Not 100% Online: Skills Labs and Fieldwork Experience

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How can you learn to be an occupational therapy assistant online? You can’t. A common misconception is that St. Catherine University’s OTA program is 100% online. While our students are able to listen to lectures, complete schoolwork, and go through modulations on their own time, they also complete hands-on skills labs and gain fieldwork experience with fellow students.

Although we offer programs in California, Virginia, and Texas, we have a number of students who live outside of those states and commute to complete their skills labs – adding a little more adventure to their curriculum. Discover how our skills labs and fieldwork experiences offer students in our online OTA program a bit more than the flexibility of studying online.

adding travel to the OTA curriculum

Where Online Learning Comes to Life

Skills labs are where it all comes together! Students in the OTA program apply what they’re learning online and practice their skills before working with real clients. In skills labs, you work with rehabilitation equipment and technology under the supervision of a registered occupational therapist (OTR) or a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA). You will learn skills in each of the following occupational therapy practice areas:

  • Children and youth
  • Health and wellness
  • Mental health
  • Productive aging
  • Rehabilitation and disability
  • Work and industry

Over the course of the program (which could be as few as 16 months), you will complete 8 scheduled skills labs. And the skills labs will never catch you off guard. Each 5-hour lab is scheduled into your OTA curriculum, so you know as soon as you start the program when and where every lab will take place. Knowing ahead of time is important for our students who commute to skills labs, especially since many do.

From Colorado to California

Michelle dreamed of becoming an OTA, but she lives in a small, rural town in central Colorado. The closest OTA school to her would have required a daily two-and-a-half hour commute each way. Being a mom of three young kids, Michelle realized there was no way she could spend more than five hours commuting to school. Parent or not, who would want to sacrifice so much time? Zealous about her career goal, she found our program.

“When I found St. Catherine University, I was relieved that I could pursue my dream of becoming an OTA and still be a mom and a wife,” she says.

Michelle is enrolled in our California program and her journey is quite interesting. For the skills labs, the only portion of the program that is not local, she drives three hours to Denver, Colorado, and catches a flight to San Diego.

“I make sure to bring my notes, text books, and my iPad with me on the plane so I can get some studying and reviewing done on the plane.”

She makes sure to fly in on Saturday, just in case there are weather or mechanical issues. After lab is over, she flies back Sunday night, stays the night in Denver and heads home on Monday. Though taxing, the commute sometimes doubles as a refresher for Michelle.

“After driving home, I enjoy my kids, do mundane tasks around the house, and plan out my next day’s study schedule,” she says. “In the long run, it’s worth it to me.”

Students like Michelle are not uncommon in our program. St. Catherine University students travel from all over the country to attend skills labs. Some travel from Florida to Virginia, from Alaska to California, from New Jersey to Virginia and many more places. All of these students have one goal – to become a certified occupational therapy assistant as soon as possible.

Why Fieldwork Is Like an Internship


Fieldwork is another opportunity for OTA students to put what they’re learning online into practice – only, in this instance, on real people. This is probably why many of our students view fieldwork as an internship. Fieldwork not only offers real-life experience, but it also offers exposure to potential employers.

What is usually the hardest thing about starting a new job? Adjusting to how everything works. People can often handle the job they were hired for, but it’s figuring out the little things that takes time. For example:

  • What’s the process for tracking progress?
  • How exactly will you work with the registered occupational therapist?
  • How do you request paid time off?
  • Who do you go to with questions?

These things, though seemingly small, can impact the relationships and dynamic of your work environment, and can affect how much you enjoy working for an employer.

Now, imagine that you already know the answers to those questions when you are offered a new job.  It would make it easier to accept the job and take some of the stress away on your first day. Every facility has their own system, but fieldwork gives you a chance to see the ins and outs at a wide variety of places. You get to familiarize yourself with not only the job, but also the facility.

Fieldwork in Your Community

Unlike St. Catherine’s skills lab, fieldwork does not have to be completed in California, Texas, or Virginia. Students can complete fieldwork in their local community. The primary objective of fieldwork is for you to get comfortable with practicing occupational therapy. The people you meet during your fieldwork experience – clients and colleagues – are all vital to helping you become the best OTA you can be. During your fieldwork, you will complete a specific amount of time practicing each area of occupational therapy. When your fieldwork ends, you will have worked:

  • 40 hours with individuals with developmental disabilities
  • 40 hours with the aging population
  • 320 hours in a psychosocial setting (mental health)
  • 320 hours in a setting with individuals who have physical disabilities

Students complete their fieldwork in clinics, assisted nursing facilities, schools, and other creative occupational therapy facilities; some of our students have even worked with animals! At the end of your fieldwork experience, you will be an entry level occupational therapy assistant. You will also be thoroughly prepared to sit for the national certification exam for OTAs, administered by the NBCOT.

If you have a desire to work in the diverse and growing field of occupational therapy, contact our admissions team today.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained