Experiential Learning Opportunities

For small and medium businesses and non-profits with limited HR capacity and finances, EL can be greatly beneficial to your organization without taxing your resources.

There are many different types of hands-on learning, and determining which format best suits your needs will help create a positive and productive partnership. Here are some questions to consider.

  • What are your goals and motivations for this partnership?
  • Do you have the capacity to host a student in the workplace?
  • Can you offer a paid or unpaid experience?
  • How long would you like this partnership to last?
  • Do you have a specific project or challenge you need help with?
  • Do you require job- or industry-specific skills?

Here are some EL opportunities you could choose to engage in, along with some considerations to keep in mind as you pursue them.

Internships, Co-ops and Work Placements

The most common and recognizable forms of experiential learning are those in which a student works day-to-day in a particular organization, carrying out the responsibilities of a regular employee but with closer supervision and support to help them refine their skills and experience different roles in their chosen field or industry. There are three types of workplace learning: internships, co-ops and work placements. While all of these opportunities involve bringing a student into the workplace, they are slightly different in their structure, purpose and outcomes.

Internships are usually paid, full-time opportunities to work with an employer for anywhere between four to sixteen months. They are typically not a requirement for students to complete their degree programs, but many universities work with external partners to develop and advertise internship opportunities to students as a way of gaining work experience, providing summer employment and continuing to develop their skills and knowledge in their area of study. Most internships happen before a student’s final year of study, and although some organizations do offer unpaid internships, it is best practice to pay students for this type of full-time work.

Co-operative education placements, known more commonly as co-ops, are paid four to eight month work experiences that students must complete as a requirement for finishing their degree program. Co-ops are most common in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, though other programs do offer them. Co-ops are skills-driven, meaning that students may be placed in a variety of different roles at different organizations so long as they relate to their program of study. Often, co-ops work on an interval system, with students alternating between school and paid co-op experiences every four to eight months.

Work placements, often referred to as practicums, field experience or clinical placements, are opportunities for students to transfer what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to the workplace. They are typically role-driven, meaning that students are placed in specific jobs that they are training for, such as nursing, social work or early childhood education. These placements can be paid or unpaid, but are usually always for course credit and are requirements for completing a degree and/or gaining certification from an external professional body regulating their chosen profession.

Key considerations:

  • Can you offer paid work experience to students?
  • Do you have the HR capacity to facilitate the additional supervision and management of the student that these experiences require?
  • Are you able to deal with the scheduling complexities of these experiences, such as the “four-months-on, four-months-off” nature of co-ops?
  • For co-ops and work placements in particular, many employers choose to engage in a longer partnership with universities, hosting multiple students over time. Is this a commitment you are interested and able to make?
  • Does the opportunity require the approval of any professional or regulatory body outside of the university?


Hackathons allow students develop workable solutions to a technology, policy, business or design problem for partnering organizations, supported by mentors or peers. While hackathons originated in computer science and engineering, they are now common across a broad range of disciplines and sectors, and are used by businesses, non-profits, governments and civil society to develop innovative solutions to complex problems.

Hackathons can provide organizations with novel and fresh perspectives on their challenges, while giving students an exciting opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to real world problem solving.  

Depending on their length and format, some hackathons can be time and resources intensive, so it is important to ensure that you have the capacity to commit fully to the project.

Key considerations:

  • Do you have a specific challenge facing your organization that you can pose as a problem statement for students to work on?
  • Do you have a space to host the hackathon? Some hackathons happen over a few weeks, while others happen in a more compressed timeframe, such as a full day.
  • Are you able or willing to offer mentors to students as they work on this challenge?
  • What is a desirable outcome? Do you want concrete solutions to your problem or do you want ideas to take away for further consideration?
  • Are you able to offer a prize or compensation to the students for their efforts?

In-class projects

Another way to benefit from experiential learning partnerships is by working with students in a class on a project related to your business, industry or organization. This can look like business students providing consulting services to small businesses, or design students proposing re-brand options to a local non-profit organization. In all cases, the project is directly connected to the students’ learning outcomes, and forms part of their final assessment in their class.

Key considerations:

  • Do you not have the capacity to solve this problem on your own? Is there technical know-how that is lacking in your organization? Do you simply want to give back to the community?
  • Can you commit the time and resources from your organization for the length of the project?
  • Do you want options and ideas, or do you want a concrete solution to a tangible problem you’re facing?
  • Ask if the project you are proposing fits comfortably with other aspects of the curriculum for the course. Working closely with the professor, teaching assistants and EL department staff can ensure there is alignment between course content and your desired outcomes.
  • Remember that universities have their own application processes for partnering with external organizations.
  • Be sure to understand the terms under which you can sever a partnership agreement early with the students and/or class.
  • Some in-class projects that partner with external organizations do not ask or require you to participate in assessing the students’ performance. If they do, be sure to understand what your role and responsibilities are as they relate to the grading process of student work.
  • How will you recognize the students for their work? Many small- and medium-sized businesses and non-profit organizations do not have the financial means to compensate students for in-class project work. But recognizing them in other ways, such as reference letters, inviting them to present to your Board or employees, or other small gestures of gratitude will be greatly appreciated.


