PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
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A GOOD FIT - Co-op education, which celebrates its 100th anniversary, has become an increasingly important learning tool. - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel - Illustration by Randy Lyhus

In 1906, Herman Schneider, the young and first dean of the University of Cincinnati’s engineering school came up with a revolutionary idea that was barely approved by a skeptical board of trustees. He wanted to bring a select number—27 to be exact—of engineering students out into the growing mining and milling industry where they could practice the theories they were learning in the classroom. The board voted 5 to 4 to allow Dean Schneider to “try his cooperative experiment for one year, the failure of which we will not be held accountable.”

Thus the tenuous birth of cooperative education in the engineering world, which 100 years later, is a thriving global system of committed partnerships among universities, private and public industry and engineering students. Today, in some 100 engineering schools in the United States, thousands of co-op students take quarterly or semester time out from classes to take part in practical, paid work experience that may range from perfecting circuit designs in a four-person electrical engineering firm to learning production regulations in a billion-dollar biomedical engineering corporation.

From left to right, PICTURE 1: Herman Schneider. PICTURE 2: University of Cincinnati's first co-op class in 1906. PICTURE 3: Female students receiving engineering training during WWII.

“When I first learned what the co-op was, I had sort of a superficial view of the whole thing. Great, I’ll get the work experience before I graduate. But I didn’t really internalize the impact that it would have, how the co-op is essentially a wonderful symbiotic relationship with the school.” So says Calista Fisher, a senior at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering who has completed five rotations with General Electric where she worked on projects directly related to her major in environmental engineering, including wastewater, air emissions, safety and industrial hygiene.

“The school gives you the science foundation that you need, it exposes you to different types of common aspects of engineering and teaches you basically how to think, not just what to think. Then you take that and go to the co-op environment, and you get this more in-depth exposure, hands-on, learn from professionals. Every time I came back to school, I was amazed at how I was sitting in class learning about something and I had worked on a project like that. I could say this is a bona fide thing to study. It’s applicable. It’s a big circle,” says Fisher. “The corporate world is very different from the academic world, but it makes your life a little bit easier when you’re here struggling through school to know what things are important.”

While each engineering school runs its co-op its own way, some programs are more structured than others, and only a few, like Cincinnati, make co-oping mandatory. No matter how the program is run, it usually takes a co-op student five years to complete the engineering academic requirements, combined with work periods, to get a bachelor’s degree. The same is true for co-op students in graduate school: Time spent working outside automatically lengthens the time it takes to get a degree. For some students, the choice may be to take an internship, which is usually a one-shot, short-term, paid or unpaid work experience while going to school or during the summer months.

From left to right, PICTURE 1: UC's co-op students helping to plan a town in the 1930s. PICTURE 2: Student Vincent Curry in aerospace engineering. PICTURE 3: Female students receiving engineering training during WWII.

Saying “I Do”

“Cooperative education is like marriage. Internships are like dating. There’s a big difference,” says Harold B. Simmons, director of Cooperative Education, Division of Professional Practice at Georgia Institute of Technology. “I can remember dating, and I know what marriage is. And I prefer marriage.” His reasons, he says, have to do with a commitment that builds strong values and a strong society.

“It’s a commitment to the same employer,” Simmons says. “When (the co-op students) graduate, they can go wherever they want to work, but when they’re at Georgia Tech in the co-op, they need to stay in place. It takes one year longer, but in the engineering field, one year is not that much. In my mind, it’s really insignificant compared to the value of the work experience the student gets.”

Such a commitment takes serious planning. According to Robert Linsenmeier, professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern University, any student heading for a co-op program must work closely with an adviser to map out the coming year’s schedule of classes. There can be problems when a course is offered only once a year at a time when the student expects to be out of town working, he says. It’s also a challenge taking some courses out of the ideal sequence. “The problem is not insurmountable,” Linsenmeier says, “but it is an inconvenience that the co-op students have to deal with.”

From left to right, PICTURE 1: A pin from 1942's Co-op Day on the UC campus. PICTURE 2: Co-op engineering student Kerrie Wallace working at Turner Construction Co.  PICTURE 3: UC aerospace

As for the teachers, co-oping is bound to affect their classroom. “Generally, our faculty at Georgia Tech comment that they love to have co-op students in their class because they bring new perspective, new ideas,” Simmons says. “Co-op students are probably more vocal in their discussion on what is being taught because they can relate it to what they’ve seen in the real work, the industry.”

