Inside Purdue Engineering: Co-op program

Purdue's Co-op program, run by the Office of Professional Practice (OPP) housed in the College of Engineering, started in 1954 with the first formal Co-op in mechanical engineering.

Parikesit Pandu Dewanatha knew immediately.

He and the rest of his junior classmates at Binus School Simprug in Jakarta, Indonesia had just watched a series of recruitment videos from United States universities, intent to spark interest from international students.

As soon as he’d seen the Purdue University College of Engineering presentation about its Cooperative Education (Co-op) program, Dewanatha was hooked.

“It was one of the driving forces that excited me about Purdue,” Dewanatha said. “Especially as an international student, being able to get the experience of working in the U.S., working with a company and allowing the students to learn from the industry is a really big pull.”

Purdue’s Co-op was different than the others he’d seen: It was voluntary, it was flexible, and the companies involved were dynamic and varied.

Soon after Dewanatha stepped on the West Lafayette campus in the fall of 2018, he agreed to accompany a friend to the Industrial Roundtable Career Fair. Specifically, to hear from the representatives at ZF, a global technology company supplying systems for passenger cars, commercial vehicles and industrial technology.

Co-op students working at ZF
Purdue Engineering Co-op students working at ZF in Lafayette, Indiana.  

Dewanatha had no expectations for himself because ZF hadn’t listed publicly it was seeking international students for work. But in the course of the conversation, the ZF rep asked Dewanatha if he was a mechanical engineering GEARE (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) student looking for a Co-op.

Surprisingly, Dewanatha hit all three categories. Days later, he got an offer for his first Co-op.

Three rotations later in the U.S. and another at ZF’s German headquarters, Dewanatha speaks of his Co-op experience fondly. And not even because he secured a job offer.

“The Co-op experience is amazing,” Dewanatha said. “It’s an experience that is very valuable, and it’s a very gratifying program. You learn all the theories here in Purdue in the lectures you listen to and in the courses. They talk about a problem and then they conceptualize the problem. Those were acted out in my Co-op experience, and that is something that helps me learn and helps me understand what engineering is all about. It’s a very big part of my engineering degree here at Purdue.

“I got to learn a lot of new things. I had a lot of working experience. I talked with a lot of people in the industry. They taught me a lot about mechanical engineering and working in general. Overall, the work experience improved the way I think and how I tackle problems. That also translated to my degree at Purdue. I was able to be more critical in problem solving and trying to figure out what the solution is. … A Co-op is not just about education. It’s about learning life in general.”

Dewanatha’s successful journey is one of thousands for Purdue’s Co-op program, run by the Office of Professional Practice (OPP) housed in the College of Engineering. The Co-op program started in 1954 with the first formal Co-op in mechanical engineering. Other engineering disciplines joined the Co-op program in the following years, and by 1974, non-engineering disciplines were added.

Now, the Co-op program serves eight colleges on campus, though about 90 percent of participation is from engineering students. In 2022, as many as 1,800 students participated with a projected growth to be over 2,000 by next year.

Upon completion of Purdue’s Co-op program, a full-time job offer comes 88 percent of the time, said Jenny Strickland, senior Co-op education programs manager.

“A lot of students who participate in Co-op will come back and tell us that they not only feel ready for industry, but they feel they’re going to be successful,” Strickland said. “They know they’re going to stand out in the job market because of the experience they have in the classroom and how it’s tied in and connected with industry. But then on the other hand, what they learn in industry, when they can take that back to the classroom, they’re also set apart from their peers.”

'A life-changing experience'

Purdue’s Co-op program is unique not only because it’s voluntary but also because it has options.

The program, No. 7 in the country in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, offers an “industry experience” in which a student does a minimum of three working sessions, also referred to as rotations, and two of those are with the same company. Those rotations can be in fall, spring or summer semesters and, by the end, a student will have almost a year’s work, if not more, of experience by graduation. The “extended industry experience” is a five-term working session in which students gain between 12-18 months of working experience.

Students largely can choose their Co-op experience.

Student working at a microscope
The hands-on work experience offered by Purdue's Co-op is invaluable, students say.  

Unlike other universities, Purdue does not directly place students in Co-op positions. Instead, Purdue hosts a variety of engagement opportunities from employer information sessions, classroom lectures and visits and, even, a specific Co-op career fair in January.

