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When Sydney Gale began studying packaging at University of Wisconsin-Stout, she kept hearing about the school's Cooperative Education program.
She wasn't sure at first what it involved but figured it must be important because it was mandatory for packaging students.
Now she knows why. Last year, Gale landed a co-op position in the Chicago area for the Gatorade Division of PepsiCo. She helped develop packaging for new Gatorade protein bars, which hit the market this spring.
"We completed competitive analyses, made carton prototypes, tested a variety of film sizes and did shelf-life testing in addition to many other tasks," said Gale.
She also worked on packaging for other Gatorade products, including the popular hydration beverage, during her nearly six-month co-op.
As a result of the experience, Gale feels she's ready to step into a packaging job when she graduates. "I'm so glad I did it. It was a great learning experience," said Gale, who is most interested in the area of beverage packaging. "It solidified what I wanted to do."
Gale was one of 11 program participants honored recently with a Co-op Meritorious Achievement Award from Career Services, which oversees the program.
With one more semester before graduating — she plans to study in Spain in the fall — Gale said she was well-prepared because of her education at UW-Stout, but the PepsiCo opportunity presented even more unique learning experiences.
"It was great to be able to apply the things I learned from my classes. By the end of my co-op, I could see the correlation between what I had learned and what I was doing," she said. "My education definitely allowed me to excel at my co-op."
Gale also worked part time one summer as a packaging intern for City Brewery in her hometown of La Crosse.
Rich Rothaupt, associate dean of the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, said the Cooperative Education program is a perfect fit for UW-Stout's applied learning model. "It's one of the great learning experiences we offer. It really makes and defines what a UW-Stout degree is all about — learning by doing," he said.
Rothaupt noted that the experience gives students a competitive edge when they begin looking for full-time work, and often times they are hired by the company where they had their co-op. Graduates from the packaging program have reported 100 percent placement for many years.
"It's one of the big reasons for our placement rate of 97 percent," he said, citing UW-Stout's survey of recent graduates who have found full-time jobs or are continuing in school.
For example, one of this year's honorees, Addie Gecas, had a co-op in technical design at Kohl's headquarters near Milwaukee. The apparel design and development major then was hired by Kohl's as an assistant technical designer after graduating in 2013. Gecas is from Grand Marais, Minn.
UW-Stout's program is one of the largest in the country, according to Bethany Henthorn, Co-operative Education coordinator.
A record total of 940 UW-Stout students had co-op work experiences with 525 employers last year through Career Services. Students earn a wage and receive a grade and academic credit for their efforts. The average wage was $13.80 an hour; students earned $8.5 million.
"The program is recognized by employers all over the region and all over the country," Rothaupt said.
The list of major companies involved in the program includes Walt Disney World, Menards, Harley-Davidson, Kohl's, Target, 3M, IBM, Kohler and MillerCoors.
The Cooperative Education Meritorious Achievement Award is given to students who apply and are selected by the program's Advisory Committee. Students are recognized for excellence and achievements in their cooperative positions, for contributions to their employers and for academic achievement.
The award winners
The Meritorious Award winners, their majors, employers and faculty mentors are:
The university's Cooperative Education program began in 1982. Since then more than 17,000 students have participated.
For more information, contact Career Services, 715-232-1601.###
Top: Sydney Gale
Middle: Nischal Shrestha accepts his co-op award from Chancellor Sorensen.
Bottom: Award-winner Ashley Springstroh, third from left, gets together with co-workers during her co-op at JanSport.