In 2020, the negative impact of the global pandemic was particularly challenging for co-op students in their first work term. In response, Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) developed the award-winning Waterloo Experience (WE) Accelerate program to help some of the most vulnerable co-op students gain industry-driven skills and real-world experience.

The program brought together career development, in-demand skill development and project-based learning. The skill development component was based on CEE's research and industry collaboration to ensure students were gaining the most sought-after skills in the workplace.

Three frameworks, developed by CEE, formed the cornerstone of the WE Accelerate program.

The AAA★ framework is the foundation for all CEE practices and processes, and outlines the three critical elements of a quality work-integrated learning (WIL) experience: aims, actions and achievements. The P.E.A.R. framework (Pedagogy, Experience, Assessment and Reflection) is applied to programming before, during and after each WIL experience to ensure quality. Finally, the Future Ready Talent Framework (FRTF) is four clusters of 12 competencies projected to be in the highest demand by employers. The FRTF is a research-backed tool to help students, employers and educators understand the key competencies we all need to navigate the future of work and learning.

Co-op students seated at a table in a work-integrated learning experience

“The AAA, P.E.A.R. and FRTF frameworks underpin everything we do at CEE,” says Dr. Norah McRae, associate provost, CEE. “By starting here, we can ensure we deliver high-impact WIL programs and experiences to help future-proof our students.”

As part of HEQCO’s Skills Consortium, Work-Learn Institute (WxL) researchers found students who participated in WE Accelerate were more confident in their critical thinking and teamwork skills after their first term. Similarly, participants from the WE Accelerate pilot were employed at a higher rate and earlier in their second work term than participants without previous work experience. On average, compared to non-participants, more WE Accelerate participants reported high pay satisfaction and that their jobs fit their skills and academic training.

CEE is now adapting the innovative model of the WE Accelerate pilot program for several new initiatives, including graduate, adult and intergenerational work-integrated learning opportunities. These new initiatives follow the WE Accelerate model of career development, upskilling, project-based learning and reflection.

CEE has recently partnered with WatSPEED, the University's professional education unit, to build a customized WIL experience to meet the needs of adult learning that is funded by Palette Skills and the Government of Canada.

CEE has decades of experience building strong relationships with employers and industry leaders. By engaging with that network of employers, CEE sources suitable projects for participants to apply their newly developed skills. With WE Accelerate, participants work in a group setting for a real-world industry client to complete a project.

“Using WE Accelerate’s career development, skill development and project-based learning model, we are infusing work-integrated learning into courses for different learners,” McRae says. “The model is an innovation engine that allows us to curate a mix of professional development and project-specific skills to support learners, of various age groups, through their WIL experience.”