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More Solutions by Design: the MBS Externship Exchange

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How one remote experiential learning program continues to generate innovative ideas and solutions for companies in New Jersey and beyond.

By Jen Reiseman-Briscoe

In March 2020, when COVID-19 upended higher education and experiential learning programs nationwide, the MBS Externship Exchange rolled impressively along, with all projects remaining uninterrupted throughout the spring. A semester-end virtual poster presentation session, held on April 28, 2020, showcased the hard work of the 72 students who—via 17 different work groups—completed projects for 14 partner organizations including L’Oréal, Citi Ventures, and Colgate-Palmolive. 

Since that presentation five months ago, the Externship Exchange—an academic-industry partnership that is part of Rutgers Master of Business and Science (MBS) degree program—has experienced explosive growth, with the numbers to show it: 

Now with 137 participating students grouped into 38 student teams, the fall 2020 participating partner organizations number 29—with 11 new employers this semester alone, including BMI Music and NJ Transit.

“Experiential learning has always been a hallmark of the MBS program,” says Deborah Silver, Ph.D., executive director of Rutgers Professional Science Master’s program, through which the MBS degree is offered. “But this is like nothing we expected.”

While experiential learning programs throughout the nation have struggled in the face of COVID-19, the MBS Externship Exchange has continued to flourish, with consistent semester-over-semester growth.

Externship Exchange Program Growth – Spring 2020 – Fall 2020


Spring 2020

Summer 2020

Fall 2020





Participating Industry partners




Student Teams




“COVID-19 has caused loss of internships for our Rutgers students, at both the graduate and undergraduate levels,” says Christie Nelson, Ph.D., director of the Externship Exchange. The increased demand, says Nelson, necessitated the addition of two part-time program advisors in addition to the five current full-time advisors. 

“More students are viewing the Externship Exchange as a way to grow professionally—while remaining remote—in a structured and thoughtful way,” says Nelson, who says that in addition to partner organizations that range from Fortune 500 companies, to startups, to government agencies and even small-town business administration, MBS program advisors have also taken into account needs of students—professionally, socioemotionally, and from a time-management perspective—particularly students who are also employed full-time. 

“We have built in many digital networking opportunities so students don't feel so isolated, and students are also learning how to work in teams, basic project management techniques, design thinking, presentation skills, and more."

With the landscape of higher education changing at the same time that “work from home” and remote-work culture becomes the norm rather than the exception—and particularly with these changes taking place while STEM-based jobs continue to rapidly evolve and change, “the Externship Exchange is more relevant than ever,” says Silver.

What, Exactly, Is an Externship? And Why Does it Matter?

“The Externship Exchange is a small, collaborative, multidisciplinary team project,” summarizes Nelson of the program, which connects students with industry experts via company projects submitted by nearly 60 partner organizations. 

Externship projects are completed remotely, from start to finish, over the course of a semester. Externs work in multidisciplinary teams of two to nine students, with advisors taking special care to arrange teams that are as multidisciplinary as possible. It would not be unusual, for instance, to have a singular team of students whose academic concentrations range from user experience design (UXD)  to engineering management to food science and biotechnology & genomics

Using a solution-based approach (also known as design thinking), externs then apply their science-based knowledge to tackle a range of innovative, company-specific challenges—all non-hypothetical issues. 

Externs have analyzed clinical data, developed social media strategies, built web platforms, evaluated cyber-vulnerability, and analyzed data on topics ranging from supply-chain sustainability to hospital mortality rates.

In all, the work and ideas of nearly 400 externs have resulted in viable business solutions for companies including RicohL’Oréal, Church & Dwight, and Siemens; some have been incorporated into national initiatives, such as a 2018 partnership with the New Jersey State Police to analyze ballistics data, which yielded information that now is part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) national training program.

Structuring Success Through Professionalism and Leadership Training

Many students join the externship program to broaden and diversify their professional experience, and, as the program has expanded, so has the level of dedicated professionalism mentoring and training sessions. Weekly “Leadership Labs” offer detailed discussions and coaching for issues including team-building, conducting research, peer-to-peer networking, and—closer to the semester’s conclusion—how to present a successful poster pitch. 

Projects can be related to any MBS concentration. Accordingly, partner organizations span a spectrum of industries, including personal care (Johnson & Johnson), medical technology (Stryker), nonprofits (Sesame Workshop), law enforcement (New Jersey State Police), healthcare (Robert Wood Johnson Medical School), transportation (Conrail), and entertainment (Vydia), as well as Rutgers-affiliated units including the Food Innovation Center and Rutgers Recreation.

