In addition to my work at Beton, I teach the technical writing component of the Senior Design Clinic at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering. The university is located in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Most engineering schools have some sort of capstone course to help students apply what they’ve learned in a “real world” project. But what we do at St. Thomas is really special.
The clients are mostly local companies, municipalities, and nonprofits. But some come from farther afield. Last year one of the clients was a women’s cooperative in Amman, Jordan. This year, one of the clients supplies electricity in Haiti. What they all have in common, though, is that they have a problem that they want the engineering students to solve.
At the beginning of the school year, the students select from among about 30 projects. There might be a medical device company looking to develop its next-generation heart surgery tool, a farmers’ cooperative seeking an economical way to harvest its crops, or a manufacturer wanting to make its factory more ergonomic. The students indicate their first, second, and third choices, and the professor puts together a team for each project.
Interdisciplinary teamwork a hallmark of St. Thomas’ engineering capstone projects
One thing that makes the St. Thomas capstone course unusual is that all of the engineering disciplines are in it together. Some projects require interdisciplinary teams—say a mechanical engineer to design the robot, an electrical engineer to design the controls, and a computer engineer to program it to do what the client needs it to do. The students get the experience of communicating across disciplines. And the client benefits from the breadth of expertise.
Over the course of two semesters, the students work directly with their client to determine what they need. Clients don’t always know how to express their concerns in engineering terms, and some change their minds several times. It can be frustrating for the students to have to hit a moving target, but the experience is a pretty realistic representation of what it’s like to be a consultant.
Most of the professors in the School of Engineering are involved in the course one way or another. Every student team has a faculty advisor and they receive classroom instruction in project management, technical writing, and more. Also, they have a couple of formal presentations they make to their client, with whom they regularly communicate with throughout the school year.
The students will show off their work at the Senior Design Show, to be held on Friday, May 10th from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m. at the Anderson Student Center on the northeast corner of Summit Ave. and Cretin Ave. in St. Paul. It’s free and open to the public. If you live in the Twin Cities, I encourage you to attend. It’s especially good for kids to see what they might want to do when they grow up.