The Lab Internship Alternative

Part of the Progress in IS book series (PROIS)


Internship is a critical aspect of Software Engineering curricula. We here illustrate a successful experience of internships run in University’s research labs, focusing on advanced projects. Such internship concerns an international class, made of Italian and Chinese students; they work in a team, which is coordinated by a PhD student and supervised by a Professor. Graduates are actively sought by companies, and find higher jobs. The lab-internship could be alternative to the traditional stage in a company.


Higher education Software Engineering education Internship 

1 Introduction

As we noted in an earlier paper, top university should excel in Teaching, Research, Citations, Industry income, International outlook [1], in parameters as Employability, Facilities, Innovation, Access, Research, Teaching, Internationalization, or, finally, in ad hoc criteria concerning the subject [2]. However, for a graduate, employability is probably the critical factor. Employability implies not only quality teaching but also close relationships with enterprises. In short, a Software Engineering (SE) school should produce employable graduates for a variety of businesses, which range from systems integrators and large user enterprises to software houses, as we suggest in Fig. 1. Therefore, SE shall be viewed in a broader perspective of the software applications engineering, that encompasses Enterprise Architecture, Database, Service Engineering and alike subjects.
Fig. 1

Employments areas of software engineers (qualitative)

In SE master’s degree, internship is a critical phase for employment. Under the Italian rule, the last 6 months of SE Master’s Degree are devoted to the thesis. The thesis may reflect either a research project or an internship in an enterprise. Under Chinese rule, Master’s degree requires at least one-year internship, with some variations among the universities.

Our paper compares enterprise internship versus lab internship and considers a specific aspect, i.e. the relation between development of knowledge and employability, i.e. their value for enterprises.

In this comparison, we assume the following tenets, respectively for enterprise and lab internship. Enterprise internships develop process knowledge, that refers on “how-to-do” a work, as it happens with training on the job. On the other side, lab internships develop domain knowledge, which refers to the conceptual foundations of a domain, e.g. system design or service design; domain knowledge is typically acquired by participating to research projects. Domain knowledge results in high value for the enterprises, who find not only labor ready but also state-of-art knowledgeable candidates. Often a superior domain knowledge brings to higher positions.

In Fig. 2 we represent these two axes of knowledge, and we have positioned enterprise and lab internships. Enterprise internship has a higher value in process knowledge and just a little one in domain knowledge, while lab internships have a higher value in domain knowledge and a lower value in process knowledge. Indeed, an enterprise internship hardly, if ever, can further enhance the conceptual abilities of students. By contrast, lab internships can familiarize the student with advanced technologies and techniques. Enterprise internship is result-oriented, while lab internships provides more guidance and informal discussion among students in research theses, thus strengthening learning.
Fig. 2

Position of enterprise internships versus research theses

Our paper is structured as follows. In Sect. 2, we consider the issues of enterprise internship, based on analysis of the literature. In the Sect. 3, we discuss lab internship and we illustrate the case study of the IRMA lab project. Finally, we consider the outcome of the lab internship, and we conclude about the advantages, limits, and sustainability of the lab internship.

2 Critical Issues in Enterprise Internships

According to an opinion shared in both Europe and China, internships in enterprises are an optimal way to foster employment. Actually, these internships can develop a work experience. In most cases, they are seen by both universities and enterprises as a (almost) test period, i.e. a kind training on the job, where an enterprise can test the future employee. Last, not least, enterprise internships strengthen the links between universities and enterprises, a factor that is especially relevant for Software Engineering Schools in China, which aim at providing technicians, not researchers.

If we look at literature, internships play an increasingly important role in education with many advantages, ranging from applying theory, gaining experience and obtaining career-related direction [3]. However, considering that interns are temporary workers, fulltime employees may be reluctant to disclose important information to them [4]. In addition, many enterprise supervisors are too busy to provide effective supervision. Moreover, some employees regard interns as a threat to their position and, in some cases, supervisors possess lower qualifications than the students [5]. Interns look for inexpensive help and new ideas, while employees consider them only as a cheap labor force [6].

So what is the overall internship satisfaction level?
  • “Most programs provide extensive field based experiences under the supervision of a practicing school counselor. These experiences are viewed very positively by counselor educators in terms of the practical preparation of students and in providing connections with counselors in the schools” [7].

  • “There seems an emphasis on individual counseling with somewhat less attention devoted to group work and consultation, important components of developmental counseling programs”[8].

Internships enable students to accumulate real life experience, but they often lack a continuous tutorship. Moreover, effective internships require a careful selection of enterprises, assignments and students, and a concurrent quality control by university tutors. Projects in enterprise internships cannot thrive without a team spirit, and a substantial help from tutor.

