Renowned educational theorist David A. Kolb defined experiential learning as, "The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience."
Experiential learning for engineers is practiced within our college-level educational systems through cooperative education (co-op), internships, and service learning programs, offered by hundreds of colleges and universities, involving hundreds of thousands of students.
A co-op program integrates classroom studies with work-based learning related to a student's academic or career goals. Students alternate semesters of academic study with semesters of full-time employment in positions related to their academic or career interests. Co-op provides real-world, field-based experiences that integrate theory and practice. Students typically earn credit for their co-op experience and usually are paid for their work. The program provides an invaluable link between classroom concepts and work applications.
Collegeview.com estimates that approximately 500 colleges and universities in the U.S. offer co-op programs, involving 300,000 students. Co-op positions are offered across the U.S. and also abroad.
Co-op students gain practical experience in their field of interest, working side by side with other professionals in a real-world environment. Students are treated like other employees and develop professional and technical skills related to their careers. The student learns how to exhibit professional behavior in the workplace and understand and adhere to ethical standards.
With practical experience, students gain a much better understanding of their potential career path and the steps they need to take to succeed. After a co-op experience, some students may decide that their chosen academic field may not suit them in the real world and decide to switch majors, enabling them to make a difficult decision at an early stage in their professional development.
While co-op positions are not necessarily high paying, engineering co-ops tend to be higher on the pay scale. During their six-month co-op term, most students can earn enough money to offset some of their living and academic expenses. It also takes pressure off the need to compete with other college students for lower paying summer jobs that offer no relevant career experience.
A cooperative education enables students to build their resume with practical experience, giving them an advantage over others looking to start their career upon graduation. Landing that first job is always the toughest and having work experience always helps.
Chris Ricci, a 2012 Northeastern University graduate, completed his five-year co-op program with a B.S. in mechanical engineering with a minor in biomedical engineering. He completed three, six-month co-op assignments, one at a world-leading medical device manufacturer and two others at start-up medical device companies. In addition to gaining engineering experience, he was able to experience the different culture and work environment at a large company as wells as small start-up firms. He also learned about what to expect with a career as a manufacturing engineer in those types of companies.
"I learned a lot during my co-op experience with the medical device companies. I learned how engineers interacted in a professional office environment and what their duties and responsibilities are. The medical device industry is strictly regulated and it was valuable for me to learn about those regulations and that type of environment," says Ricci. "As I gained more experience at each co-op assignment, I was given more responsibilities and was able to develop problem-solving skills and work more independently. I'm now confident that I have what it takes to succeed in mechanical engineering," he adds.
"As I search for my first professional job, I can present a resume with one and a half years of actual work experience, which allows me to apply for jobs that require more than just a degree, unlike other recent college graduates. I've also been able to develop my professional network through the people I worked with during co-op and they are helping me search for positions with people they know. Overall, it was a very worthwhile experience," says the young engineer.
Tom Ricci is the owner of Ricci Communications.
A cooperative education enables students to build their resume with practical experience, giving them an advantage over others looking to start their career upon graduation.
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