In Cambria Hanson’s first-year mechanical engineering class, a professor drew an inverted triangle on the board to represent everything students would learn and highlighted its tip to show what proportion they would actually use in the workplace. But while working on a project for NASA last fall, Hanson used everything in the triangle and more.

Hanson spent her final co-op work term as a research and development intern at the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—the lab where NASA develops their Mars rovers. She tested a rock-sampling component called CHIMRA (Collection and Handling for In-Situ Martian Rock Analysis), which will be one of many new parts on the next rover to be shot up to the red planet.

“This one is far better then all the other rovers combined—it’s the size of a mini-cooper,” says Hanson, adding that NASA usually launches a rover or orbiter every 26 months to Mars, when it’s closest to Earth.

Hanson spent her days at JPL working in a vacuum chamber that mimics Mars’ gravity condition, which is three-eighths that of Earth’s. She was responsible for ensuring that the Martian rocks collected by CHIMRA could be successfully sorted and analyzed in that state.

“The experience was phenomenal. It was twice as interesting as all the other jobs I’ve had combined,” said Hanson. “I woke up every morning totally stoked to go to worksometimes even before my alarm.”

But it took some luck and persistence for her to find this ideal job. September co-op terms had already started when she emailed her résumé to a generic NASA address and received an automatic away-from-desk response. The email included a number to call for immediate assistance so she dialed it and convinced the woman on the other end to pass her résumé on to the division supervisors. By the next day Hanson had set up a phone interview and by the end of the week she was on her way south to replace somebody who’d just broken his ankle.

Like many employers, JPL keeps a constant flow of co-op students on staff. Hanson’s supervisor Kim Aaron often uses co-op placements as a way to test would-be employees: “Hiring co-op students puts us in a much better position to assess potential permanent employees’ skills, compared to the regular hiring system. It gives us a real reference point to decide if we want to make them a permanent offer when they graduate.

“It seems to me that co-op students, by virtue of their additional work experience, are more attractive as potential full-time hires than students who have followed a more traditional path by just working summers,” says Aaron.

Hanson proved herself as an employee worth keeping and has a contract lined up to work at JPL after she graduates in August 2008. “The engineers always said that once you get a job at JPL, you never leave,” she says.

Hanson’s success in finding permanent employment with her former co-op employer is not unusual. About one-third of co-op graduates are hired by their previous co-op employers after graduating from UVic. The Co-op Program gives students that extra boost by connecting them with excellent networking opportunities and real, proven experience.

While some co-op students find their own jobs by contacting co-op employers directly, the standard practice is for students to apply for jobs that have been posted by co-op employers on the co-op website. For details about the UVic Co-op Program visit www.uvic.ca/coop.