"This is reality," Professor Steve Shooter, mechanical engineering, said at Bucknell's annual senior design expo at Larison Hall, surrounded by products senior engineering students had brought to life over the course of their last two semesters. The students had crafted and refined these projects from concept to prototype to real-world invention over the past nine months, but Shooter wasn't referring just to the tangible results of those efforts. The process that brought the projects into being, he said, was just as real.
For years, the College of Engineering has partnered with external companies and organizations to offer students the opportunity to engage in real-world problem-solving through their senior design projects. This year, the college took the experiential learning aspect of the projects a step further, allowing students to work on interdisciplinary teams that mirror the approach to product development they're likely to encounter after graduation.
"Once these students get out in the workplace, they're going to be given problems to solve, and they can't respond 'that's not my discipline,' " said Shooter, the lead faculty adviser for the interdisciplinary senior design projects. "We're trying to prepare them for success, so that when they show up for their first job, they're going to impress people with what they're capable of doing."
The five interdisciplinary projects — created in partnership with Corning Glass, GE, Geisinger Health System and a leading athletic apparel brand — were among the 35 prototypes and products on display at the April 29 expo. All together, more than 120 graduating engineering students gathered to show off the culminating effort of their engineering education.
Vivian Okwara, chemical engineering, a member of an interdisciplinary team that created a glass transportation system for Corning, said the project was empowering and made her realize how much of an expert she had become in her four years at Bucknell.
"I found myself using less of what I learned in my chemical engineering discipline and learning more from the students, rather than from my teachers," she said. "In my other classes, the teachers are the experts, but here I was working with students from different majors, and relying on other members of the team to gain knowledge. It gave me more confidence in what I had learned so far and gave the project more impact, because we were all learning together and contributing."
Students working on traditional single-discipline teams also said their projects took on dimensions beyond previous assignments and pushed them to solve problems they hadn't encountered before.
"When you're working on a homework problem, you're given conditions to meet. With a real client, you don't get that," said Nancy Wang, a chemical engineering major who examined a novel glass-forming process for Corning. "You have to define the problem. They wanted us to find optimal conditions to produce a uniform batch of glass, but they didn't give us a standard for what a uniform batch is — we had to define it ourselves. We came up with a lot of lab techniques ourselves, too."
"What surprised me most was how well it rounded out my education here," said Jenn Rich, a biomedical engineering major whose team partnered with Professor Donna Ebenstein, biomedical engineering, and a physician assistant from Geisinger Health System to develop an easier and faster way to seal surgical sutures. "I knew that senior design is supposed to be the culminating experience of your four years, but I didn't know how true that would be. I've drawn upon every class I've taken here to do this project."
Rich said working with Geisinger physician assistant Sara Omongi added another dimension to the project by providing insight into how her team's invention might be used, which her team otherwise might not have considered.
"It's one thing to have a great solution, but it has to be able to be easily implemented or it won't be used," Rich said. "She was able to give us tips that would make our process similar to what they're already doing, so it would be more likely that they'd adopt it."
A writing-intensive course, senior design aims to provide students experience not just in engineering solutions to real-world problems, but also in presenting and explaining their solutions to an unfamiliar audience. Philip Scholnick, a mechanical engineering major who worked on a project to make small combustion engines more efficient by using exhaust to power a piston, said that might have been the most valuable aspect of his experience. It gave him confidence, he said, even when presenting before a room full of Ph.D.'s.
"Professors don't necessarily know more than you do if it's your project," said Scholnick, who was advised by Professor Indranil Brahma, mechanical engineering. "We've been working on this the entire year, so we know everything we can about it. It's good to not be intimidated by somebody who has more credentials than you do."
Some students developed projects to benefit the University itself. One group developed a smart shot-training device for the men's and women's basketball teams, while the electrical & computer engineering team of Ian Wallace, Joe Kale, Zach Winters, Julie Darwin, Andy Sellers and Dan Park developed a smart badging system for the MakerSpaces on campus. Their project consisted of ID card-reading boxes connected to each of the devices they house, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters, and a web interface that will help MakerSpace staff manage which devices a user has been trained on and has permission to use. The devices will only power on if the user has the appropriate permission. The team had developed one card-reading box for the expo, and planned to deliver two more before graduation.
"For a lot of projects we've worked on, we developed cool prototypes, but they were put on a shelf after that," said Kale. "I think this will have a longer lifespan to it, which is neat."
Also new this year, the College of Engineering invited engineers from the classes of 2017, '18 and '19 to display projects they'd created in undergraduate courses. In future years, Associate Dean of Engineering Margot Vigeant said she'd like to extend the invitation to students in other design-focused classes from around the University — such as sculpture classes and courses taught by the School of Management's markets, innovation & design program — to give them a chance to show off what they've made as well.
"If your culminating project is a design, it exists to be put into the world," said Vigeant. "You should have an opportunity to show it off."