In a fast-changing labour market, many universities are emphasizing entrepreneurship as an important aspect of academic experience. To thrive and be successful in the new, disruptive world of work, students need to be nimble and adaptable, and many EL opportunities place a strong focus on entrepreneurship skills that are invaluable regardless of whether students pursue a path of self-employment.

Entrepreneurship EL is most commonly associated with campus “incubators” or “accelerators”, where students apply their academic training and skills toward developing products, meeting new consumer demands or solving business challenges with the help of industry professionals and mentors.

Key considerations:

  • Are you able to commit the time and resources to be a mentor to students? Mentoring students through entrepreneurship EL opportunities is often a medium- to long-term commitment.
  • Some entrepreneurship opportunities can directly benefit you while others accrue most benefit to the student. Talk with EL department or incubator staff about your expectations and goals.
  • Explore different incubators and accelerators. While these concepts began in tech spaces, they are now firmly established in disciplines like design, fashion, communication, business and social innovation.
  • Be sure to clearly understand legal rights and responsibilities, particularly as it pertains to Intellectual Property (IP).
  • Ensure you understand the terms under which you can sever a partnership agreement early with the students and/or incubator.

Community-driven or industry-sponsored research

An excellent way for students to gain hands-on work experience during their academic studies is through research projects sponsored by external organizations. Sometimes this research is sponsored by a for-profit organization that wishes to partner on research and development initiatives, while other times it is sponsored by non-profits, community organizations or public agencies without the capacity to carry out research themselves.

Key considerations:

  • Sponsoring research means committing time, human resources and sometimes money toward the research project.
  • Be sure to work with EL department staff and/or course instructors to draft a clear and accountable research and data transfer agreement.
  • Maintaining academic freedom and integrity is crucial to students, professors and universities. You cannot attempt to influence or direct the outcome of any research project you sponsor.
  • Understand any roles or responsibilities you may have in the assessment of students’ work should the research count toward academic credit.
  • If the research is being hosted in your organization, be sure to have any required liability insurance and understand all your legal rights and obligations.
  • Establish clear expectations for the student researchers from the very start, including the final product and deadlines. Have a mutually agreed-upon and understood mechanism to stop the research should it the quality not meet your expectations, if there are any accidents or if there are potential conflicts of interests or ethics violations being raised.

Performance and Artistic Opportunities

Students in fine arts, performance and design programs can bring a wealth of creativity, energy and unique skills to many organizations. Art and design programs are very practical disciplines, and increasingly, employers are seeing the value of working with students in these programs to gain unique insights, develop new products and find novel ways of communicating with their members, clients and communities. The most common forms of experiential learning for art and design students involve performance or artistic productions, such as putting on a play or an exhibition of paintings, but there are many other ways to engage these students as well.

Art and design students are ideal for the creative needs of many businesses and non-profits, and can be brought on in a variety of roles and projects. Graphic design, copy-writing, marketing, promotions and community outreach are just a few of the work experiences students in creative disciplines excel at.

Key considerations:

  • Are you able to offer paid work experience?
  • Creative professionals are often undervalued and underpaid for their work. If you are unable to pay students, consider other kinds of recognition or compensation.
  • Think outside the box: where would the skills of art students – creativity, writing, communication, performance – meet your needs and address your challenges?
  • Remember that students in creative fields use portfolios like resumes: can the projects or work you are giving them contribute to that showcase of their talent?
  • Give students creative license, this is their value proposition! For example, if you need help with graphic design, allow the student to show you their original ideas, instead of simply asking them to drop things into pre-design templates.

Service Learning

Holistically integrating course material, classroom instruction, faculty guidance and hands-on work, service learning involves students in a wide range of experiences that have a broader benefit to their communities, while advancing the learning outcomes of their course or program. Service learning closely links theory and practice, allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of abstract course concepts through practical experiences with their communities.

Service learning is not paid, instead placing a strong emphasis on the values of leadership, volunteerism, civic participation and responsibility to community. These experiences bring students in and out of the classroom throughout the semester, engaging them with community members and organizations who serve as co-educators in their course. An example of service learning would be information science students working to develop a literacy program for their local library, working closely with staff and other community groups to develop the program, and then collaboratively pilot it with their partners.

Key considerations:

  • Though unpaid, consider your ability to meet the expectations that service learning requires from partners around engagement and involvement.
  • Since theoretical content and practical experience are closely linked in service learning, you will have to work with faculty to develop and plan the course well in advance of the course starting.
  • Service learning partners are seen as co-educators in this experience, it is important that you understand your roles and responsibilities when it comes to guidance, supervision, instruction and evaluation of students.

Connect with EL Staff

There are other forms of experiential learning not listed above that might work best for your organization’s priorities and needs. The best way to know which EL opportunity to pursue is to rely on the expertise of EL department staff, who have a wealth of experience working with students, professors, employers, non-profits and community organizations to facilitate mutually beneficial and productive EL partnerships.

The best way to get the help you’re looking for is to quickly and easily connect with the EL department at your local university through our Propel Portal.