Linsenmeier points out, “The other impact is when they come back and find out why they are in class. That’s a very big change. For instance, their first co-op experience is after the summer of their sophomore year. They come back sort of reenergized to pay attention in class, and they can make relationships that we as faculty, who have been on campus and not out in industry very much, can’t really make for them.”

Schools vary on how they prepare the students for the co-op experience, says Helen Oloroso, assistant dean and director of the Walter P. Murphy Cooperative Engineering Program at McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern. Typically, there is some sort of half-day orientation where students learn their school’s co-op policy, such as how much time has to be committed to outside work and what to expect in accommodating required classes.

At Northwestern, says Oloroso, the process begins during the freshman year when students do their research, work on their résumés and learn interview and networking skills. By the sophomore year, the interviewing takes place and they plan to have a position by the summer before their junior year.

Some schools set up the interview schedule completely, but at Northwestern, for example, the jobs are placed on a secure Web site, and it’s up to each student to do his or her own applying. “It mirrors the job search process,” Oloroso points out. “About half, or higher, will get positions—it depends on the major. Students may also have a variety of reasons for turning down a job that is offered. They are encouraged to find their own cooperative.”

Cincinnati also has a Web site with posted jobs, leaving the initiative and follow-through up to the students. For Christopher Hummer, an aeronautical engineering student at Cincinnati, there were a couple of rejections before the perfect match was made with Wright Patterson Air Force Base, a 40-minute commute that he makes during alternating quarters.

“I had put on my résumé that I was interested in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), something they apparently were already working on,” Hummer says. “They told me later that the reason they hired me instead of others was I sounded so enthusiastic and was ready to go. The initial contact was through the school, but I like to think that landing the job was because of my interview and what I put on my résumé.”

That enthusiasm propelled Hummer into some exciting projects where he worked closely with engineers on aerodynamic measurements. “Some people complain about their co-op experience, saying the first three months, all they did was Excel spread sheets,” Hummer says. “I started out that way at Wright Patterson, but I asked them to give me something more challenging, and they did. You get out of co-op what you want to get out of it. Engineers in co-op are in their livelihood, it’s what they love to do and they’re going to share that with you. When you probe and ask, they will teach it to you.”

Experience is unquestionably the main goal of the co-op, but the fact that businesses pay for that experience is also appealing, particularly to students who have financial needs, or are weighing the economic consequence of adding a year to their undergraduate or graduate study. A salary typically begins around $15/hour and increases with time given; bonuses may include subleasing housing, worker’s compensation or transportation to and from the work site. Health benefits are rarely offered. Some companies also offer complete or partial tuition reimbursement (based on a grade point average) or scholarships toward graduate school.

To name just one generous company, L-3 Communications, Communication Systems-West, a leading defense contractor in Salt Lake City, pays full tuition to the engineering co-op students from the University of Utah who maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA while working. Students are also reimbursed for school books. Graduate students who meet the same GPA requirements are reimbursed 80 percent of tuition. “The students are dedicated employees and a key component of our staffing strategy,” says Julianne Grant, communications manager at L-3.

Clearly, co-operative education is beneficial to both the industrial world, which needs more qualified engineers, and graduating students who seek jobs in their particular field of engineering. “It’s a win-win situation,” is said enough on both sides that it could be the motto of cooperative education. According to the National Commission for Cooperative Education, more than 60 percent of co-op students nationally accept permanent jobs from their co-op employers, and 95 percent find jobs immediately upon graduation.

“Companies benefit from identifying and help produce the next generation of engineers,” Oloroso says. “Engineers want to give back to students and the university. Just this year, I’ve had three young graduates from 2005 who came back to recruit students to work for them. Barely out of school and they recognize the value of the co-op.”

Barbara Mathias-Riegel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


TO THE RESCUE - By Anna Mulrine
ON THE MOVE - By Thomas K. Grose
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REFRACTIONS: Being Mistaken - By Henry Petroski
A GOOD FIT - Co-op education, which celebrates its 100th anniversary, has become an increasingly important learning tool. - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
ON CAMPUS: A Different World - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW: Merging Arts and Science - By Robin Tatu
TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
LAST WORD: The Terrible Two's - By Clive L. Dym


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