Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. Relating to engineering education, this could take the form of internships, co-ops, capstone projects or research. Basically, experiential learning bridges the gap between theory and practice. It provides a hands on experience to learn and understand specific practices in engineering. For example, it is one thing to work on the textbook problem of how to achieve better flow to produce a greater output of Chemical A at processing Plant X, and another to be an intern at Plant X seeing first hand where the issue lies in the piping and raw materials and speaking to the workers involved in the production process to find the best solution to get more output.
Internships and cooperative education programs (co-ops) are learning experiences where the student actually works for a company in a given field. Internships are shorter (a summer or a semester) and could be both paid and unpaid, part time or full time. Co-ops are longer and involve a more in depth work experience. Students stop taking classes to work full time (usually 3-6 months at a time), and are typically paid. The longer work experience of a co-op can give students an edge over their peers when they are looking for jobs after graduation.
Capstone projects and research are other ways to gain valuable experience and knowledge in your field. Working on a research project is a great way to apply the theories learned in your studies and explore a topic in greater depth. Similarly, capstone projects combine theory and practical experience to solve a problem or issue.
Not all engineering programs offer experiential learning opportunities. Many have it built into their curriculum. Others do not offer these experiences and the student has to look for them on their own.
Experiential learning is a valuable way to increase your understanding and knowledge of a subject through hands on experience. In addition, experiential learning will increase the student's value in the job market upon graduation. When looking into engineering schools it is beneficial to find out if the program you are considering offers experiential learning.