Through the exchange, externs gain valuable work experience, and employers are able to assess the viability of projects for which a company or department may not have the bandwidth or budget. However, the value of the Externship Exchange extends beyond the obvious win-win for employers and students. The program is rigorously structured—each project is a real-world, high-level challenge that requires externs to employ—both individually and collectively—teamwork, creativity, critical-thinking, active listening, cooperation, and compromise as they work together over several weeks to problem-solve their way toward a solution. What makes the program particularly unique is its core focus on academic-industry mentoring: externs complete assignments under the guidance of both a company mentor and an MBS academic advisor. 

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Mentor Andrew Wegrzyn (center) talks with externs including Bianna Cruz (right), who won the Externship Exchange “Outstanding Team Leader” award for her work with the Town of New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, in spring 2020.

Extern Jack Fioretti, a team lead who documented his experience in a blog: MBS Externship Exchange: Real-World Problems, Student Solutions, and Real-World Application, says he originally joined the program to develop his professional leadership skills and diversify his resume. However, “I also learned more about the personal care industry, a field that—with my academic concentration in biotechnology & genomics—I hadn’t yet considered for a career path.”

In May, Fioretti’s team presented their findings and proposals to a corporate panel of L’Oréal executives, with the chance that results could be further investigated by L’Oréal’s R&D team. “It was an amazing opportunity to create a presentation for such a distinguished audience,” he says.

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Jack Fioretti (top left) and his teammates on the L’Oréal externship project, including co-leader Kimberly Venetsky (top right).

The MBS program has always offered career development and executive coaching sessions as valuable resources available to all students—particularly because that coaching is STEM/business-specific and tailored to each student’s individual career goals. It is also valuable due to the number of academic-industry partnerships that make programs like the Externship Exchange so successful.

Innovation and Growth During a Pandemic

In the age of COVID-19 and all-virtual learning, the Externship Exchange continues to flourish. 

Silver credits the fact that many externships were already taking place remotely, as the Master of Business and Science courses began shifting to an online format five years ago, when it became evident that an online platform was necessary to accommodate program demand among working professionals—a cohort that comprises the majority of students.

Externship Exchange assistant director Karen Bemis, Ph.D., attributes the ever-increasing number of participation requests—from both companies and MBS students—to years of extensive planning and executing remote coursework for the MBS program itself. 

Recent MBS grad Bianna Cruz concurs. “When COVID-19 happened, the world was already changing as far as how we see technology and how we achieve things,” she says. Cruz, who graduated in May 2020 with a concentration in user experience design, continues that “Working remotely, learning online—these things were already becoming more common, and some people even preferred it,” she says. “In March, when everything was moved to a digital platform, that's where externships excelled,” she says, adding that experiential learning programs such as internships required participants to be on location, whereas externships do not.

Productive Partnerships and a Bright Future

In 2018, the Externship Exchange forged a partnership with Rutgers Honors College, offering coveted spots to select undergraduates. This summer, the program expanded the number of spots offered to Honors College students in order to accommodate those who lost summer jobs or internships in light of COVID-19. This fall, began extending the externship opportunity to a limited number of students from 16 institutions of higher education that comprise the New Jersey Big Data Alliance. (NJBDA) —a long-planned partnership that kicks off tomorrow, September 24, with students from Seton Hall University and Rider University participating.

Within Rutgers, the Externship Exchange is expanding access to a select number of undergraduates, with students from Rutgers School of Engineering Honors Academy and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation LSAMP–both participating for the first time this fall. While not as far along in their education, says Bemis of undergraduate participants, “they contribute considerable enthusiasm and pull their share of the work effort.”

“The externship experience mirrors what happens in organizations,” says L’Oréal mentor Angelike Galdi, Global Vice President, Head of L’Oréal Technology Incubator Cosmetic Formulation, whose large team of externs had wide-ranging academic concentrations including engineering, biotechnology & genomics, personal care science, and business. “[It] reflects the diverse perspectives that exist on my own team at L’Oréal.” 

For real-life job applications and real-life interviews, says Nelson, MBS externs are able to reference their experience—showcasing the advanced level of problem-solving, the prestige of partner companies, and feedback from company mentors—which has led to jobs for many students and allowed them to shine in their new positions. 

“One student said that during the first week in a new job, her boss recognized her leadership skills and actually asked her to train the entire team on how to run a meeting, how to organize a meeting agenda, how to give a solid weekly update, and how to give a concise presentation,” says Nelson adding, “that was great feedback to hear—not just that the students feel their training was valuable, but their new employers feel that way as well.”

For more information about the MBS Externship Exchange, visit https://mbs.rutgers.edu/externships.

About Rutgers Master of Business and Science Degree

Rutgers Master of Business and Science degree is offered universitywide through Rutgers Professional Science Master’s program. The degree is awarded by the graduate schools on all three campuses: The School of Graduate Studies (New Brunswick), Rutgers Graduate School–Newark, and Rutgers Graduate School–Camden.

Jen Reiseman-Briscoe
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