Cooperative education or Co-op is a college program that balances classroom education with hands on learning. Co-ops are traditionally full time paid positions that are counted as part of a college curriculum. The position is held for a long duration of time, usually 3-6 months depending on the program. Students typically don't take classes during their co-op period. This is so students can focus on their work experience. Co-ops are part of the curriculum of many college engineering programs.
Co-op or Internship
Not all colleges offer co-ops. Co-ops are not to be confused with internships. Internships are work experiences that are much shorter in duration and are not always paid. They are more flexible than co-ops as they require fewer hours and can be completed over the summer or while a student is in classes.
How Co-ops Work
Colleges with co-op programs usually require the student to complete at least two practical learning experiences. A co-op program can lengthen the time a student is in school. This is because there are semesters where they will be working full time and not attending classes. As a result, many university co-op programs are designed to be completed over 5 years.
There are many colleges with engineering curriculums that incorporate co-ops. Northeastern University, Drexel University and University of Pittsburgh are just a few of the colleges that offer co-op programs in engineering. Overall, co-ops are a great way to explore a field and gain practical experience by working.
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.