3 Lab Internship in the Double Master Program

Lab internships has been and is extensively used in the Double Master’s Degree (DMP) that the Computer Engineering School of University of Pavia is running together with Software Schools of Chinese universities, as HIT (Harbin), NEU (Shenyang), Tongji (Shanghai), UESTC (Chengdu). This experience is especially relevant, because it concerns both Chinese Software Engineering students and Italian Computer Engineering Students. Furthermore, it concerns an international class, taught in English. In order to better focus on the experience of Lab internship, we first illustrate the philosophy of DMP; subsequently we illustrate the profile of our lab internship.

3.1 Double Master Program Courses

DMP provides a double degree, i.e. Italian and Chinese. In DMP, Chinese students spend the first year in their home university and the second year in the University of Pavia. Conversely, Pavia’s students spend one term of the first year in a Chinese partner university. Chinese students attend a class together with regular students who are enrolled in Pavia’s Computer Engineering School. A typical class is about 15–20, and is really international: most students are not Italian, and teaching is totally in English.

DMP students attend a Service Engineering track, which follows a project-oriented approach. The four main courses of the track, which totals 24 European teaching credits, combine conceptual foundations and team project, as we illustrate here below, and address the main families of intranet and internet applications, that include, respectively, Enterprise Systems (ERP, BI, CRM) and Service Systems (Fig. 3). Most lectures are allocated to overview domain issues and illustrate design and modeling techniques. In order to reinforce these foundations, students are assigned a project in small teams. Exam marks typically reflect 1/3 the team’s assignment, 1/3 its oral defense and 1/3 theory.
Fig. 3

IRMA project work team

Such twofold foundations-project approach intends to nurture both the design ability (= capability of implementing what has been conceptually modelled) and teaming (= ability of work in a team). Both these skills are keys for lab internship, and, of course, for enterprise internship as well. Students begin internships in the second term of the second year. Someone choose enterprise and others lab internships. In Table 1, we describe the lab internship.
Table 1

Profile of the main DMP courses taught in Pavia University



Team Project

Design of Enterprise Systems

• Architecture of Enterprise Systems: ERP, CRM, BI

• Design of the BI system of a service company

• Techniques for conceptual modeling of BI systems: SIRE [9], DFM [10], GOA [11, 12]

• Design and demo of a dashboard on O/S software

Customer Relationship Management Systems

• Components of CRM Systems: Sales, Customer Service, Marketing, Analytical CRM

• Design and demo implementation of a Sales System

• CRM platforms


Business Analysis & Service Design/Module 1

• Business Process Modeling techniques and frameworks : BPMN [13], SCOR [14, 15], UML-EP [16]

• Modeling of a Business Processes (Industrial Enterprise)

• Galbraith’s Star Model on Organizational Design [17]

• Analysis and re-design of a Business Process (Service Enterprise)

Business Analysis & Service Design/Module 2

• Architecture and design of Service Systems

• Design and implementation of a value proposition (Smart City)

• Implementation model and platforms for Service Systems


4 Lab Internship

Lab internship is based on a student team that works on developing a demo within a research or business project. Projects in 2012–2014 included a Planning/Analysis system for Phonetica, a company running an elite call center [18, 19], Mobile Healthcare, Analysis of Psychiatric Patient Reports, and finally, IRMA [20], that we describe later. The student’s internship lasts 6 months (sometimes longer for Italian students). In internship, students work in small teams, which are tutored by a PhD student. Teams report to the professor who supervises the overall project.

IRMA (Integrated Real-time Mobility Assistant) is a project for smart mobility, that includes a wide range of information services for citizens and municipalities. It was born as a thesis on a traveler’s support system, and then was continued as a pilot for Pavia municipality. Two pilot releases, namely on Trip Planner and City Feed [21], a crowdsourcing system, proved its practical viability. These releases led to a contract with a Province of Pavia and the Smart City Lab of CINI (a consortium of Italian Universities), to a joint lab agreement with HIT and the School of Software of UESTC. Finally, a Chinese version of City Feed is to be deployed in Weihai municipality, by HIT. Of course, IRMA implies a quite large team, of up to 15 people.

In lab internships, the outcome is a demo. Sometimes the demo is robust enough to be released as a beta version. Actually, Phonetica is using the Planning/Analysis system. As noted earlier, some modules of IRMA are released on the websites of our Lab ( and of Pavia Municipality. The City Feed module is daily run by Pavia Municipality. The contact with real customers—enterprises or public bodies—develops in students the experience of dealing with users’ positions.

In lab internships, each team gives periodically progress presentations, which are discussed in project meetings. Of course, the lab internship requires a very intensive tutorship by the professors and PhD students, who spend 30 % of their time in discussing and supervising the teams.

4.1 DMP Thesis and Internships

As far as Pavia University is concerned, the thesis reflects a research project. Typical sections include:
  1. 1.

