is that they receive a more practical education. Student interest and motivation may be enhanced as the lectures are improved with real-life experience. The faculty member may be able to better advise and counsel students on the various career opportunities in environmental health. It is to be hoped that discussion of real-life environmental health problems and issues in class will motivate students to seek innovative solutions.

The officials of the academic institution benefit from and can continue to build positive public relations with the officials of the sponsoring site or agency, perhaps creating opportunities for other faculty and students to obtain internships. In addition, the academic institution gains better prepared faculty members who will bring more practical and up-to-date classroom instruction in environmental health.

The officials of the sponsoring site or agency also benefit from a faculty internship. They gain a staff member who is hardworking and can operate independently without much supervision. A faculty intern may bring new knowledge and expertise for specific projects at the sponsoring agency (Jonez & Kress, 1986; Kulesza, 1994). He or she can give the agency officials an outside perspective from an unbiased point of view. The faculty intern also can assist with ongoing educational efforts within the agency (Nataraajan, Henthorne, & LaTour, 1998).

Possible Drawbacks

During the internship, the work schedule may be entirely different and less flexible than work in the academic setting. For example, on some days the author was responsible for inspecting restaurants that were open after the health department had closed for business. Some restaurants were open after 9:00 p.m., so the author was conducting the inspection around 10:00 p.m. For some professors, this loss of independence could be rather extreme; the teacher becomes like a student. In fact, in the present case, the author was actually learning from former students. This turning of the tables could affect the ego of some professors. It is humbling to have to learn practical applications from former students. It was quickly discovered that the author was no longer in charge and no longer had all the answers. Some faculty interns may have to learn to be continually accountable to the sponsoring agency, which may not be typical for those used to working in the academic-freedom environment of the university.

Another drawback may be that university officials might fail to recognize the importance of a faculty internship in its evaluation procedures. The academic institution should promote and support faculty efforts to complete internships. It should provide release time and place value on faculty internships when rank, tenure, and compensation decisions are made (Erdem, 1997).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The professor should plan the faculty internship well in advance. From application to approval, the sabbatical reported here took a year of planning. Some sponsoring agencies may need at least a year to include a faculty intern in their budget and planning process. Clear and specific written goals and objectives will assist in the justification of the faculty internship for the university and the sponsoring agency. At the beginning of the internship, the faculty intern should request an orientation and should learn as much as possible about the sponsoring agency or site. If the faculty sabbatical negatively affects course teaching in the department, the faculty member, in coordination with the chair of the department, should come up with possible solutions, so that students will not be affected. Courses or classes could be covered by adjunct faculty. Another possibility is to have an exchange program with the sponsoring institution. This solution would mean that a practitioner from the sponsoring institution would substitute for the faculty member at the university (Levy, 1988).

The faculty intern may need to be aggressive in getting particular practicum experiences. Knowing the other employees, networking as much as possible, and offering one's services will lead to the widest variety of experiences. The faculty intern should maintain a diary of his or her experiences and collect information that could later be used in the classroom. Since being a faculty member is the primary responsibility, the intern may need to keep at least one day a week free to fulfill academic responsibilities. Finally, the faculty intern should ask the internship supervisor for a written evaluation and exit interview.

The author's faculty internship was a great practical and educational experience. University officials and environmental health sciences programs want to attract the best students to their programs. Faculty who have practicum experience can help in this process, since they can provide students with the skills needed to survive in the "real world." Also, private organizations, government agencies, and so forth want to attract the most talented people to their agencies or job settings. Establishing a bridge through faculty internships can create a partnership between faculty, practitioners, and community businesses and government agencies that can enhance the future of the environmental health profession.

Acknowledgements: The author sincerely thanks the Vigo County Health Department in Terre Haute, Indiana, for the opportunity to work as an intern during the months of August to December 2002.

Corresponding Author: Eliezer Bermudez, Associate Professor, Indiana State University, Department of Health, Safety and Environmental Health Sciences, Arena B-72, Terre Haute, IN 47809. E-mail:

Editor's note: Parts of this paper were presented at the 131st Annual Meeting and Exposition 2003 of the American Public Health Association, and at the 2004 NEHA Annual Educational Conference and Exhibition.


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Eliezer Bermudez, Ph.D., C.F.S.P.
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Title Annotation:FEATURES
Author:Bermudez, Eliezer
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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