Issues Magazine

Working Towards Better Learning Experiences

By Compiled by Nick Besley

Work-integrated learning is revealing international opportunities for both students and prospective employers.

Work-integrated learning is increasingly being recognised by teachers and students as a key component in learning and understanding. Going beyond skills development and practice, it also helps in determining a preferred career path.

Through work-integrated learning, students apply recently acquired knowledge and learn new professional skills as well as develop generic attributes such as interpersonal skills. Industry and community partners have access to students’ emerging knowledge and skills, and the potential to recruit future employees.

Through a range of initiatives, RMIT staff are increasing the opportunities for students to undertake work-integrated learning, particularly overseas placements and projects through electives. Work-integrated learning experiences include projects based at RMIT’s Vietnam campuses and many other international locations.

RMIT’s program for offshore placements, RMIT International Industry Experience and Research Program (RIIERP), is expanding. Since 1992, RIIERP has provided opportunities for more than 1000 students from all disciplines to work overseas with some of the world’s leading companies.

RIIERP emphasises RMIT’s aim to provide graduates with a qualification that arises not only from an internationalised curriculum but one that incorporates first-hand experience of world’s best practice.

These opportunities usually involve placements of 6–12 months with major industrial enterprises, mostly in Europe and the US. Recent participating companies have included Airbus, EADS, Bentley Motors, the Siemens Group, IBM, Nestlé, Robert Bosch, Volkswagen and the Rolls-Royce Group in both North America and Europe.

Each year about 150 participants are able to undertake industry work experience, graduate industry traineeships, student exchange and final-year projects, or postgraduate research.

For Heidi Lange, work-integrated learning meant spending a year living and working in Germany as part of RIIERP. Heidi worked on projects for the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

“It was an excellent experience, opening up opportunities I would not have otherwise been able to have,” she says. “I spent a few months manufacturing composite Airbus components where I learnt a lot of practical skills. I was also able to design and analyse some components on unique space re-entry test vehicles. The skills I had learnt at university provided a valuable foundation to a real life situation.

“The work experience gained in Germany meant that, on my return in my final year of study, I already had the skills to start part-time work at GKN Aerospace. This gave me a fantastic head start, and resulted in full-time employment as a design engineer with GKN Aerospace as soon as I completed my degree. They highly valued my international experience.”

Bachelor of Engineering (Aerospace) student Jason Series found his 9-month internship at Rolls-Royce in Indianapolis in the US to be the highlight of his studies. “The opportunity to work on the other side of the world in a different cultural environment and on a high technology project has given me invaluable experience and will definitely give me the leading edge in the workforce,” he says. “My absolute dream job would be to enter a large international company, like Rolls-Royce, with a position that allows me to travel to different locations and countries to work.”

During his 9-month internship as part of the GE–Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team, Jason worked in designing the F136 engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft.

Eighty per cent of Australian companies surveyed by RMIT in 2007 indicated they would prefer to employ graduates who have had international industry experience during the course of their studies.

According to feedback from Jim Payton, Director of Business Development for the GE–Rolls-Royce Fighter Engine Team, RMIT’s RIIERP program provides valuable opportunities for technical and business experience.

Nicholas Bradley finished his 1-year internship with the F136 engine program in July 2009. Nick has completed 4 years of his training at RMIT, double-majoring in Aerospace Engineering and Business Management. He is one of several RMIT students who have interned with the F136 Team, which is based in Plainfield, Illinois.

During his internship, Nick worked with the F136 Business Development team, working on a variety of key projects including competitive analyses, supporting various F136 R&T projects, and other strategic business development initiatives. Outside of his work duties he also conducted research for his thesis into the most efficient sustainment strategy for the F136 engine in Australia. By applying his understanding of the Australian defence environment and procurement culture, Nick proposed a sustainment strategy that could be used by the F136 Business Development team as part of the overall Australian sales strategy.

“One of Nick’s final activities included a business trip to the east coast after he was selected to participate in the 2009 International Scholar Laureate Program,” Mr Payton says. “He spent 10 days in Washington D.C., New York and Boston, attending presentations from leading business professionals, graduate schools and at industry sites. As part of his RIIERP, Nick had been nominated by RMIT to participate in the program, which included 25 students from 13 nations around the world.”

Nick says: “This program provided me with amazing experiences not only from the conversations with leading industry professionals and graduate schools, but also interacting with a group of people from 13 different countries from all over the world. The knowledge generated from these programs has given me real-life experience in understanding how to be the leader of an international team, how to analyse your product in relation to competitors in a variety of sales environments, and most of all how to operate and contribute within a leading global organisation.”

Nick will now return to RMIT in Melbourne to complete his last two semesters of study, graduating in May 2010. Upon graduation he would like to return to Rolls-Royce to build on his past experiences and contribute to the future of the organisation.

For Nicola Allen, working with the environment was something she always wanted to do. “I saw environmental engineering as a very practical career, which would not only allow me to solve environmental problems but also give me the tools to design solutions and implement them in a viable way,” she says. “The pinnacle of my degree was undertaking a project in Vietnam.”

During this project, 12 students travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam, to investigate surface water management issues. By identifying key economic, social and environmental impacts associated with surface water management, the research team was able to develop strategies and recommend sustainable cost-effective solutions.

“The project gave us the confidence and skills (in our final year at uni) for entrance into our professional careers. The opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary team and prepare a report gave us the skills to tackle similar experiences in a workplace. The experience of working and living in a foreign country was irreplaceable, and the experiences gained are invaluable as I head into my professional life.”

The Vietnam project offers students practical involvement in an international project and gives them an understanding of professional interaction working with people from many disciplines, not just other environment students. This approach gives them a genuine taste of what their working lives will be like, and sets them up for a successful move into work.

Work-integrated learning aims to make a difference to the work-readiness and employability of graduates. As a teaching and learning policy, it aims to enhance student core problem-solving competencies and capabilities in realistic work contexts. These are the crucial, holistic abilities and skills of practice in a work situation that employers and community expect.

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