Innovation by Design

Fall 2002

Seniors solve real-world problems with teamwork

Quick—how long does it take 35 Whiting School students to crack a dozen conundrums in mechanical engineering? “Exactly 31 weeks,” says Senior Lecturer Andrew F. Conn ’57, ’59 MSE, ’64 PhD. “It’s not a lot of time.”

Indeed, the clock is ticking from that first day in September when seniors in the Whiting School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering file into his Senior Design Project course. Conn, who has been leading (or as he would say, “managing”) the two-semester capstone course for more than a dozen years, has refined the process down to a fine science. “Over the years, we’ve evolved a method and understanding of what the students need to do,” he says. “At this point, we’ve got a very good batting average.”

Even so, stepping up to the plate in this game can be daunting at first, for the ultimate goal of the class is to solve real-world engineering problems—ones that have real-world engineers stumped. And to solve them, the students must team up into highly functional two- or three-person workgroups that meet at least two hours (and always more) a week. They must collaboratively create a design solution, then actually fabricate a working model that is accompanied by a highly detailed and professionally written report (usually an inch or so thick). And finally, they must present all of this work in a precisely rehearsed formal session before a panel of seasoned engineers. All in 31 weeks? It’s not a lot of time.

Welcome to the Real World

“I tell the students from the start that we’re going to get as close to a real-world experience as possible,” says Conn. During the first few class meetings, each of the project sponsors—the industrial firms and organizations he recruited—makes a presentation outlining the particular engineering need in question. Students then indicate their project choices, while Conn interviews each student to develop an individual skills profile. By weighing their respective strengths with their project preferences, along with what he believes each project will need, Conn creates his twoor three-person teams. Mechanical Engineering faculty members are assigned as advisors for projects, based on their expertise. Then the real work begins.

The teams devote the fall semester to developing their conceptual solutions and preliminary designs. Each team consults with a contact engineer from its project’s sponsor, and provides Conn with weekly in-person updates “on the big picture.” The teams are assisted by Curt Ewing, the department’s director of undergraduate labs, and by John Woomer, department machinist. The seniors must develop a working budget for purchasing the necessary materials—tools, parts, software, and other equipment—as well as travel, phone calls, and machining time. A base contribution of $10,000 per project, paid by the sponsor, covers these costs.

Conn makes his expectations clear from the start. The dynamics of the senior project teams demand the highest level of professional responsibility from every team member. “I think the teamwork experience is the toughest aspect of the project for them,” says Conn. “They have to delegate the work to each other, divide up duties, schedule each other, and interact with management—which is me—and the client.”

Working for Results

After a December progress report to their sponsors, the student teams shift into high gear for the spring semester. That’s when each team constructs and tests a prototype, and produces that final presentation. At this point, the machining sparks are flying—“They are actually modifying, improving, changing, or creating a device or system,” notes Conn. Then, by mid-May, it’s suddenly over. The teams have completed their projects and reports, made their formal presentations before sponsors and faculty, and can catch their collective breath for the first time in months.

“Our students are very bright human beings who are capable of doing amazing things, but who need the guidance and practice in professional standards. So all of their experiences figure into what I call being a professional engineer,” says Conn. “I teach them that hard work doesn’t count, results are all—that’s all your clients care about.”

In terms of results, the Senior Design Project class always seems to produce a bumper crop. Several team projects have led to patents and intellectual property, while others have formed the basis for later solutions created by sponsors. The Whiting School’s summary of its past successes includes these examples:

  • Childproof window guard: This device, to prevent children from falling out of high windows, is not operable by young children but can be opened by parents or firefighters. It also includes a burglaralarm system.
  • A device to simulate micro-gravity in space: Containing a rotating apparatus suitable for a variety of experiments, it could be flown on a space shuttle mission in about two years.
  • Playground lift for handicapped kids: Powered by a single SCUBA diving tank, it enables a child in a wheelchair, along with a caregiver, to gain access to elevated playground equipment, such as a slide.
  • Thermocouple removal/insertion device: With this slim tool, Baltimore Gas & Electric technicians can reach deep down and take out the broken temperature monitors of bearings on steam turbines and other large rotating machinery.
  • Sawdust collector for a circular saw: After students redesigned the blade housing and added a container, this collector can capture over 90 percent of the sawdust from a handheld power saw.
  • An improved peristaltic pump: This device uses a series of gently squeezing electromagnetic fingers to minimize the fatigue failure of plastic or rubber tubing in such pumps.

The Bridge to Professionalism

For Associate Dean Andrew S. Douglas, senior projects are an essential component of a Hopkins degree in mechanical engineering. “These projects are absolutely vital,” says Douglas, “because they form the bridge between the fundamental training for professionalism that we give students here, and the realities of practicing engineering in the industry, where different kinds of constraints come into play. The experience stretches the student in many ways to develop a completely new set of skills, but ones that will be absolutely critical to them in the workforce.”

Each Senior Design Project class, says Douglas, “exceeds by a wonderful margin” the requirements of the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, which reviews the Mechanical Engineering program for professional acceptability.

Conn agrees. While senior project courses can be found at all major engineering schools, the Hopkins version is still “one of the best,” he believes. “We are small enough to give students a lot of personal attention,” he notes. “We do not cut them loose; we manage them. And we’re surrounded by a region with good companies that provide great project work. So we’re blessed in ways that allow us to give our students a very rich experience.”