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Improving Student Capstone Experience by Early Exposure and Engagement

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Teams, Capstone Courses, and Project Based-Learning

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

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Paper Authors


David E. Schmidt University of Pittsburgh

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Dr. David Schmidt is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering in the department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. His research interests are focused in the areas of computational simulation, additive manufacturing techniques and soft tissue biomechanics. He has broad industrial experience in materials processing, mechanical design and constitutive material model development. Dr. Schmidt is active is in the advancement of undergraduate education through the development of innovative active learning methods.

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Renee M. Clark University of Pittsburgh

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Renee M. Clark serves as research assistant professor focusing on assessment and evaluation within the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and its Engineering Education Research Center (EERC), where her interests focus on active and experiential learning. She has 25 years of experience as an engineer and analyst, having worked most recently for Walgreens and General Motors/Delphi Automotive in the areas of data analysis, IT, and manufacturing. She received her PhD in Industrial Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and her MS in Mechanical Engineering from Case Western while working for Delphi. She completed her postdoctoral studies in engineering education at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Improving Student Capstone Experience by Early Exposure and Engagement

Many students enter the capstone course with an incomplete understanding of the course format and often struggle with the open-ended nature of the experience. While students are eager to apply the their technical skills in a design environment, proficiency with professional skills can represent the greatest barrier to success. Well-formed planning, communication and team skills are often differentiating elements among the most successful project teams. The abstract nature of these abilities requires a contextual basis to effectively develop within a higher cognitive domain. While freshman and sophomore students are exposed to theses skills, the must be applied and reflected upon in an environment that is relevant to the mechanical engineering to fully mature. This study examines the introduction of a 1-credit hour course that exposes underclassman to relevant capstone professional skills and cultivates engagement of students across the program levels.

A 1-credit hour course was developed to compliment a single semester capstone course within a mechanical engineering department. This elective course was not required by the core curriculum and was recommended for undergraduates in the sophomore and junior years. Titled “Fundamentals of Engineering Projects”, the course addresses a broad range of subjects relevant to the mechanical engineering capstone experience including the development of design specifications, application of professional codes and standards, oral and written presentation techniques, prototyping and project management. The course parallels the on-going capstone course and offers a deeper treatment of topics discussed within the capstone. The intent of the course is to provide awareness early in the undergraduate program and establish a base of reference materials for use in the senior year. Developed with an active learning structure, the class meetings have three components; a brief lecture, an active learning exercise and mini-presentations presentations by current capstone students. The central objective of this framework is to engage the underclassman with capstone seniors, as their real-time example is provides an invaluable demonstration tool. In a flipped manner, underclassmen in the introductory course are invited to participate in key capstone exercises including a mid-semester peer-based design review. This engagement has far reaching benefits as the students involved enrich their own experience and become resources to pass information to their future capstone teams.

This study examines the impact of the elective introductory course and follows students throughout the sophomore, junior and senior years. Students, at varied stages in the curriculum, were interviewed to assess the effectiveness of the introductory course and the influence of early exposure to the capstone experience on their final project. Preliminary results suggest that sophomore and junior students value the engagement with seniors and are more productive within their own capstone work. Students comment that “hearing seniors talk about their capstone experience” is a key motivator for enrollment in the introductory course. Review of faculty capstone project assessments has shown a marked increase in the quality of senior projects since the adoption this new paradigm. The paper will also include reflections of industry professional reviewers involved in the capstone project.

Schmidt, D. E., & Clark, R. M. (2017, June), Improving Student Capstone Experience by Early Exposure and Engagement Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28491

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