Designing their futures

Senior capstone course gives an entree into the professional world

As a freshman, Alex King had doubts about whether she really wanted to be an engineer — it seemed like nothing but math, especially in the first few semesters.

But by the time she and three other mechanical engineering majors teamed up for their senior capstone design course, all that math paid off — and the lightbulb came on — as they worked together to solve a real-world problem for an industrial manufacturer.

“You have to be patient and stick it out,” says King, an Enoree, South Carolina, native who is anticipating a job offer ahead of May graduation. “The math and the other foundational courses help you when you get to the challenging parts of engineering.”

Challenging is probably an apt word to describe the College of Engineering and Computing’s senior capstone design course, a required two-semester sequence that often has students rubbing elbows with industrial partners.

It might be a manufacturer looking to improve the efficiency or ergonomics of an existing system or perhaps a product development issue that needs tweaking. Occasionally, a business might have a novel idea but not the bandwidth to further its development. “They might just want to see what our students can come up with to advance the idea,” says Andrew Sabalowsky, a mechanical engineering instructor who helps coordinate the senior capstone design courses.

Seniors in each of the college’s disciplines — computer science, biomedical, civil and environmental, chemical, computer, electrical and mechanical — complete the capstone design courses, and there are plans to grow the program.

A value-added proposition

Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing, has a vision for expanding the capstone courses by finding more corporate partners to sponsor them. Eventually, he wants to construct an innovation center in the university’s former biomass energy building near the Swearingen Engineering Center, turning it into a large lab and collaboration space for students, mentors and entrepreneurs.

“There’s a lot of value in what our students generate in these capstone courses,” Haj-Hariri says. “For our corporate partners, it’s a phenomenal return on their investment. They usually get a good solution to their engineering problems, and they essentially get to interview a group of students for nine months. That’s a good opportunity for the companies and for our students.”

In 2017-18, 53 senior capstone design courses were funded by corporate partners, who covered basic costs associated with the projects. For the 2018-19 academic year, the college hopes to have 90 sponsored projects for seniors and perhaps twice that many in the next few years, Haj-Hariri says. With 3,200 undergraduates, the college must continue finding new partners who want to work with students.

For our corporate partners, it’s a phenomenal return on their investment. They usually get a good solution to their engineering problems, and they essentially get to interview a group of students for nine months. That’s a good opportunity for the companies and for our students.

Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean, College of Engineering and Computing

“With software and prototyping tools like 3D printing, we have capabilities that would have been impossible even 10 years ago,” he says. “The capstone design program is helping us build relationships that persist with corporate partners. It’s a nice ecosystem, and eventually the corporate partner participants will pay enough into the program to sustain it.”

Haj-Hariri points to the Global Supply Chain and Operations Management program in the Moore School of Business, which over time has developed a steady stream of business partners who pay an annual fee in return for student teams taking on logistical projects. “We’re not going to charge the same type of fees,” he says, “but our partners need to have some investment in these projects; they won’t be committed to something if there’s no cost to them.”

Lessons learned

Back in the lab, King and her student partners spent long days and evenings thinking through manufacturing equipment modifications needed by AGY, an industrial firm that makes high-strength glass fibers. The company sought assistance in solving a production-line issue that involved modifying an important piece of equipment. By March, the students felt they had a solution in hand that met the company’s design criteria and cost parameters.

“We learned a lot about the process of coming up with a new part,” says Brooks Wilhelm of Baltimore, Maryland. “It seemed at first like we could just come up with a solution right away. But the further we got into it, the more we realized just how exact everything had to be.”

Team leader Alejandro Rodriguez from West Columbia, South Carolina, says the project has involved more than calculations. “As an engineer, you have to consider what the workers’ needs are — in this case, safety is a big issue,” he says. “It’s opened my eyes to what engineering really is. I think I have an idea now what to expect when I’m out in the real world.”

For Syed Noor of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the capstone design project reinforced the idea of simplicity. “Sometimes the intricate design is not the best design,” he says. “The more you keep everything simple, the more cost efficient and time efficient it is. And if things go wrong, it’s usually easier to fix the simpler design.”

Pathway to professional careers

Cassandra Cook, a Wilmington, Delaware, native, led a team this year with three other biomedical engineering seniors to develop a mobile device app that can display blood oxygen levels and pulse on a smart phone or tablet.

The app could save money in home care settings, eliminating the need for expensive medical devices when continuous vital sign monitoring is necessary. The students’ project supported the research enterprise of computer science professor and associate dean Homayoun Valafar, whose own NIH- and NSF-sponsored work focuses on medical informatics and related fields.

“This project has roots in biomedical practice, but the execution of creating the application had a lot to do with computer science and electrical engineering, while having a large learning curve for the medical device industry,” says Cook, who will start a position after graduation in May with Omnicell, an automated health care solutions firm in San Francisco.

Team member Riley Meekins, who plans to work as an engineer for a few years before pursuing an MBA, says the project helped her develop better collaborative skills, which she says “make you a more appealing candidate in the application process and a more valuable member of a company.”

Olivia Coyle is headed to the UofSC School of Medicine this fall, and says the project taught her the value of compromise. “Not everyone will always agree on every detail, and without compromise nothing would be accomplished,” she says. “Our group focused on our ultimate goal and we all made a conscious effort to listen to and value each other's opinions equally as fellow engineers.”

The big picture

The objectives of the senior capstone design course are about more than meeting the technical demands of a project and learning to work as a team. Students are learning the soft skills of the business world, Sabalowsky says.

“First, they go to the industrial site and wrap their brains around the problem at hand, and then they interact with a professional engineer at the company repeatedly, over the course of two semesters, who is very busy and needing results. They quickly realize they have to bring their A-game,” Sabalowsky says. “Students learn to be more professional in their emails and hone their presentation skills. In general, they’re learning how to function in the professional world.

“These are skills not specifically taught through curriculum, but vital to their abilities to gain and maintain employment. This opportunity polishes and prepares them in ways no classroom experience can, to ideally set them up for successful careers.”

Become a partner

All Engineering and Computing capstone design projects are brought to the university through a business and industry team that confirms the project framework will bond the students’ coursework and experience while ultimately supplying a real-life work opportunity. For more information about bringing a project to capstone design, contact Abdel Bayoumi, associate dean for corporate relations, 803-777-1845, Tanja van Tooren, industrial coordinator for Capstone Projects, 803-576-6627, or Danielle Gadow, administrative coordinator, 803-777-9596.