In Co-ops, students are allowed to gain traction at one company for a long period of time, unlike internships. In Co-ops, students work 16 weeks, fully immersed into a working environment and earn a salary. A benefit of the latter: Many Co-op students graduate debt-free.

That long-term investment, both for the student and for the company, can produce dividends.

“I was able to be exposed to a lot more things than I would have been exposed to at an internship,” Dewanatha said. “With my co-op, I already knew the company from my first rotation, and I just basically built up from there. As time went on, my responsibilities essentially increased in the company. They trusted me a lot more, and that allowed me to gain more experience. I was placed in a very important role at the end-of-line testing at ZF. That’s essentially the last line of defense for the company because we were creating a prototype at that point. I was essentially the last line of defense between our company and our customers. That was a pretty big deal because the customers can judge your company based on the work you did. That job was possible because of them being able to know me more.”

Some companies keep Co-op students in the same departments through the entirety of the program, and others offer a taste into different roles and different departments.

Rithika Athreya was enamored with the beauty industry growing up in New Jersey, the passion driving her so far to design affordable DIY skin care from grocery store items as a senior design project. When she came to Purdue, she knew she wanted to major in chemical engineering. She’d heard about the Co-op program when she was researching colleges, and the opportunity at Purdue seemed ideal. Especially after she arrived and found out Procter & Gamble was part of the program.

The company was hiring a five-term Co-op for its beauty department. That one department consists of skin care, hair care and personal care.

“As soon as I got my offer, I was the most excited person ever. One thing that people are scared about with Co-ops is that they think they’re going to be doing the same job every time, which is totally not true,” Athreya said. “P&G, being in beauty, I was rotated across all three of them, skin care, hair care and personal care, and each department has their own cultures, so you really felt like you were working at a new company. But they also have the same characteristics. I could use my previous network, gain a new network, find the cross-collaboration between skin and hair and things like that.”

Student working inside cockpit
NASA has been a long-time partner with OPP.  

There are a variety of roles within each department, too, so even if a student stays within a specific department, the work could vary, like it did for Athreya.

In her first rotation, she was in products research, also known as consumer research. Her project was trying to understand the company’s “underserved consumer,” which required her to conduct interviews. She saw it as a chance to develop her interpersonal skills.

Her second rotation was in skin care and in formulation, and she did data analysis and modeling for skin care products. That exposed her to a program called JMP, something that’d come up later in her Purdue curriculum.

The third rotation focused on skin care process, “the basis of what chemical (engineering) is.” She was working in new process development, figuring out different ways to make P&G’s process better by taking in-line measurements of products. She had to analyze two different instruments to see which more accurately measured the product attributes inside the line and say which was better. That recommendation was then put in a largescale plant in Poland.

The fourth rotation, in hair care, was an integrated formulation and process role, allowing her to work in the front-end innovation of a new shampoo form (or design). In the Responsible Beauty Innovation group within hair care, she was tasked with testing the properties of a new, "greener" surfactant. She felt the most technical growth during this co-op term, gaining new knowledge about surfactant and polymer chemistry.

“The Co-op program gave me the skills to design my own experiments, be independent, critically think and things like that. I didn’t have any of those skills before I started,” Athreya said. “Even in my first two (rotations), it was very much like my managers telling me what to do and I do them vs. by my third and fourth run, I started to have my own ideas, my own input, lead the experiments myself.

“My projects were a lot more difficult every time they came around. They did give me more responsibility. My coaches would tell me, ‘This is a PhD-level project, but we’re giving it to you because you’ve had so much P&G veteran experience.’ … The fact I was able to be more independent and get those skills was great that the co-op program taught me.”

Athreya has one final rotation this summer, but even before that, she’s already seen an impact on her academic life based on her P&G experience. She’s interested in developing her own beauty skin care line, so she’s pursuing a certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation at Purdue and also has a minor in computer science.

Those life-altering moments aren’t new.

The Co-op program has been providing them for nearly 70 years, and there’s a growing list of Purdue Engineering alumni who still fondly look back on their experiences.

At the 2022 Co-Op Hall of Fame banquet, alumnus Jim Magro (BSEE ‘88) stood in front of more than 100 attendees and spoke passionately about his Co-op experience, calling it a “foundational” moment in his life. Afterward when asked to expound on that, Magro doubled down, saying “it was just a huge, life-changing experience for me.”

Magro did five rotations with the former Hughes Aircraft Company while he was a Purdue student and another rotation as a master fellow student.

