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.
[Learn about the demand for engineers.]
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.
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.
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."
Searching for an engineering school? Get our complete rankings of Best Engineering Schools.