Engineering capstone projects to get an added dose of reality by Linda Fresques

Taking a cue from industry, New Mexico State University’s College of Engineering is taking a long-standing requirement of graduation and creating a unique real-world learning experience to better prepare students.

Capstone projects are the culminating experience of all engineering undergraduates’ academic life, giving them an opportunity to apply the knowledge gained through coursework to solve a problem through engineering design. Teams of seniors collaborate on projects in the fall and spring semesters of their final year.

Industry partners and employers are increasingly seeking more than pure engineering knowledge: business and communication skills and the ability to work in interdisciplinary group settings are also highly desired. 

College of Engineering Dean Lakshmi Reddi has envisioned several changes to the capstone experience at NMSU, beginning with industry-driven projects.

“The idea is to form a partnership between academia and industry. We want to have students work on real-world projects that solve problems.  The experience won’t be hypothetical anymore,” said Reddi. “You can’t give a student more valuable experiential learning than challenging them to find a solution to a real problem.”

With the recent naming of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Gabe Garcia as the interim director of the capstone programs, development of industry partnerships is already underway. Garcia recently met with industry representatives from Raytheon, Motorola and Honeywell to discuss funding opportunities and structure of the capstone projects needed to meet industry requirements. 

“Industry participants in the interdisciplinary capstone projects will benefit greatly because it gives them early access to top engineering students who are about to graduate, provides a new perspective on a problem they want solved, increases their visibility at NMSU and surrounding community, and provides access to college resources and faculty expertise,” said Garcia.

Garcia’s next step will be working with industry to help identify potential projects and developing the support structure at the college level for the interdisciplinary projects.

NMSU mechanical engineering alumna Terry Lockwood is a strong proponent. “Since the projects provided by industry, government or the national laboratories will be challenges that these organizations currently face, they will reap the benefit of fresh and creative perspectives that the students bring to the project and to the solution,” said Lockwood, who works in the Office of Ethics and Compliance at Motorola Solutions.

A second important component of making capstone projects more attuned to real-life experience is to make them interdisciplinary, requiring students majoring in a variety of engineering disciplines to work together.

“It’s not productive for students to work in their own silos,” said Reddi. “They will be unpleasantly surprised when entering the workforce because engineering problems are always multidisciplinary. For example, the civil engineer working on a bridge will likely have to work with electrical engineers to develop sensors and track the wear and tear of the bridge. A mechanical engineer will need the assistance of an electrical engineer to develop the communication system for an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

Reddi hopes to expand on this approach further to engineering education to shape the degree offerings in the college, adding majors such as advanced manufacturing, energy engineering and software engineering.

“These are all interdisciplinary fields,” said Reddi. “We need to change the scope of our programs to meet industry and workforce needs. We need to develop cluster areas that address the requirements of industrial needs.”

The third part of the capstone transformation calls for the design activity to be integrated throughout the curriculum, beginning at the freshman level instead of introducing the capstone project during a student’s senior year.

“Freshman students won’t have all the knowledge to fully comprehend and develop a project. They will move from the elementary to the complex, gradually refining as they go. They will have developed a portfolio documenting a fully developed project by the time they graduate,” said Reddi.

Completing these hands-on experiential capstone projects requires that students have access to equipment, software and materials. It is the good fortune of the NMSU College of Engineering to have three top-notch facilities in the form of the Aggie Innovation Space, the Manufacturing Technology Engineering Research Center and the Student Project Center.

“I’m very excited about our facilities,” said Dean Reddi. “Some of the schools that already have developed engineering design programs don’t have facilities as good as ours. Our challenge now is to package our facilities to be accessible to all students for college-wide, experiential design projects. These facilities are a huge asset.”

Another great asset is the level of support the college receives from industry partners, national laboratories and alumni. 

Said Lockwood, “I believe this program has the potential to greatly strengthen the NMSU College of Engineering’s partnerships with organizations that hire their graduates, along with providing resume-worthy, hands-on, real-world experience and training for students as they cap off their undergraduate tenure.”