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David Bohnhoff: Making the Capstone Experience all it can be

All Agricultural Engineering majors are required to enroll in BSE 501 and BSE 502. These 2-credit courses (taught in the fall and spring semesters, respectively) are commonly referred to as the "capstone" or "senior design" courses. The primary objective of the courses is to give seniors a design experience that integrates their undergraduate education. In addition to actual design work, students are given formal instruction in the design process, as well as lectures that help prepare them for the professional work environment. The latter includes such lecture topics as engineering ethics, professional registration, time management, continuing education, leadership, teamwork, finding an employment match, and legal aspects of engineering.

The capstone courses continue to evolve. Prior to the fall of 1995, the capstone experience consisted of a single 3-credit course taught during the spring semester. This arrangement was stressful to both the instructor and the students, as a substantial amount of time was required to make the experience meaningful. Under the current arrangement, the two semester-long courses are treated as a single 4-credit two-semester course. Lectures for both courses are scheduled simultaneously in late summer, and work on student design projects continues uninterrupted from fall to spring semesters.

BSE 501 and 502 are both scheduled to meet for 1 hour on Tuesday and 2 hours on Thursday. Lecturing is done on both Tuesday and Thursday during the first 3 weeks of class, after which Thursday is reserved for "design meetings" and lecturing is subsequently limited to Tuesday. Lectures in the first portion of the course are dedicated to the design process (i.e., problem definition, specification writing, information retrieval, market research, creativity, decision making, analysis considerations, cost estimating, etc.) and are intended to provide students with the tools necessary for successful design.

Each student must select a design project by the 5th class meeting. This gives students two full weeks to make a decision, which is generally sufficient time to make an informed choice. Students can choose from a project list provided by the instructor, or they may develop their own project (subject to approval by the instructor). The instructor-supplied list consists of projects obtained during a summer solicitation of fellow faculty members and practicing engineers. [A word of warning when soliciting projects: some practitioners like to forward design problems that they themselves have had difficulty solving. Such projects generally do not make good senior design projects.] It is not a requirement that students work in teams, although they are strongly encouraged to do so. To this end, it should be noted that most of the student-proposed projects are not team projects. In other words, students who come up with their own project generally desire to work alone. Experience has shown that these students are generally the most self-motivated, and forcing them to include fellow students on their project generally results in a very dysfunctional team.

Beginning the third week of the fall semester (and ending the last week of the spring semester) a formal design meeting is held every week for each design project. Although these meetings are primarily intended to serve as brainstorming sessions, they are also used to review the previous week's work, and to organize/assign future work. "Experts" are often invited for input, and occasionally, field trips are taken. Specific meeting times and locations are established by the students (not all groups can meet with faculty during the regular scheduled class period on Thursday). The level of faculty involvement in these meetings varies throughout the year. During the first few design meetings, faculty need to assist in the organization and monitoring of work, and in the establishment of weekly work goals. This early assistance is required because most students are not familiar with the design process, and are a little unsure as to the amount of work expected by the faculty.

Individual-student projects require the involvement of at least one faculty member in all weekly design meetings. The individual student and faculty member form the critical mass required for brainstorming. Quite frequently, these meetings include two faculty members. Quite obviously, individual-student projects can require a substantial commitment of faculty time. Attempts to reduce this time commitment by combining two or more individual-student projects into the same weekly design meeting have not been very successful. This is because it is difficult to stimulate a student's interest in other projects (i.e., projects other than their own) to a point that they will continually generate information/ideas beneficial to other projects.

Students are graded on homework assignments, documentation of weekly work, meeting weekly work goals, written and oral project reports, and on their participation in lectures and design meetings. Students document weekly work by maintaining a design notebook -- a 3-ring binder that contains: a work log, meeting minutes, personal contacts list, reference material, records of personal contacts, sketches, design data and calculations, etc. Design notebooks are evaluated on their neatness and completeness, and are used to assess a student's weekly work performance (i.e., determine to what degree a student has achieved their weekly work goals). To this end, they are the instructor's most critical source of information for student evaluation. As students begin to realize this, their record keeping habits improve.

Participation in lectures and design meetings is taken seriously as attendance is essential for a team to be fully functional. Each unexcused absence results in a 1% reduction in a student's grade average. A 1% increase in grade average (up to a maximum of 3%) is given for each state, national, or international meeting/activity of a professional society that the student attends. This is done to stress the importance of professional affiliations.

The capstone experience culminates in an oral presentation and final report submittal. Oral presentations are scheduled for the second last week of the semester - a time when students have more time to dedicate to their presentation. These presentations are open to the general public.

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UW-Madison, December 1998