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by David E. Luzzi

Beyond the Classroom

New findings bolster the case for cooperative education.

What better way than a co-op job to apply and expand technical skills?How does a single lightning strike kill 56 elk in a Colorado herd? That’s an easy one: very quickly.

That question, according to a January 2010 Prism article on the five-year Academic Pathways study on undergraduate engineering education, stumped 8 of 10 fourth-year electrical engineering students who failed to display “a correct grasp of voltage.” Despite four years of engineering-related courses and activities, Prism reported, “some undergraduates are uncertain about what engineers do.”

For those responsible for educating or hiring young engineers, these findings are shocking. And because there should be no partial credit for an incomplete education, they make yet another case for the imperative of cooperative education.

Experiential education takes many forms – community service, prototype projects, international study, student organizations such as Engineers Without Borders, and, of course, internships. But for a substantive integration of study and practice, nothing tops “co-op” – getting out of the classroom and into a full-time position for up to six months, two to three times during an undergraduate career. Such a regimen typically takes five years at Northeastern University, though a new four-year model launched this fall provides more flexibility. Students don’t pay tuition during their co-ops, and the average pay for a six-month engineering co-op job is nearly $16,000. Most important, however, is that students discover how businesses function and what engineers do.

Unfortunately, literature on engineering education often pays scant attention to this jewel of an education model. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in its 2009 book, Educating Engineers, Designing for the Future of the Field, mentioned co-op almost as an afterthought: “Many programs make participation in such activities available to students, but in general it is up to the students to reflect on the experience.”

Northeastern students take a co-op prep course, followed by the co-op experience, followed by a course to reflect on the previous experience and prepare for the next one. The real-world experience students bring to all their subsequent courses enriches classroom discussion and learning, lab work, and team and capstone projects.

We are currently piloting a leadership component, with students learning – first in a classroom “boot camp” and then on the job – about different leadership styles, how bosses utilize power and influence to achieve results, and how styles change and adjust based on different situations.

Co-op has been the signature program at Northeastern’s College of Engineering since 1909. A century later, it is a major reason that so many students apply for admission here. Our time-tested experience, coupled with the current generation’s laudable zeal for “learning while doing,” convinces me that it is the proper future course for engineering education – especially as we have established co-ops with companies in more than 40 countries around the globe.

What better way than a professional co-op job to apply and expand technical skills and knowledge; to learn each day how to communicate ideas to discerning, demanding audiences in the United States and overseas; to explore interdisciplinary opportunities in biomedicine and nanotechnology, in business and entrepreneurship; and, of course, to demonstrate one’s talent and potential to a prospective employer?

Co-op works both ways. It allows companies in search of new talent to size up the abilities and potential of prospective employees, while simultaneously realizing immediate value from their work. Two-thirds of our undergraduate students receive job offers from one or more of their co-op employers upon graduation. In the current economy, this two-way deal is a no-brainer.

One of my favorite stories is that of the 18-year-old Northeastern engineering freshman who became the 21-year-old co-op student at Apple Computer, who became the author or coauthor of 13 U.S. process and patent applications – while on co-op. Upon graduating, he joined Apple as an engineering analyst. One may debate the relative merits of the iPhone, but there’s no arguing that this young alumnus knows what engineers do. And he knows how the elk were killed, too.


David E. Luzzi is the dean of the college of engineering at Northeastern University.




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