The newest iteration of work-integrated learning at Western has transformed how London, Ont., tech start-up interVal mentors its people and how seven other companies in the city do business.
And the novel aspect of this newest partnership is that, this time, second- and third-year students were the sparkplug of industry-helping ideas.
More than 1,000 liberal-arts students spent some of their term problem-solving with eight industry partners as part of a pilot program supported by the Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER), London’s TechAlliance, RBC Future Launch, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.
In work-integrated learning, students gain experience in teamwork and problem-solving, while partner companies gain insights about pressing questions they want to address.
Western’s goal is for every graduating student to have had at least one such experience.
Most often, that has meant co-ops or internships for fourth-year students before they graduate.
“The idea here is to give students an opportunity to collaborate with industry in their second or third year at Western so they can be exposed to companies they might not have considered, and careers that might not have crossed their mind,” said Heather Wakely, team lead for experiential learning.
Wakely said many of the partners in business – and they welcome others – are Western alumni.
“This has the potential to be a significant part of the experiential learning framework we’re looking to build.”
With research and writing ranging from two to 10 weeks, projects included studies in mental health, environmental monitoring, workplace accessibility, virtual tourism and the challenges and benefits of using artificial intelligence for accounts payable.
Trevor Greenway, co-founder of interVal, knows liberal-arts students are capable. He graduated from Western with a degree in political science and never thought he would be running a tech start-up. “The skills are transferrable,” he said. “My degree taught me to think differently, to understand different thought processes and strategy and apply them to solving different problems as they arose.”
InterVal, which has developed software tools that help businesses with valuation, risk mitigation and management strategy, has quickly grown from just a few staff to 27. With that growth came the dilemma of how to ensure everyone felt welcomed and valued.
“I believe you have to foster a safe environment in which people can grow,” Greenway said.
So when TechAlliance and Western asked if Greenway would work with a team of students, he proposed they diagnose and prescribe a research-based framework for staff mentoring, from inside and outside the organization, and ways of measuring mentoring success.
Key elements of the report from second-year students in the industrial/organizational psychology course are now embedded in the company’s human resources strategic plan.
The scope and depth of the report far exceeded Greenway’s expectations. “It was unbelievably thorough. They really captured the essence of what we were looking for, which was fascinating because I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.”
For the students, it was an invaluable experience. “We got to see what it actually looks like to develop a white paper for a company on an issue that they needed help on. We got to apply the psychological research to it. I think that helps me focus where I want to go in my career,” said student Mason Bruner-Moore.
And because it was integrated into coursework, rather than an add-on, students both learned and shared what they learned, said fellow student Lena Marks. “It felt like we were really contributing to something larger than just general textbook content.”
Professor Bonnie Simpson, who teaches a course in market research, said one key advantage was the Western-TechAlliance partnership that created a good fit with the industry partner; in this instance, with Polar Imaging, a London firm that provides customized document digitization.
Simpson’s class scoured research to understand how the company could market an artificial-intelligence-guided accounts payable system.
Students discovered that learning how to dig for research could be not just relevant but important in the working world, Simpson said.
“Having an industry project helps students to connect with the value they can offer. They had a greater level of understanding and respect for what the course material could mean outside the classroom,” Simpson said.
“They just cared about it more than my telling them, ‘This will be important.’”
Looking to repeat
Funding for the project came from a grant from BHER, an organization that aims to create work-integrated-learning opportunities for every student, and to build greater capacity for industry and students to innovate together.
Valerie Walker, CEO of BHER, said, “BHER is thrilled that our partnership with Western is helping to create work-integrated learning experiences for students in the Arts & Humanities, Information & Media Studies, and Social Sciences, faculties that are traditionally under-represented in work-integrated learning.
“Crucially, Western students are gaining career exploration experience early in their degree programs that will help to prepare them for structured work experiences later in their degree pathway. Along the way, Western’s students gain real-world experience and develop skills, while local tech employers gain access to new ideas and new talent pipelines.”
The initial hope was that 500 students might participate; but more than double that number became part of the industry partnerships, said Karen Chalmers, vice-president of TechAlliance.
While this was a pilot project, the aim is to repeat and build on the experience.
“We would love to be able to bring this opportunity to more students and more industry partners in the future,” Chalmers said. “We really do see the value for students, professors and our industry partners to hone their skills, grow their companies, and be successful in the future.”
Walker said she “would like to see Western’s program become a model that can be expanded to other disciplines and post-secondary institutions.”