Pam Morse would most likely have been wearing a red T-shirt, working the cash register at Target. Instead, she worked as a course assistant in a heat transfer course. Sure, working at Target would have paid the bills—but making a competitive salary working in engineering on campus was a much better option, she says.
Morse, a senior in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, got her course assistant position through the Earn-Learn Apprenticeship Program. Morse and other undergraduate engineering students in the College of Engineering can apply to the program for jobs offering competitive wages and a more meaningful experience, staying on campus to work in engineering-related positions.
The service-oriented jobs range from assisting faculty with courses to designing labs to planning and organizing departmental events. For their work, the students, mostly undergraduates, earn about $10 to $12 per hour for up to 10 hours per week each semester. While robust state finances are having a kinder effect on universities’ budgets, there always seem to be other pressing needs. The good news for UC-Boulder’s College of Engineering is that the department or program where students work pays only half their salaries. The other half of the $3,000 to $3,600 per year cost of each apprentice is paid through private gifts designated to support the program or from funds provided by the dean.
Morse, who was a course assistant this fall and a teaching assistant for two semesters before that, says the convenience and flexibility of the jobs cannot be beat. On top of that, she’s been learning engineering while working, which she wouldn’t have been able to do at Target. “This is a lot better because when you TA a class or even when you’re grading, it lets you review some of the material that you learned before and learn it better the second time around.”
This past fall, Rich Otten, a junior in mechanical engineering, landed a TA spot for a computer-aided drawing course. “Instead of working off campus at a random job, you’re working with mechanical engineering professors, talking to them, learning more, learning where you can go with your education instead of working at a convenience store,” he says. And Otten’s learning wasn’t confined to a textbook or a computer program—some of the most valuable things he learned were presentation and communication skills.
The program has been a hit with students; 70 apprentices took part this fall, up from 15 students when the program first started in the spring of 2004. And it’s been popular with donors as well. Over the past three years, more than $300,000 has been raised to support the program.
The concept resonates with private donors and former UC-Boulder engineering students who remember those long days of trying to keep up with classwork and hold down a job to make ends meet. Art Dawson, a business manager at PBS Lumber Co. who received his degree in chemical engineering from UC-Boulder, jumped at the chance to donate when he found out about Earn-Learn. Dawson knows all about what it takes to pay the bills in college. During his years at Boulder, Dawson stocked shelves, installed lawn sprinkler systems and worked as a retail clerk. “What (this program) does is it keeps them in the college,” he says. “It keeps them on the campus and focusing in the same area they’re studying.”
Donor George Sissel, retired chairman and CEO of Ball Corp. and member of the college’s Engineering Advisory Council, says not only do the Earn-Learn positions help students continue learning but, unlike scholarships, students are earning what they’re getting. “What they appreciate is the opportunity to earn some money but allow their income to contribute to their understanding of engineering education as well.”
If Dawson and Sissel—and now Morse—are any indication, the program will have a ripple effect for years to come. “I think when I go out into industry,” Morse says, “I’m definitely going to try to donate money to the program.” It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Lynne Shallcross is senior editor of Prism.