Leanne Lucas,Steve Zahos 2016-08-24 04:06:12
The transition from academia to the workplace can be difficult for graduating students to negotiate, but ABE 469, the Capstone design course in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois, equips students with the knowledge and skills they need to become proficient and competent engineers. The overall goal is to allow students to experience modern engineering practices with industry-linked, team-oriented, open-ended design projects. The course was established in 1985. When I began teaching the course in 2004, as a former engineer, business manager, and entrepreneur, I broadened the format developed by my predecessors. They created an excellent foundation that focused on industrial product development. Now the course has expanded, and we focus on the process as much as the product. Time management, project planning, working as a team, talking with clients, following protocol, submitting reports⎯those aspects of the job are as important as the end product. We impress on students the need to prepare a package that they can hand off to the client. In the real world, engineers often hand off a project to another group or organization. The likelihood of taking a project from start to finish is pretty small. When they hand off their projects, the students must ask their clients, “Can you work with what we’ve given you?” And the clients almost always say, “Yes, we can take this into our organization.” About half of our projects find their way to implementation. Although many projects are still industry oriented, the project sponsors have become more diverse. We’ve tried to provide a broader project portfolio to encompass student interests in our various concentrations. Those concentrations include renewable energy systems, off road equipment engineering, soil and water resources engineering, bioenvironmental engineering, ecological engineering, food and bioprocess engineering, and nano-scale biological engineering. Many of the “engineering toolbox” skills learned along the way and through guest lectures by industry experts are incorporated into the projects. This past year, eleven teams with a total of 43 students were sponsored by ten clients. Each team must recruit a faculty member in their project’s area of concentration to act as an advisor. It’s an opportunity for the students to leverage the expertise that we have in our department, and the faculty members are always helpful. One team, called Naturally Fun, worked with the University of Illinois Primary School (UPS) to design and construct a drainage solution for the runoff problem on the school’s playground. “We implemented a three-fold solution,” said team member Anav Pant. “First, we installed two subsurface drainage tiles to increase infiltration and divert water away from the play area. Second, we seeded the entire play area with a robust species of clover, to further increase infiltration and reduce soil erosion. Third, on sloped areas, we installed erosion control blankets, composed of jute and straw held together by nylon netting, to reduce the loss of seeds due to runoff before the seeds were able to germinate. Because the jute and straw biodegrade and the nylon photodegrades, the play area will be left completely covered with clover.” Seth Partridge, another member of Naturally Fun, said, “This was a real-life engineering project, and we had the freedom to change things as we saw fit. That meant we had to decide what was important to present to the client, the professor, and the class. At times, it was difficult to decide what information was most important. But we worked together as a team to determine what each audience would want to know about the project.” “The most valuable tool I gained from this project was personal development,” said Natalie Walk, a third team member. “I became more confident in presenting to the class and to the client because I was able to communicate our team’s ideas in an effective way. And I loved working with UPS!” Dr. Ali Lewis, director of UPS, was equally enthusiastic about the project and the members of Naturally Fun. “This team worked so well together,” said Lewis. “They had a clear way of designating responsibilities according to their specialty areas. Their timeline was really aggressive. After doing their research on the slope of the area, the type of soil, and the most effect kind of ground cover, they put together a work day for our parents. One team member, who had a unique ability to lead without dominating, was the point person. As a team, they organized the priorities for the work day, and we all felt that our time and our efforts were honored and worthwhile. I’m still in awe of all this team was able to accomplish.”
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