Q&A: Steinbright Head Ian Sladen on Why We Should Celebrate Co-op

Drexel University's Vice President for Cooperative Education and Career Development Ian Sladen.

This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.

This year, Drexel University is celebrating 100 years of blending academics with professional work experience through the Drexel Co-op program.

When Drexel began its co-op program in 1919, hardly any schools were providing students with the opportunity to train directly with employers in their field. Even today, with over 1,500 universities in more than 40 countries claiming to have some kind of experiential learning program, only a handful of U.S. universities are “fully co-op” as Drexel is, with a centralized, immersive, for-credit program used by nearly every undergraduate. It’s the program that sets Drexel apart from most other universities.

In this Q&A, Vice President for Cooperative Education and Career Development Ian Sladen describes how the centennial of co-op will be commemorated throughout the school year, and why co-op deserves its place at the heart of a Drexel education now and into the future.

Q: What do you see as the future of the Drexel Co-op? How is the Steinbright Career Development Center supporting that?

A: When I think about the future of Steinbright and the future of co-op, it involves the integration of cooperative education and career development with traditional academic learning. I want to explore new ways to collaborate more with our academic partners in the schools and colleges to make sure that Drexel is providing an overall student experience, whether that’s in or out of the classroom, that can truly prepare students for a rapidly changing employment landscape.

Many faculty and staff might be unaware that for the past 20 years, we have been collecting feedback at the conclusion of every co-op cycle. We ask students to assess themselves and their professional competencies in key areas such as oral and written communication, team work, problem-solving and critical thinking. We also ask students about their overall assessment of the co-op experience, their employer and how their academics prepared them for the experience. We ask employers a similar set of questions assessing the students from a supervisor’s perspective. This data is really valuable in understanding the preparedness of our students to see if there are any gaps in Steinbright’s co-curricular programming or preparation for students going out on co-op. And in identifying those gaps, we can gain insights into trends by receiving feedback in real time from our employer partners.

Q: How do you use that feedback to influence pedagogy?

A: Over the past few years, we’ve begun really sharing that data with the colleges and schools to provide quantitative and qualitative information that may inform classroom discussion, programming and perhaps even curriculum. In addition to all the tremendous research conducted at the University that informs curricula, we can leverage Drexel’s unique advantage and gain industry insights from employer partners about the competitiveness of our students as well as the specific changes impacting their industry. This information can be used to ensure we are producing students who are prepared for a very dynamic and rapidly changing workforce.

But that academic integration is more than just sharing data. It’s about engaging faculty in conversations that we’re having with industry. An example would be how we are trying to improve the candidacy of our co-op students when applying to aspirational tech companies with tremendous competition for co-ops. We’ve engaged faculty in conversations with big tech companies to help us all gain a better understanding of the complex and varied nature of their interview and hiring processes either for co-ops or for full-time positions. In this case, we partnered faculty from the College of Engineering and the College of Computing & Informatics to gather information critical to best preparing our students for a competitive landscape.

We have also collaborated with faculty to offer panels where students can hear from a number of organizations within the same industry. This past spring we produced panels with the College of Engineering on construction management, infrastructure, aerospace and automotive industries. Faculty, alumni and industry partners all participated. Events like these help inform our students regarding future co-op or careers while helping employers increase their brand awareness on campus.

The last thing I would mention is the Drexel Business Solutions Institute, which was launched last year in partnership with Steinbright Career Development Center. For a century, organizations have relied on Drexel to acquire new talent. Now, through the institute, we can also offer customized talent development opportunities and consultations with faculty and students to solve commercial challenges.

Organizations are increasingly expressing the need for their employees to retrain and retool in response to rapid change. By offering customized educational options, we can further expand our corporate engagements while educating a dynamic workforce. I am excited about the opportunities that Business Solutions Institute projects may bring. As business challenges become more complex and multidisciplinary, companies can leverage the intellectual capital of our faculty and students from various fields and majors to develop innovative solutions through project-based learning.

Q: How is the co-op centennial being recognized this year?

A: We saw this year’s Convocation ceremony as the kickoff to the co-op anniversary. It was themed around co-op. I was very pleased that [Department of History head] Scott Knowles gave the keynote address and his remarks included the history of the co-op program. It is amazing to see how vital a role the program has played in the history of Drexel. My team and I were so incredibly honored to be recognized at the ceremony.

We’re still working on finalizing plans for the upcoming year, but to start with Convocation was very symbolic. In the works are a “Future of Work” summit, a send-off event for spring/summer co-op students and an expanded Annual Co-op Awards ceremony in May, to name a few.

Throughout our campus, there are physical reminders of the anniversary, like the banners announcing the anniversary located on Market and Chestnut streets, and adjoining streets. There’s also the hallway off of the Great Court leading to the Perelman Plaza entrance of Main Building that features photos and statistics about co-op and the anniversary.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about all the great work that the marketing and communications teams in University Communications and in Enrollment Management and Student Success have been doing to publicize this endeavor. University Communications created a 36-page commemorative publication about the Drexel co-op that went to 22,000 current and prospective co-op employers, high school guidance counselors, peer universities and other important partners. This year, WACE, which is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting cooperative and work-integrated learning programs in industry and higher education, published a six-page write-up about Drexel’s model in its “Best of Co-op” guide, which goes out to thousands of guidance counselors nationwide. These two pieces were extremely well-done and had a broad reach.

Q: How can Dragons get involved in the centennial?  

A: Steinbright is working with Institutional Advancement to tie the anniversary into their Drexel InSites events, which are high-level speaking and networking events hosted around the country.

Then there’s Dragons at Work programming, which is hosted by Drexel Alumni for students and alumni working at the same organization. We go to regional organizations — we had one last week with SAP in Newtown Square — where all Drexel Dragons within a company, both alumni and students on co-op, are invited to mingle. I spoke about the 100th anniversary and the future of co-op, so it’s a little bit of a retrospective but mostly forward-looking. These events are great opportunities to engage our alumni and our students and give them a chance to network.

In January, we’re planning an A.J. Drexel Society event for alumni and donors, with a co-op theme. It’s a suite-style event at The Study hotel, where different rooms or suites will present information and discussions on various topics in co-operative education. Some of it’s a retrospective look, like a timeline showing co-op through the years. But it’s also about educating alumni and donors about what we’re currently doing and where we’re headed.

We’re also planning a special event during Alumni Weekend to honor the over 100 Drexel alumni who have been inducted into the WACE Co-op Hall of Fame.

Q: It seems like everybody’s talking these days about “experiential education,” “project-based learning,” or getting “hands-on experience,” as though it were a new thing. 

A: Cooperative education has never been more important than it is today, and there are few universities in the country with 100 years of it. Our office is contacted weekly by leaders from other colleges and universities inquiring about how they might start a co-op program at their institution. Employers want to expand their engagement with the University in new and meaningful ways. Much of this interest is due to the Drexel’s 100-year tradition of success. It’s an incredible milestone.

About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.

This story was published in the fall 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly.