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For Experience to Build On, Students Turn to Engineering Co-Ops

A passion for engineering and a desire for in-depth, real-world work experience come together with diverse opportunities

The School of Engineering is expanding its co-op program to help students deepen the technical knowledge and interpersonal skills that translate to a career.

Full-time, paid co-op positions have attracted undergraduates in the departments of biomedical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering for several years. Starting this summer, the co-op program is also open to master’s degree students.

“We want our students to learn about real-world engineering problems and how to solve them professionally,” said Kyongbum Lee, dean of Tufts School of Engineering and Karol Family Professor. “Co-ops, by embedding students in companies, where they work alongside employees, are successful paths to both goals. Students become subject matter experts, while learning crucial leadership skills that will stand them in good stead, wherever they decide to go after graduation.” 

At the undergraduate level, Robin Kahan, associate director of Engineering Career Services in the Tufts Career Center, teaches a one-credit course that’s a prerequisite for students considering a co-op. Encompassing career-building skills such as resume writing and informational interviews, it has steadily gained interest since her first class eight years ago, growing from 16 participants to 70 this past academic year.

Compared to a summer internship, a co-op requires students to take a semester off from Tufts (retaining full student status). But that six-month commitment is what makes a co-op “definitely worthwhile,” Kahan said. 

“With a co-op, a company can train a student for two months and then the next four months they can focus on work,” she said. “That means co-op students come back to Tufts with real pride of ownership of finishing a significant project, an experience that helps them move closer to their career goals.”

As for the new graduate co-op program, Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education and professor of electrical and computer engineering, is optimistic about how the inaugural cohort of 40 students will thrive in their co-ops. 

As Panetta crafted the program, she convened 30 CEOs of high-tech companies to find out what would distinguish Tufts master's students from graduates of other schools.

“They said: ‘leadership skills,’” said Panetta. She noted that Tufts graduate students already have that distinctive edge; Tufts Gordon Institute engineering management courses count toward a master’s degree in any engineering discipline at Tufts. 

“We have tailored our student experience around what we heard from industry,” she said. “It sets our co-op students to be successful across a range of companies, and for the professional careers that will follow.”

Here, three undergraduates reflect on how individual co-op experiences have made a difference in their education and professional development. 

Emma Downey, E22

Undergraduate major: Biomedical engineering
Currently: Ph.D. student in the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Yale University
Co-op placements: Insulet (spring 2020), working on prosthetic drug delivery and insulin pumps, and Moderna (fall 2020), working on lipid nanoparticle–or LNP—development, a drug delivery system for vaccines, with timely relevance amid the pandemic. 

“My biggest tip is to show up and try your best," said Emma Downey, who completed two co-ops and is now in a Ph.D. program at Yale. Photo courtesy of Emma Downey

What I Learned: “Failure was super necessary. In a classroom you are primed to not fail. But I failed lots of times. I think that's what engineering does too. It wants you to fail. It encourages you to fail. You have to find the walls of any problem you are searching for before you can get to the end.”
My Advice: “My biggest tip is to show up and try your best. A lot of people are nervous to start a co-op; they're worried they're not going to do it perfectly. Some days are not your best, and that’s OK. The important thing is that every experience builds on the one before it. If I hadn’t had such a fantastic time at Moderna, then I wouldn't have had the knowledge to work at Tufts under [postdoctoral fellow] Adam Mullis on the neurology of Alzheimer’s disease. I felt confident and, two years later, it helped me go on to graduate studies in neuroscience at Yale.”
The Co-Op Advantage: “The co-op experience gave me opportunities to refine what I want to do and it gave me a leg up when I graduated; it helped me get a fabulous internship at a start-up, Bolden Therapeutics. I know I was hired because I had such extensive experience in the lab. That’s the reason that you should do a co-op; it builds your experience and when you have experience, you have the confidence to keep going.”

Greg Terry, E23

Undergraduate Major: Mechanical engineering with a minor in engineering management
Currently: Design engineer with Honda
Co-op placement: Honda Development & Manufacturing of America (spring and summer 2022), working as a hardware design engineer in the active safety systems development department 

"My attitude was to say yes to every opportunity," says Greg Terry, of his co-op at Honda Development & Manufacturing of America, where he is now a design engineer. Photo courtesy of Greg Terry

What I Learned: “It’s important to be able to work with and across different groups of people. But the biggest lesson for me was learning how to participate in and lead meetings and take notes, and how to present information people need to know. I made sure that I was interacting positively. I was given opportunities to be a leader because I got my work done and I always asked, ‘What more I can do?’”
My Advice: “If you want to compete in the job market on just the ground of technical skills, there are going to be thousands of people who probably know how to use CAD language. I knew that wasn't the way I could compete. I had to demonstrate people skills; I had to show my willingness to learn. So I would show up for everything that would give me exposure to more things. My attitude was to say yes to every opportunity.”
The Co-Op Advantage: “Early on in my co-op, my manager mentioned a path I could follow within Honda. My group was starting to expand as safety and active controls on vehicles become more important. It felt great to know that my team valued me and they're going to support my progress. They also offered me a job as soon as the co-op ended! I feel like I'm climbing a ladder of trust.”

Vanessa Bellotti, E25

Undergraduate major: Computer science
Current: Rising Tufts senior
Co-op Placement: Nvidia (spring 2024), working remotely as a technical marketing engineer intern on AI workflows.

For Vanessa Bellotti, a co-op with Nvidia, a leading AI corporation, "opened up an opportunity to explore a new areas of interest and allowed me to leverage my technical background." Photo: Laura Ferguson

What I Learned: “My co-op opened up an opportunity to explore a new areas of interest and allowed me to leverage my technical background. For example, although I have experience with building out machine learning workflows, I had not worked with retrieval-augmented generation, or RAG, a technique for enhancing AI accuracy and reliability. RAG can allow users to ask chatbots about information stored in PDFs, images, audio, and more, not just information stored in text sources. Through the co-op, I became quite practiced with the technique and was able to give a talk at Nvidia GTC, the global AI conference. Another major takeaway was learning from colleagues who have a lot of insight and experience, which gave me perspective on my next steps, such as graduate school.”
My Advice: “My top tips would be to listen to and seek out mentors, even ones with whom you are not necessarily working closely, to take notes in meetings, and to be engaged with the bigger picture. To stay engaged when working remotely requires a lot of intentionality. For example, be proactive about setting up meetings with colleagues to stay in touch. I also recommend asking team members if they can introduce you to people outside of your direct team to learn more about your areas of interest.”
The Co-Op Advantage: “To work alongside such a great team for a longer time period than an internship gave me great insight into the culture and community at Nvidia. It also was an opportunity to balance theoretical knowledge with hands-on learning about new technologies, which, especially in my field, are evolving constantly. I also was drawn to the sheer scale of projects that drive an enterprise environment. By applying AI technologies in real-world scenarios, I came back to Tufts with invaluable insights and skills important to a future career.”

Employers looking for more information on the School of Engineering co-op programs: Contact Sue Atkins, associate director of Employer Relations, Tufts Career Center