Students outside HP
It's not uncommon for companies to have several Purdue Engineering students on co-op rotations at the same time. 

“I’m thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t everybody do Co-op?’ It was a no-brainer to me,” said Magro, who now hires Purdue Co-op students for Advanced Micro Devices, where he is a senior fellow. “Yes, you extend your college time by a year, but it was well worth it. You get experience and a lot of payback in many ways. I really sought to get industry experience.

“When you’re young, it gets you into a mode of work and diligence because you’re taking on a big responsibility. Since they’re giving you this responsibility, you don’t want to let them down. So it gives you a 'leg up' on learning how to conduct yourself. Today, even as an adult hiring new college grads who don’t have co-op experience, I notice that they’re really green on the life experiences and how to handle themselves. When you’re interacting in a Co-op role, you’re really part of the team. People don’t even know you’re a Co-op. They think you’re just another new hire, and they treat you like that. You have responsibilities and deliverables.”

Denny Warner, who has degrees in mechanical engineering and aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Purdue and is another Co-op Hall of Fame member, turned his five Co-op rotations at Allison into a nearly 50-year career, the first 23 with Allison and the final 23 with Rolls-Royce, which bought Allison’s division of General Motors in the mid-1990s.

“You learn the culture of the industry and especially of a big company,” said Warner, who retired as a VP. “You know how you’re going to fit in. You get exposed to some areas you’d like to work in and some areas you wouldn’t like to work in. It’s more of a networking type of environment, which that’s where I benefitted the most from.”

Mutally beneficial partnership

As many as 500 companies currently partner with OPP in the program, and that number could grow, based on student interest, Strickland said. Some of the partnerships are longstanding.

Rolls-Royce has been connected to Purdue’s program since the beginning, and that relationship has generated hundreds of Purdue students participating in co-ops with Allison/Rolls-Royce. More than 90 percent of those students have become full-time employees upon graduation, Rolls-Royce’s available employment data shows.

“The continuous evolution in engineering programs and proximity to the world-class talent found at Purdue University are two key reasons Rolls-Royce initiated and continues to lean on and nurture our strong early career recruitment partnership,” said Defense Engineering Early Career Capability Manager Alice McCrocklin, a Purdue University alumna.

GE Appliances started working with OPP in the 1960s, shortly after construction of its 750-acre industrial park in Louisville, Kentucky, was completed. GEA has more than 140 Purdue alumni in its current workforce, the company said.  

Mark Copelli, executive sponsor for Purdue recruiting at the company, said Purdue does a fantastic job providing relevant coursework and experiences that prepare students for success in the workplace. GEA, in turn, provides students with challenging assignments that help them gain valuable skills to complement that coursework while gaining further insight into their career preferences.

“The results speak for themselves, given the number of highly productive and valued Purdue alums we have working at our company,” Copelli said. “Purdue Co-ops are extremely valuable to GEA as they are some of the brightest, most-prepared students that we bring into the company. They have a track record of success in our co-op program, delivering results while learning critical skills.”

Student in hard hat
Some Engineering students who participated in a co-op called the experience "life changing."  

Ashley Eckert (BSEE ’05) completed three Co-op rotations as a Purdue student before joining the company full time into the Edison Engineering Development Program and now is an executive sponsor for Purdue recruiting for the Supply Chain function.

“PU Co-ops bring in new ideas and fresh perspectives,” Eckert said. “Their curiosity allows them to ask questions and challenge perceived notions, which can help shape a strategy or solution to a problem.”

That makes Purdue and GEA an ideal pairing, said GEA’s John Todd (BSME ’05), the Purdue campus recruiting lead and Director of Product Safety & Reliability.

“Purdue engineers have an eagerness to learn and contribute to solving real-world engineering problems that impact the lives of everyday Americans. With GEA appliances being in one out of every two American homes, the impact that our co-ops make is huge,” Todd said.

As Magro has recruited Purdue students for co-ops, he’s found them to be very good technically, as the “fundamental basis of the engineering curriculum shows.”

But that’s not all Purdue students offer.

McCrocklin said equally impressive is the work ethic and commitment to assigned tasks, objectives and goals that “shine bright as characteristics of Purdue co-ops.”

“Rolls-Royce has been and continues to be impressed with the quality of Purdue students’ technical knowledge, commitment and strength of character,” McCrocklin said.