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Co-op at UC: A New Leadership and Learning-Assessment Role in the 21st Century

UC has been a recognized global leader in experiential learning since the university founded the practice of cooperative education in 1906. That leadership has taken on a new dimension as co-op enters its second century of practice. 

Date: 2/23/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824

UC ingot  

The University of Cincinnati, the global founder of cooperative education (co-op), was  singled out in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Education with a grant to build a new assessment model. That model was to continually assess the needs and best practices of national companies – and then to make sure that co-op and the classroom consistently met the firms’ knowledge and skill demands.

(Co-op is the practice wherein students alternate quarters or semesters in the classroom with quarters or semesters of professionally paid work related directly to their majors. UC is the birthplace of co-op, having founded the practice in 1906 and today housing a co-op program ranked in the nation’s Top Ten by U.S. News & World Report.)

The Department of Education grant, which totaled nearly $1 million when combined with other funding, made possible the development of an educational-assessment model – to be replicated by co-op schools nationally and internationally – allowing for real-time corporate feedback quickly incorporated into classroom learning.

It’s a feedback system that – each quarter – queries each supervising co-op employer and each co-op student in detail in order to annually gather more than 400,000 data points. This original UC feedback model was developed over four years’ time, starting in early 2004, in partnership with 1,500 UC co-op employers.

The assessment information it provides centers on what defined skills and possible courses students need in order to be more fully successful in the workplace while they are still students, still in school – before graduation and the permanent job hunt.   

This new assessment model is outlined in a just-published report: “Leveraging Cooperative Education to Guide Curricular Innovation: The Development of a Corporate Feedback System for Continuous Improvement.” The report, now available online, will be distributed to other co-op colleges and universities beginning in February.

The end goal of this new model is to assess the efficacy of classroom curricula and revise it as necessary, said Kettil Cedercreutz, associate provost and director of UC’s Division of Professional Practice (co-op). He added, “We’ve built a recurring process that allows any institution to react to a variety of challenges in the environment and make appropriate adjustments to provide the best services for students and the wider community. It’s assessment that makes students more competitive in the marketplace, and the learning institution – in this case UC – more competitive in preparing those students.”

The model system takes information from employers that is program specific and feeds it into a database that is then “crunched” to determine trends and broad-based consensus on needs, to create a “program fingerprint.”

UC co-op student and employer

Examples of general feedback trends from use of the model during testing at UC include

  • Accounting: Employers are seeking conceptual and analytical ability. Professional qualities and teamwork skills are particularly important.
  • Architecture: UC architecture co-ops excel at design, are considered highly creative and innovative, and quickly adapt to corporate work cultures. However, employers are concerned regarding students’ ability in construction detailing (technical aspects of buildings) and would like to have the students stay with one co-op employer for a greater length of time.
  • Civil engineering: Employers need students who are well grounded in theory. In addition, employers prefer continuity, retaining individual co-op student throughout their six co-op cycles.
  • Construction management: Specific skills important to employers include scheduling and software proficiency as well as line and grade skills. Again, employers prefer the continuity of retaining an individual co-op student throughout the six co-op cycles.
  • Information systems: Employers have little concern for specific skills for entry-level co-op students. The employers are more concerned regarding students’ inherent aptitudes related to the work as well as their work ethic. Again, employers prefer the continuity of retaining an individual co-op student throughout the six co-op cycles.

How does such feedback then influence college curriculum? One example from the assessment model’s testing phase comes from UC’s top-ranked architecture program.

Co-op student at work

Employers had revealed concerns about students’ limited ability to navigate the complexity of technical aspects of building. In then examining the curriculum, it was found that the architecture program’s construction class and computer-aided drafting class had evolved as independent courses with no interaction. Faculty identified these two classes as perfect candidates for an intervention. A single shared project that bridged the classes was implemented and repeated twice.

Architecture faculty also completely revised a second course, Environmental Technology I.

Curricular changes in accounting, architecture, civil engineering, construction management and information systems were made in 2006 and 2007.

The continuing feedback from some employers indicates they’ve already seen a difference.

Dave Haverkos, senior project manager with Danis Building Construction, reported that UC’s construction management and civil engineering students “appear to be getting better each year… . I believe it’s a combination of the quality of students we are striving to hire and the UC curriculum.”

He added that he can specifically recall students who have done well in responsibilities related to scheduling of projects and field surveying, both areas where UC has altered its curriculum based on employers’ feedback.

Concluded Haverkos, “Overall, the UC co-op students seem to be more engaged, ask a lot of questions and are willing to take on more challenging assignments every quarter… .”

While the focus of the Department of Education grant to UC and the resulting report is – appropriately enough – focused on corporate feedback to academia, feedback from academia to employers continues via the ongoing nature of cooperative education. For example, UC’s architecture faculty are also focused on the future of the profession, looking 10 to 15 years ahead regarding trends and needs. That differs from the day-to-day focus of most employment supervisors.

Architecture faculty and student

Still, the future-oriented curriculum informs and leads industry. For instance, many smaller architecture firms do not have the capacity to create 3-D animations in order to produce a virtual “walk through” of a building. However, UC architecture students can enter a co-op position with laptops in hand and are able to quickly create a 3-D model of a building.

This makes the co-op student more valuable as a potential employee while leading the employer into the future of the profession.

Just as was the case in 1906 when UC founded the practice of co-op, other universities as well as corporations are beginning to take note of this new UC assessment model. 

For instance, the Georgia Institute of Technology, which houses an optional co-op program, is planning to adopt all or parts of the UC model outlined in the just-published report, according to Tom Akins, executive director of the Georgia Tech’s Division of Professional Practice.

That report, available online, has or will be distributed at co-op and education conferences to groups such as

  • The Cooperative Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education at the Conference for Industry and Education Collaboration Feb. 4-6, 2009.
  • National Commission for Cooperative Education's Feb. 20, 2009, Board of Trustees meeting. That board is comprised of corporate leaders and university presidents.
  • The Cooperative Education and Internship Association at an annual conference April 19-21, 2009.
  • The Ohio Cooperative Education Association at an annual conference April 20-May 1, 2009.
  • The World Association for Cooperative Education at its 16th World Conference June 23-26, 2009.
  • To all members of the National Commission for Cooperative Education.

While the globe’s co-op programs are expected to adopt all or parts of the new UC assessment model, it will also – in the next year – be adapted itself in order to assess all experiential learning programs at UC by building an enhanced database.