University of Idaho Co-op Program Combines Classwork and Career
Coeur d’Alene Computer Science Students Take a Chance on the New Cooperative Education Option to Get a Jump-start on their Profession and Pay for College
Luke Hill has a knack for seeking out the most efficient and productive path.
So when the Sagle native came to the University of Idaho as a nontraditional student, he was naturally drawn to the new Cooperative Education Program (Co-op) — combining well-paid, on-the-job experience with his education.
“I didn't expect to be in this position this quickly when I decided to go back to school,” Hill said from his desk at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL) in Spokane Valley, Washington.
For half of his junior year, Hill was a full-time computer science student attending classes at U of I in Coeur d'Alene. For the other six months, he worked as a software developer earning a regular paycheck at SEL and applying what he has learned in the classroom to challenges under the guidance of an industry mentor.
“The idea here is that the university and the company are cooperatively educating the student,” said Larry Stauffer, dean for U of I College of Engineering.
A Semester Away Pays Off
Pairing college students with companies is common practice through internships, but the Co-op takes that idea of experiential learning a step further. Co-op students take at least one semester out of school, immerse themselves in industry work related to their major and earn a near market wage for their position.
“The students we've had so far are earning about $20,000 during one Co-op period,” Stauffer said. “So if you can imagine — you'll be at the company, get a $20,000 infusion, come back to school, do another Co-op and earn another $20,000 — you know, $40,000 really helps with your education.”
For some it doesn’t only help, it makes the path to a degree a realistic possibility.
“I’ve got a family — a wife and a 2-year-old daughter,” Hill said. “So being able to work has been really helpful for us.“
Employers see the Co-op as an extended job interview with some of the region's top emerging talent.
“With an internship, we get maybe two solid months, so things have to be started and finished quickly,”' said Phil Tallman, an engineering manager at SEL and Hill's supervisor. “I know I'm going to have Luke here for six months so I can start assignments that I know are going to last longer.”
The students we've had so far are earning about $20,000 during one Co-op period, [That] really helps with your education. Larry Stauffer, Engineering dean
Leaving a Lasting Impression
Classmate Devin Driggs of Rathdrum also joined the first Co-op cohort, working for international tech firm Micron at its headquarters in Boise. His lifelong affinity for technology led him to computer science, but the Co-op affirmed that choice.
“I realized that I enjoy the work more than I expected I would,” Driggs said. “The creative aspect of coding — how you solve a complex problem — it never gets old and that's got me fully hooked on it.”
Given the responsibility and extended time of his Co-op period at Micron, Driggs was able to develop a software automation tool and release it into production.
“I am leaving my mark on the company,” Driggs said. “I accomplished something that was truly helpful to them, and it will be here long after I leave.”
Growing Co-op Across Colleges
Funding from the Idaho STEM Action Center helped jump-start the Co-op for its successful first run with four Coeur d'Alene computer science students in 2018. Students from multiple engineering disciplines, studying in both Coeur d'Alene and Moscow, have since taken part in the program. Together, the Idaho Department of Labor and Idaho STEM Action Center recently provided a half-million dollars to help U of I expand the offering.
“We really have ambitions for this program to provide opportunities for students across campus,” Stauffer said. “If we can help the student gain more practical hands-on work experience, that makes them a better graduate, which helps us do our job better.”
Driggs and Hill are now back in class, completing senior projects ahead of their upcoming graduation. They both returned to school more confident, focused and invested in the career track that Co-op participation allowed them to begin.
“The university setting and the work setting are completely different,” Hill said. “Education provides all the theory, the information and the knowledge, but in the workplace you've got a large project, you've got people who are all working on something together and you can't replicate it on that same scale in college.”