GVSU's College of Engineering celebrates 30 years of co-op education

By Kyle Bindas | 6/6/16 12:21am

GVL / Kevin Sielaff – Members of Grand Valley’s Formula SAE Racing Team (Chris Clark, right; Bert Vossler, left) work on marchining push-rod plugs for the vehicle’s suspension inside of the Eberhard Center’s engineering labs Thursday, March 17, 2016.
by Kevin Sielaff and Kevin Sielaff / The Lanthorn

The Grand Valley State University College of Engineering is celebrating the 30-year anniversary of its co-op education program. During the last three decades, students have worked and learned in companies around West Michigan and the world.

The co-op education program is a partnership between Grand Valley State University and businesses to help students gain hands-on experience in the field. Students spend a year of their time in the engineering program working for companies, seeing firsthand how engineering works in the professional world. Co-op education was started as a recognition of the need for real-world experience going into the field.

“Most schools, when engineers graduate, they have a lot of textbook knowledge and a little bit of hands-on, but not enough hands-on (experience),” said Paul Plotkowski, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing. “When the curriculum was designed, one of the things that everyone agreed was essential was that real-world experience before graduation.”

During their studies, engineering students are required to spend three semesters working for a company as part of the co-op education program. During this time, they are not just observing what the company's engineers are doing, but participating and working on real projects. Students get to see how to solve problems in real scenarios versus just on paper.

This program is unique to GVSU. Many other schools in the country have some form of co-op education, but very few require students to participate in it. According to Plotkowski, fewer than 10 other schools in the country have a similar program.

The uniqueness of all GVSU graduates having real-world engineering experience gives them a huge advantage when looking for a job. This shows in the 100 percent placement rate of College of Engineering graduates, meaning every graduate of the program is either employed or seeking a higher degree.

Director of the school of engineering Wael Mokhtar attributes this to the experience gained during the co-op.

“One of the reasons is that full year of full-time work in an industry,” Mokhtar said. “Students get used to working and learn professional and technical skills."

GVSU students have worked with hundreds of companies, in all types of engineering fields.

“(We’re in) pretty much every company in West Michigan,” Plotkowski said. “We hit every industry.”

Companies such as Steelcase, Hermann-Miller, JR Automation, Spectrum Health, Amway and many more places have had GVSU students working for them for in co-op. Students have even traveled internationally, working for companies in places like France and Germany.

“I don’t think I would be the engineer I am today without having gone through the co-op program,” said Nicole Bonczyk, a GVSU engineering graduate. “My hire-ability was extremely high, because of just knowing that I walked out (of) a university with so much hands-on experience.You can’t be taught hands-on engineering, you have to actually go out and do.”

During her time with the program, Bonczyk's co-op was with JR Automation. After she graduated she was offered a position, and now works for them. This is not an uncommon path for graduates of the program to take. Students already have a foot in the door and a working relationship with the company they co-oped with.

“The vast majority of our students go to work for the company they co-op with when they graduate, or one of the other co-op employers,” Plotkowski said.

A celebration of the 30th anniversary of the program will be held August 4. Students, alumni, faculty and professionals from companies that have participated in the co-op will gather to honor the program.

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