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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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The pay can be impressive. Kirievich now gets $21.50 an hour at GE Aviation, which helps to offset her $10,400 annual tuition bill. Joseph Lane, an electrical engineering student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is finishing up a five-year combined bachelor's and master's engineering program this spring, fetched nearly $29 an hour—equivalent to a $60,000 annualized salary—plus his final year's tuition working at the MIT Lincoln Lab. (Such salaries for 20-somethings have a downside, notes Cates, in that students tend to get lured away by industry before getting a Ph.D.)

MIT's selective and long-established VI-A Master of Engineering Thesis Program matches top-achieving electrical engineering and computer science students with industry mentors in paid positions. Program alums include Cecil H. Green, founder of Texas Instruments, astronaut William J. Lenoir, and Markus Zahn, an MIT professor and director of VI-A. "You learn how much you don't know" through a co-op experience, says Zahn.

Co-op programs' emphasis on "producing the graduates industry needs" fits the shift taken by the accreditation body for engineering schools, ABET, toward valuing learning outcomes as a major measure of program quality, Cates believes. Stonely thinks an increased emphasis on outcomes by ABET and the other accrediting agencies "has contributed directly to additional co-op and work-integrated education programs offered at both the graduate and undergraduate levels." This trend, Stonely says, is occurring not only in the United States, but also in many other countries throughout the world.

Quantifying the increase has been elusive, however. CEED is in the process of compiling comprehensive data on graduate and undergraduate engineering co-op programs in order to get a baseline. Other schools on the list so far: Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Northeastern University in Boston, Drexel University in Philadelphia, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Virginia.

One graduate program that recently introduced a mandatory co-op experience is Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. GVSU is a master's comprehensive university—it does not have a Ph.D. program—with an undergraduate engineering program that requires all students to complete a co-op experience. The school has offered a graduate version, too, but never required it.

Recently, with Michigan's auto industry hard hit by the economic turmoil and the state intent on luring healthcare technology companies, GVSU decided to offer biomedical engineering and "develop a workforce to support that," says Samhita Rhodes, assistant professor in the school and chair of GVSU's biomedical engineering committee.

Unemployed automotive industry engineers went back to grad school to switch careers, and last year GVSU started requiring students in the new program to participate in co-op work. Several area employers, including Medbio Inc., Twisthink, and the Henry Ford Innovation Institute, have signed on to pay students to build their chops working full time during the summers and part time the rest of the year.

The basic argument of co-op fans: "Graduate-level courses tend to be more theoretical than applied," says Lane of MIT. "Applied work is really where it's at."

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