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Switching Midstream, Floundering Early, and Tolerance for Ambiguity: How Capstone Students Cope with Changing and Delayed Projects

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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

The Best in DEED

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Kris Jaeger-Helton Northeastern University

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Professor Beverly Kris Jaeger-Helton, Ph.D. is on the full-time faculty in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University (NU) teaching Simulation Modeling and Analysis, Facilities Planning, and Human-Machine Systems. She is Director of the Galante Engineering Business Program as well as the Coordinator of Senior Capstone Design in Industrial Engineering at NU. She has also been an active member of Northeastern’s Gateway Team, a select group of teaching faculty expressly devoted to the first-year Engineering Program at NU. She also serves as a Technical Faculty Advisor for Senior Capstone Design and graduate-level Challenge Projects in Northeastern’s Gordon Engineering Leadership Program. Dr. Jaeger has been the recipient of numerous awards in engineering education for both teaching and mentoring and has been involved in several engineering educational research initiatives through ASEE and beyond.

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Bridget M. Smyser Northeastern University

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Dr. Smyser is an Associate Academic Specialist and the Lab Director of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

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Industry-sponsored projects are a staple of senior capstone design, and provide our advanced level students with valuable real-world experience. Because of the many players involved in an industrial-sponsored project, there are occasionally changes of scope or project goal adjustments that may occur midstream; this can be frustrating to students, despite best practices in selecting and vetting all project sources. Similarly, there have been research-based as well as industry-based projects that have been slow to launch, taking an inordinate amount of time in the first of the two capstone terms to solidify the problem. Recently, a Capstone offering at Northeastern University had a higher than usual number of projects (46%) which experienced substantial changes in topic or scope after a significant amount of work had been completed by the students. Others (~16%) were slow to launch due to logistics in connecting and/or onboarding with project sponsors, and required extra time to sufficiently define and scope their projects. While this situation created concern for the students, it also generated an opportunity for the capstone course directors to study student tolerance for ambiguity in design as well as other factors associated with resultant success levels. Some student teams rose to the challenges and accomplished successful projects, while others realized poor outcomes in terms of implementation and completeness of their solutions. Students were surveyed at the end of the first term of the sequence (Capstone 1) to determine what they were most proud of, what was surprising about Capstone, and they were also asked other questions designed to explore their attitudes and approaches toward the course and its content. Textual content analysis was used to determine major themes and reveal patterns that correlated with final project outcomes in Capstone 2. There was no statistical difference between prototype/success scores for teams who changed topics or launched later and those who did not at the p = .05 level. However, some clear differentiators did emerge. Teams whose topics changed or lagged and had high prototype scores reported being proud of their team flexibility, their project and time management abilities, and their positivity and preparedness. Teams whose topics changed or lagged and had low prototype scores were primarily proud of finishing the project, and reaching the finish line without reference to the quality of the outcome or personal growth. Looking back to the end of Capstone 1, low-scoring/low success teams were also surprised by the difficulty of the work, the vague nature of the problems, and the time investment, while those who earned high scores/had high success reported being pleasantly surprised by the amount of freedom and time they had to scope the problem and develop a solution. Developing early strategies for students to see open-ended and vaguely-scoped problems as an opportunity and a benefit, rather than a difficulty and a struggle, can accomplish several things: It can (a) help students whose projects have had major roadblocks to succeed; (b) provide perspective for faculty to reinforce the value of Capstone Design as a personal development opportunity; (c) offer opportunities for coordinators and advisors to explicitly outline the nature of the “capstone experience” thus distinguishing it from a standard course –before capstone, at the beginning, and during the capstone experience; (d) lead to improved outcomes for other industrial-sponsored and research-based projects; (e) inform curricular modifications in order to prepare engineers earlier in the undergraduate experience through more exposure to open-ended problems in their courses prior to Capstone.

Jaeger-Helton, K., & Smyser, B. M. (2017, June), Switching Midstream, Floundering Early, and Tolerance for Ambiguity: How Capstone Students Cope with Changing and Delayed Projects Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28895

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