November 20, 2013

Engineering Co-Ops See Fluctuating Interest Among Cornell Students

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The Engineering Cooperative Education program in the College of Engineering has seen its number of participants fluctuate since it was established in 1946. Administrators cite student involvement in new on and off-campus programs as the reason behind changing enrollment trends.

About six to 12 students participated in the co-op program during its early years, according to Mark Savage, director of the Cooperative Education and Career Services. During that period, the program was the only option for engineering students who wanted to apply their skills in a professional work setting, Savage said.

Involvement in the co-op program reached its peak in the 1980s and 90s — enrolling about 130 to 150 students a year — when internships were not nearly as “prominent” as they are today and when other options were not available, Savage said.

Since then, however, the program has seen fewer students enroll. On average, 75 to 100 students have participated in co-ops for the last decade, according to Kimberlee Swartz, associate director of the co-op program, who attributed the numbers to there being more professional opportunities available to students today.

Swartz said the program is organized so that it is academically feasible for engineering students. The program implements a summer session after students’ sophomore years, when they usually take four classes that are replicas of the engineering courses offered the following fall.

Savage added that students within the engineering school today can explore many opportunities to find the best fit for their career or academic interests besides co-ops. These programs range from undergraduate research opportunities and student project teams to Kessler Fellows –– a program in which student entrepreneurs work at a summer placement company.

“I believe all programs would love to have more students involved in their program. However, it depends whether the program is the best choice for a given student,” Swartz said.

Savage agreed, saying the goal of the co-op program is to provide “options that best meet the needs and interests of our engineering students.”

The lower number of students participating in co-ops today compared to the 1980s has not been problematic, said Betsy East, assistant dean of Student Services, because the primary goal of the co-op program remains meeting student interest.

Still, East added that periodically, it is difficult to align students’ interests to available co-op opportunities.

“Over the years, we have generally been able to partner with employers to meet student interest. Occasionally, there is a mis-match between student specific major interest and employer job offerings,” East said.

Students who have participated in co-ops in the past say they gained valuable experiences through their programs.

Derek Faust ’14, who worked in Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, Calif., said the co-op experience helped him to better apply the knowledge he gained from the courses at Cornell to the professional workplace.

“I would highly recommend this program to all students in the engineering school interested in working in industry, as it provides invaluable experience,” Faust said.

Brandon Liu ’14, another former participant in the co-op program and a career guidance peer advisor in the Engineering Co-op and Career Services office, said there is usually a large student turnout at the co-op information sessions for fall semester sophomores. However, the number of prospective participants wanes after the completion of the application process, as some students become involved in other programs better suited to their career interests, he said.

Savage said that students sometimes decide that, rather than pursue a co-op program, “another opportunity may be a better fit for their needs and interests.”

The engineering college is also looking to increase the number of global experiences available to its students, according to East.

However, thus far, there have only been a few dozen students who have participated in co-ops abroad, Savage said, adding that the process of obtaining working visas varies by country and can be both “time consuming” and “extremely complicated.”

Although the globalization of the co-op program is still in development, students say they have benefited from the experience domestically.

Lance Collins, dean of the engineering college, also praised the co-op program, saying it exposes students to new technologies and business practices.

“Students who participate in the Engineering Cooperative Education program are high-achieving undergraduates who are interested in putting their rigorous Cornell training into practice in industry. Participating students can be assured of challenging and quality work assignments that align well with their academic backgrounds and interests,” Collins said.