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Engineering Students Use Factory Floor as Classroom

A co-op program offers real-world experience along with all the theory.

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In the 106 years since the University of Cincinnati first placed 27 engineering students into paid positions in textile mills and coal mines to enhance their studies, cooperative education has become a staple of scores of undergraduate programs, from the arts to the sciences. More recently, this type of experiential learning, in which one semester or quarter of class time alternates with one of full-time employment, or students work part time as they study, has caught on at the graduate level, too—and perhaps nowhere more strongly than in engineering.

"At a basic level, it is a Montessori approach. What works well for kindergartners works well for engineers," says Bryan Dansberry, who chairs the American Society for Engineering Education's Co-operative & Experiential Education Division (CEED) and is a higher education experiential programs specialist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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Research shows that, compared to grad students in traditional programs, co-op students are "offered employment at a higher rate and progress at a faster rate," says Paul Stonely, CEO of the World Association for Cooperative Education, a Massachusetts-based organization that advocates for education integrating actual experience. They also seem to have higher grade point averages, higher graduation rates, and a better record of sticking with a chosen employer.

The University of Cincinnati, which lays claim to being the nation's first co-operative education school, today sends 190 master's-level engineers—including aerospace, chemical, computer, environmental, and mechanical—into jobs at NASA, Boeing, and GE Aviation, for example.

"I got to see and learn firsthand how engines work, are built, tested, fixed, designed, and improved," says Krista Kirievich, 22, of Cincinnati, who hopes to complete UC's accelerated engineering degree program by June 2013. She will graduate with her bachelor's and master's in aerospace engineering, earned over a total of five years while establishing herself in the field through 15 months of work experience at GE Aviation in nearby Evendale.

Co-op students are "working on multimillion-dollar contracts and making an impact," says Cheryl Cates, a professor of professional practice and director of Cincinnati's Center for Co-operative Education Research and Innovation.

[See what international applicants should know about U.S. engineering programs.]

Gaining professional experience, drawing a salary while earning an advanced degree, and having a wealth of networking opportunities often trump the extra semester or quarter it takes to finish a graduate degree in a co-op program, experts say. "It makes sense," says Patricia Bazrod, director of Georgia Tech's graduate co-op and internship programs. The work is "an extension of what students are learning."

Indeed, the leapfrogging of ivory tower with factory floor puts the lessons of each in context so that theory becomes concrete and actual business problems and technical issues inform class discussion. "At GE, they try to get you to do more critical thinking" rather than just following instructions, Kirievich says. "You get to see technology in action, and you get to see how things are done in the real world."

She hopes to get hired by GE when she graduates. The Georgia Tech Graduate Co-operative Education Program, which according to CEED is the nation's largest among engineering and science programs, counts nearly 750 grad students working in paid co-op assignments. Half hail from the engineering school; most are getting master's degrees, while some are working toward a Ph.D.

The details differ when it comes to how much help students get in landing a co-op job, how many rotations are required, and the number of employers a school works with regularly. Some students like to stick with a single employer during their rotations, while others hop around. Most Georgia Tech co-op students find jobs either through the school or with help from faculty, and most assignments involve full-time work with one of 1,500 employers, including Qualcomm, IBM, Google, Microsoft, and Texas Instruments.