    Introduction, that illustrates context and objectives of the overall project and the goals of the module developed by the student;

  2. 2.

    State of Art, that includes a systematic literature review [22], that discusses the main researches on the topic, thus positioning the novelty of the thesis itself;

  3. 3.

    Analysis of Requirements, that models user needs, functional and non-functional requirements;

  4. 4.

    Design of the System, that describes both its overall architecture and modules;

  5. 5.

    Deployment and Implementation, that illustrates how the design is implemented;

  6. 6.

    Test, that illustrates experimental results and discusses the validity of the design and implementation;

  7. 7.

    Conclusions, that illustrate the results achieved and related limits, and it outlines future work on the same subject;

  8. 8.

    Demo, which is also the base of the defense.


From the above description, you can easily understand that, in Pavia’s Computer Engineering School, the thesis is assessed on its novelty and results. This approach, that reflects the research orientation of Computer Engineering, may conflict against the punctual protocol of Software Engineering Schools. In addition, Italy legally requires at least 6 months of internships (of course the internship may last longer), while China requires 1 year. To deal with these differences, thesis are separated, even if 50–70 % of the material is common.

The Pavia’s orientation to research issues and design of systems is evident in Table 2, which lists the subject of lab internships, in 2012–13 and 2013–14 academic years. Several key words of these theses, as “Mobility”, “Crowd-sourced”, “Big Data”, “Indoor Mobility”, closely reflect current IT challenges, and give students competences that are very attractive for future employers.
Table 2

Profile of some lab internship theses


Thesis title






Mobility support systems for people with physical impairment


Atos, Milano

IT/Systems Integration



Design & implementation of a web system to support indoor map conversion and refinement


Atos, Milano

IT/Systems Integration



Design and implementation of event awareness trip plan platform


Alibaba, China

IT/Software Engineering



Design & implementation of a workflow management system for City Feed


BIP, Milano




Design & implementation of a crowdsourced business intelligence system for city management (Web module)



Product Manager



Design & implementation of a crowdsourcing system for municipal administration (Android module)


University of Pavia


PhD student


Design & implementation of a local event detection system using geo-tagged Twitter data


SOHU, Beijing

IT/Software Engineering



Design & implementation of an urban public transportation simulation and analysis system






A Platform for City Data Integration and Alert Manager with Social Media Data (Point of Interest)


Politecnico Torino


PhD student


Design and implementation of public transit open data service platform


SAP, Shanghai

IT/Systems Integration



Design & implementation of a mobile BI system for a call center


University of Pavia


PhD student


Mobility Analysis for Smart Cities: Territorial Intelligence and Big Data


IBM Italy

IT/Systems Integration



A platform for cognitive psychotherapy analysis






Design & implementation of a municipal crowdsourcing system (Web)




Master student


Design, Development & Prototyping of an APP for Patient Health Record


IBM Ireland

IT/Systems Design


The jobs of graduated students relate to their thesis. Among 15 graduates, ten work in multi-national companies, as Alibaba, IBM, and Atos, while four graduates work in academy, including three PhD students and one Master student. Only one graduate is still seeking a fulltime job. Admittedly, lab-internships result helpful for students. In addition, they enhance the ability of University to perform projects for corporations and public funding, while still keeping the control of the knowledge.

5 Conclusion

We have discussed a case study of lab internship and shown that it can be effective not only for the university, that uses research results of the students’ work, but also for the enterprises, who receive a superior product. In short, lets us recap some positive points:
  • Lab-internships provide a close guidance to students. ‘Team spirit and involvement’, and ‘autonomy and help from superior’ were influential factors in predicting students’ satisfaction in internship [6];

  • Lab internships enable the university to test ideas, while keeping the control of knowledge;

  • In our case, lab internships enabled to shape a design capacity that goes from user needs all the way down to the implementation and test;

  • Students learn how to work in teams, where each member performs a work package, that should match with other work packages;

  • Students are encouraged to search solutions and literature on Internet, acquiring an autonomy that is really a key for higher level works

  • Frequent visits, exchange of techniques and project experience with partner enterprises and partner universities help development of talent.

However, lab-internships are not a universal solution, because:
  • Supervision costs are high–in our experience, over 20 % of PhD students and 10 % of professor time;

  • A project-like organization is needed, and should run regularly, with plans, progress review and walkthroughs;

  • Effectiveness and efficiency are high with high performing students, while low performers produce poor outputs and impact on supervision costs;

  • PhD students may be not adequate mind to guide a team and should be supported.

So, as a last conclusion, the lab-internship complements enterprise internships, and fits schools and labs who participate in advanced research projects, and fits best students.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gianmario Motta
    • 1
  • Kaixu Liu
    • 1
  • Tainy Ma
    • 1
  • Linlin You
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Industrial and Information EngineeringUniversity of PaviaPaviaItaly

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