May 03, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

They met with executives, doctors and machine operators. They homed in on problems, devised solutions, encountered new obstacles and shifted their plans in favor of better approaches. They sketched, coded, soldered and fabricated. And at the Senior Design Expo on Friday, April 27, it was time to show off what they'd accomplished.

Senior design is where education gets real for students in Bucknell's College of Engineering. A signature experience of the engineering curriculum, these six-month to yearlong projects challenge undergraduates to develop and refine products with applications beyond the University.

Most projects involve partnerships with external sponsors, from global corporations including Corning Inc. and Procter & Gamble to local startups and family businesses, making senior design an authentic, real-world experience from day one.

Charlie Hanna ’18 explains his project with Procter & Gamble. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

"The biggest challenge was just understanding the problem," said Charlie Hanna '18, a mechanical engineering major who worked on an interdisciplinary project to improve efficiency at Procter & Gamble's largest U.S. plant. "It's pretty intimidating at first, because you're this little senior design group that has to solve this huge, company-wide problem. But Bucknell prepared me well. I learned the steps of how to identify a problem and overcome it."

Strides and Setbacks
As each of the more than 30 groups zeroed in on their unique challenges and grasped at novel solutions, new problems invariably emerged. Amber Habib's team of senior mechanical engineering majors worked on an off-road kart to compete in the Society of Automotive Engineers' Baja SAE competition. They almost completely re-engineered the vehicle, modeling more than 150 parts with computer software and spending 1,100 hours assembling and testing the kart for safety and performance. But one thing they didn't anticipate was the tree that the kart clipped during a test run two weeks before the competition, breaking one of its suspension arms.

Amber Habib ’18 said she gained most of her automotive engineering knowledge through her project. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

There was a moment of dread, Habib said, but then they all took a breath, fell back on the know-how the project had given them, and in about three days had replaced the arm with a more durable version. The team went on to place in the top third of the 100 competing schools.

"It was surreal," Habib said. "I thought, 'Wow, I remember when this was a pile of pipes on the ground and now I'm sitting in it, driving it, and trusting it to not break around me.' "

Bringing All Their Skills to Bear
Overcoming these real-life challenges demands that teams bring together all of the skills they've refined at Bucknell — not only technical prowess, but also everything from the communications skills they polished in humanities courses to a deep understanding of team dynamics forged in project-based classes.

"Teamwork was a big part of this," said Dunni Adenuga '18, a computer science & engineering major whose project was a smartphone app that makes it easier for Bucknell students and community members to learn about events on campus. Her group worked in conjunction with another team and Bucknell's Library & Information Technology division on the project, making communication and teamwork even more critical to their success.

Dunni Adenuga ’18 shows off the smartphone app her team designed for Bucknell. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

"We used a new platform that none of us had used before — Facebook just released it a couple weeks ago," Adenuga said. "But we were determined and started learning the platform together, and through that we also learned to depend on each other."

Adding real-world clients to the projects ups both the stakes and the authenticity of the experience for students. Mechanical engineering major Reid Sanchez ’18 and his interdisciplinary team worked to create a totally new feature for Keurig Green Mountain's line of coffee makers. All was going well until the day before the expo, when their device shorted out the machine's internal electronics, forcing them to work through the night to get their prototype running again.

"It teaches you to think on your feet," said Sanchez. "We're all happy with ourselves today because not once did we say that we're going to give up on this. It had to get done. It's really given us the opportunity to see what it's like in the real world, where you have a deadline and you've got to deliver."