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Co-Ops and Capstone Design: Are They Interchangeable?

Many engineering schools in the United States provide opportunities for their undergraduate students to gain practical, real-world experience in their chosen disciplines. Cooperative education is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience, commonly known as a co-op, provides academic credit (and pay) for such an experience [1]. Co-ops often provide students with insight into how organizations are structured and managed, a taste of what it will be like to work in industry, and exposure to other functions within an organization such as marketing, finance, production, and sales. They serve as field apprenticeships for engineering students [2].

The Benefits of Co-Ops

Co-ops benefit students, capstone design course instructors, and companies in two important ways.

Hands-On Preparation for Capstone Projects

First, co-ops provide students with handson experiential learning opportunities that can supplement and/or reinforce what they are learning in their capstone design courses. At Marquette University, more than half of all biomedical engineering students participate in the co-op program and typically work for medical device companies or hospitals. I have found that many of our students who have been exposed to the real world through co-op, internship, or other relevant work experiences tend to appreciate the value of the capstone design course more than those without these experiences.

Prior to the capstone design course, many of our co-op students are already familiar with some of the topics covered by our course and often have had some design and testing experience as part of their co-op job. Each year, many of our senior biomedical engineering co-op students indicate (through a survey given prior to the start of class in the fall semester) that they are looking forward to the senior design class and the opportunity to work with fellow students to complete an entire design project. During their co-op job, they may have been involved with only a few phases of a project and were prevented from seeing it completely through to completion. They now want to learn how to manage a project through more phases of the design process and feel that the capstone design course will allow them to do this.

Recruiting Tool for Employers

Second, co-ops can be used by employers as a recruiting tool. Co-ops allow companies to observe a student’s performance in the employer’s environment and assess his or her fit with the organization. Employers are able to evaluate students as potential new employees, reducing some of the risk of offering employment to other candidates solely on the basis of an interview and references. Often, co-op employers will offer full-time employment to high-performing co-op students after graduation. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 56.8% of employers offered full-time positions to their co-op students [3].

Co-Ops Are Not a Substitute for Capstone Design

One unintended consequence of a co-op experience is that it could lead students to feel they have learned everything about design during their co-op. They may incorrectly conclude that their experiences have made them experts in design and that the capstone design course will not provide any additional useful information or help develop additional useful skills.

Every few years, I receive requests from co-op students to waive the capstone design course requirement for co-op students. Their argument is based on the assumption that since they have already gained design experience through their co-op job, they do not need to repeat this experience through the senior capstone design course. Some students suggested administering a written exam on design to co-op students that, if passed, would allow them to test out of this course requirement. While I acknowledge the significant benefits of co-ops and agree that students will learn some things in a co-op that they will not learn in their capstone courses, I see them as a reinforcing supplement to the course, not a replacement.

I have not honored requests to waive the requirement for the capstone design course for co-op students due to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) requirements and the variability of co-op experiences.

Co-Op Experiences May Be Limited

Faculty and staff advising co-op students do not have control over the depth or breadth of a student’s co-op experience or the level of supervision provided by co-op companies to their co-op students. All co-op employers and experiences are not the same, and this variability creates a spectrum of experiences, skills development, and learning for each co-op student. First, co-ops are significantly affected by the quality of the mentoring that students receive from their employers. The co-op mentor may have higher priorities or a busy travel schedule or lack the communication and/or interpersonal skills needed to be a good mentor. Second, some students might spend most of their time involved in manufacturing, quality assurance, or other nondesign activities and not be exposed to design or new product development. Those that are involved in design may do so in a narrow capacity, preventing them from being exposed to the entire design process. Third, the variability in students’ experiences may result in a mismatch between what they learned during the co-op and what they learn in the capstone design course.

