The Perfect Capstone Experience

ABET, formerly known as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, requires an integrative experience for all accredited programs. Specifically, according to

Baccalaureate degree programs must provide a capstone or integrating experience that develops student competencies in applying both technical and non-technical skills in solving problems.

To me, the key to this experience is the application of both technical and non-technical skills. Interestingly, when employers are asked to rank the importance of different skills for new workers, they generally focus on non-technical skills. In a recent survey of employers, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) ranked leadership; ability to work in a team; communication skills (written); problem-solving skills; communication skills (verbal); strong work ethic; and initiative, ahead of quantitative and technical skills in terms of importance.

This is why it is critical that students gain experience during their schooling, and why I champion co-ops and internships. However, if designed properly, the capstone experience that is required by ABET provides another opportunity to develop integrated technical and non-technical skills. The key ingredients to these capstone projects are:

  • Complex design problem defined by external stakeholder and faculty mentor.
  • Teams of interdisciplinary teams working towards a solution.
  • Significant and ongoing opportunities for written and oral communication between the student teams, mentor and stakeholder.

I truly believe that the best projects come from outside the ivory tower. This is not to say that a Professor cannot define a great project for a student team to tackle – surely they can. However, they cannot provide an “outsider’s perspective” on the provided solution. That is, if a problem is defined by an external stakeholder (i.e., company, government entity, non-profit agency, etc.) that has a vested interest in the solution, then the students will be required to communicate the development of the solution over time with that entity. This is an important skill for students to develop – even engineers have to learn to “sell” their solutions, to co-workers, administrators, and clients. Furthermore, this generally requires both written and oral communication. (Note: it is assumed that the design problem posed by an external stakeholder is properly vetted and scoped, and that a faculty mentor will also work with the team.)

Our Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program has been working with non-profit agencies for years through its Assistive Technology Program. Through these projects, students develop technological solutions for people in need (i.e., physical or learning disabilities, etc.). The program continues to grow in scope, with projects starting to reach beyond just ECE capabilities.

Other Departments work with external partners too. Our Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has completed projects with the Massachusetts State Police while our Mechanical Engineering Department has completed projects with the National Parks Association. ME has also partnered with Physics to work on satellite design projects for NASA.

Turning to industry for that “outsider’s viewpoint”, we launched a new Interdisciplinary Senior Design program two years ago with great success. This year, we ran 16, year-long projects for Computer, Electrical, Mechanical and Plastics Engineering majors with sponsors that included Analog Devices, BAE Systems, Brooks Automation, Dell EMC, MACOM, MKS Instruments, Nypro (A Jabil Company), Raytheon, Skyworks, Symbotic and UTC Aerospace Systems. In general, the students proposed a solution in the first semester (after significant research) and built a prototype in the second semester.

While the solutions were great, I was more excited about the ongoing communications during the semester. The student teams were required to write a memo each week, detailing the advances for the week, next steps, and current (or potential future) concerns. This provided a running development log (augmenting project management plans as well as student engineering notebooks) and introduced the concept of risk analysis to students (by forcing them to identify current or potential concerns). It also served as a basis for weekly discussions between the students, the stakeholder, and the faculty mentor.

In addition to the memos and engineering notebook logs, the students were required to write multiple reports, develop a summary poster, and deliver numerous presentations. The final presentations were delivered in front of all teammates, classmates, faculty advisors, and stakeholder liaison engineers. It was the perfect culminating experience to the capstone program for this year. And it illustrated that a properly defined and executed capstone design project can advance those skills identified by NACE to be highly desirable by industry.



Defeating Student Debt through Co-op

The New York Times published an interesting article by Meredith Kolodner this week, entitled “6 Reasons You May Not Graduate on Time.” The author consulted a number of higher education professionals to define the leading causes. I’d like to focus on the first cause listed, “Working Overtime.”

According to the article, about 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 hours per week or more. Informal surveys in our classes support this number. This is a noble endeavor, as the student’s goal is generally to pay for College, including tuition, fees and living expenses. As noted in an earlier blog, the average debt of a student is around $34,000 upon graduation. This average amount of student debt is up nearly 70 percent in the last decade, according to a recent article in the The Wall Street Journal.

The problem is that working nearly full-time makes it difficult for a student to complete the required number of credits each semester to graduate on-time. That is, instead of taking 15 credits or more in a semester, students take a lighter load so they can work more hours. (Taking less than 15 credits a semester is also noted as a cause of delayed graduation by Kolodner.) But the problem is actually worse than taking a reduced load – working so many hours outside of the classroom detracts from time that should be spent on homework, studies and projects. This reduced time to devote to studies can lead to poor, even failing, grades, which in turn leads to repeating classes. The cascading effects should be clear, as graduation is pushed out further and further into the future. Even if one can muddle through the program, GPAs can be destroyed, making it difficult to land that great job upon graduation.

If there ever was a case for co-op education, this is it. Let’s do the finances.

Let’s assume that you register for 12 credits per semester because you want to work 30 hours per week to pay for tuition and fees. You land a retail position paying minimum wage, or $11 per hour in Massachusetts, for a total of $330 per week, which will result in about $265 per week in take home pay. Over the course of one semester (roughly 16 weeks with exams), this will total $4240 of take home pay. Not bad – as over two semesters this will cover roughly 60% of the in state tuition and fees at UMass Lowell. Working full-time over the summer will cover the remainder.

But wait. Let’s assume for a minute that the work truly got in the way of studies, such that the 24 credits, already at least six shy of what is needed in a given year to graduate in four years, is really only 18 credits of work towards the degree, because you had to drop one class each semester. Those 12 credits (6 dropped and 6 not attempted) are now an additional semester on campus – wiping out nearly all the money earned over the year.

How about the co-op option? Take six months, and get a job in your field. In engineering, this can easily mean $20 per hour. At full time, this is $800 per week, or about $612 take-home per week. Let’s assume 22 weeks (need a little time off), such that the total take home pay is $13,464 – enough to cover one full year of tuition and fees (in state) at UMass Lowell (with a few dollars left over). For the other six months, you do not work, so you can take 18 credits during the semester and another 6-9 credits in the six week summer session, before you return to work. With no other distractions, odds are, you will complete those courses successfully.

The only tradeoff now is: do you want to graduate in four years? Or do you want to graduate debt free? If graduating in four years is important (and it is!), then the six-month position cannot be repeated (although an additional 3-month experience is possible) and summers are now dedicated to school. But the 9 months of work looks great on the resume and the roughly $20,000 earned will go a long way in paying down debt. If stretching the time to graduation is OK, then the six-month experience can be repeated numerous times, driving that debt down towards zero.

So, leave that barista job to someone else during the semester. Ace those classes, and land that great co-op job. The results will be evident in your pocket, and on your transcript.