Training the Next Crop

Crop of engineers that is. I’ve been thinking a lot about senior projects lately. The way my own school works, being not on the semester system, is a 12-13 week program split over a couple terms. About 50% of the projects coming in are from the school itself, research based, and more than likely medical in nature. The other 50% come from industry but the vast majority from the Navy. We have a local facility that is kind of like its own DARPA in creative and research based endeavors.

The projects have varied widely. Some were bioengineering based where students were asked to design a machine that would measure a very specific amount of blood to verify another machine was working properly. They ended up with a setup of capillary tubes and using a microscope-camera and labview to measure pixels that once properly calibrated would measure the volume of fluid. Another project was a small robot (a highly popular project) that was asked to do a number of complicated things for a possible future Army project. Others were reagent dispensing devices for underwater testing and a camera in a dome with cooling devices that would be installed near a solar array to see what kind of sun the array was getting.

Some were highly software involved and others (my own) entirely mechanical with our major suppliers so far being The Home Depot and a local arts and crafts store. Skills that I have used on my project: a little welding, a lot of glueing and duct tape, a fair amount of sewing.

At the same time I have watched a project at another (perhaps more prestigious, though less research oriented) school be managed by my company. Their project has a total span of approximately¬†seven months and four months in it they’ve yet to build anything. Though so far my superiors are highly pleased with the results of their plans and designs. They were charged with making a test stand for one of our pieces of hardware as well as brainstorm and build an alternate design for one component of the hardware that gives us trouble. It’s a pretty big project and I think wouldn’t fit into the timeline at my school.

Given my work experience I didn’t trouble myself too much about the seeming simplicity of the project I have had to work on. It just doesn’t sound impressive or “cool”. It could potentially be very useful, and there is a lot of human factors engineering that goes into it. But that’s not the same thing as a robot now is it. The way my school works you are obliged to build a robot earlier in your senior classes as well as extensive senior labs in all the topics they want you to go over again (wind tunnel, controls, and of course a circuit design lab because apparently sparkies run the world).

So I wonder what the tradeoff is between a very lengthy and potentially very sizeable senior project versus what comes across as a very short one. I’ve also been wondering if I was given the opportunity with my influence at work to sponsor a 12 week project at my old school what suggestions I would have. Everything I can think of is on the side of too easy or too difficult. How important is a senior project to the rest of one’s career? What skills are important to teach students and how can companies benefit by getting involved in these programs?

3 responses to “Training the Next Crop”

  1. GEARS

    I’m almost sure someone’s going to say the exact opposite of what I say, but my senior design project had a profound impact on my career. It led to a summer stint at a company, before pursuing a MS, where I realized I wanted to be a professor, so I then when for my PhD.

    For the company I worked for, I help design and develop two products which are (as far as I know), valuable sources of income for a relatively small startup <10 people.

    For the money they invested, and the effort I put in (my project would be considered more challenging) I think it was hugely beneficial for both parties.

  2. An old engineer

    If I were to put together a senior project for a bunch of undergraduates, I’d make it where the students have to think about what you’re trying to accomplish. After all, nothing is the real world is straight forth. So, why put together a project where you spoon feed the engineering amobeas of the world.

    Design a project where you can’t google it to find examples of what other people did. Make people think of what they need to do, how to do it, how to plan to do it, and ask themselves, can you even do it.

    Far too many people don’t have any idea of how to get things done. IMHO, the main purpose of a engineer is to find real world solutions to real work problems. Since the beginning of time, engineers have build remarkable structures and machines without the use of calculators, computers, and desktop CAD stations.

  3. Miss MSE

    I’m still a young’un, but to chime in as the opposite of GEARS: my senior design project has had no clear impact on my career trajectory. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the group I worked with, and the experience overall taught me valuable skills that may come in handy later, and helped refine my writing skills. The impact of my project was much more closely related to my advisor than my topic.