The vast majority of our co-op students concur that what we teach in the course closely follows the design process used by their co-op companies. However, if a co-op experience is significantly different than what is taught in capstone design, some students may assume that the course is not up to date or relevant to professional practice and feel that it is a waste of time. I have dealt with this issue by explaining that what is taught in our capstone design course follows the Design Control requirements of ISO 9001 and 13485. The required course deliverables (Project Definition, Project Schedule/Risk Assessment, Customer Needs/Target Product Specifications, Generated Concepts, Experimental Verification Document, Final Report, Project Notebook, and Project Status Updates) correspond to several of the required Design Control components (Design Input, Design Output, Design Verification, Development Plan, Design Review, and Design History File). I also explain that the course curriculum has been endorsed by members of our Industrial Advisory Board to ensure its relevancy to professional engineering and design practice. The process we teach is not only relevant but is required by international standards, meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration requirements, and reflects current practices used in the medical device industry [4].

Co-Ops May Not Meet ABET Requirements

A second reason for not waiving the capstone design course requirement for co-op students is ABET and its required student outcomes. Currently, General Criterion 3, student outcome (c) requires that students demonstrate “an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability” [5].

According to the ABET definition, Engineering design is the process of devising a system, component, or process to meet desired needs. It is a decision-making process (often iterative), in which the basic science and mathematics and engineering sciences are applied to convert resources optimally to meet a stated objective. Among the fundamental elements of the design process are the establishment of objectives and criteria, synthesis, analysis, construction, testing and evaluation. The engineering design component of a curriculum must include most of the following features: development of student creativity, use of open-ended problems, development and use of modern design theory and methodology, formulation of design problem statements and specification, consideration of alternative solutions, feasibility considerations, production processes, concurrent engineering design, and detailed system description. Further it is essential to include a variety of realistic constraints, such as economic factors, safety, reliability, aesthetics, ethics and social impact. [6]

Many engineering programs rely heavily on the capstone design course to provide evidence demonstrating that student outcome (c) has been achieved. It can often be the only course in the curriculum that addresses many, if not all, of the items mentioned in outcome (c) and the ABET definition of design. Waiving of the requirement for a capstone design course may weaken a program’s claim that it has achieved this required outcome with co-op students.

Integrating Co-Ops and Capstone Design

Some programs include design courses during more than just the senior year, addressing these items through more than one course in the curriculum. Other programs have capstone design courses that last only one semester and may only require paper designs and not physical prototypes. In these programs, the capstone design course may cover less than what is covered by other programs. For a co-op experience to substitute for a program’s capstone design course, it would need to address all of the items covered by its capstone design course. Because there is much variability among both co-op experiences and capstone design courses taught in programs around the United States, it is difficult to say whether any or all coops could substitute for any or all capstone courses.

In my opinion, to accept a co-op as a substitute for a capstone design course, much greater control would be needed by faculty or staff co-op advisers to ensure that the co-op employer is devoting enough of the students’ time to a broader spectrum of design activities. Without this, students’ experiences would vary significantly and may not provide them with the same focused design experiences that they would get from their capstone design courses.

I have explained my reasons for not waiving the capstone design course requirement for co-op students at Marquette University. Along with fellow capstone design course instructors, I would like to know if any of you have dealt with this issue and how you have handled it. I feel that the combination of a co-op experience and a capstone design project would be one of the best ways to prepare our students for professional engineering practice. If policies at your institution allow waiving of the capstone design course requirement for co-op students, please let me know about your policy, when it is applied, how it is administered, and its impact on students and the course. I would like to share your feedback with readers in a future column.


  1. Wikipedia. (2016, Apr. 18). Cooperative education. [Online].
  2. Degree Prospects. (2016, Apr. 18). Course credit plus a paycheck. [Online].
  3. National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016, Apr. 18). 2016 Internship and co-op survey. [Online].
  4. J. R. Goldberg, “Helping students recognize the value of capstone design courses,” in Capstone Design Courses, Part II: Preparing Biomedical Engineers for the Real World. Boulder, CO: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2012, p. 15.
  5. ABET. Criteria for accrediting engineering programs, 2016–2017. [Online].
  6. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Department of Mechanical Engineering. ABET definition of design. [Online].