Learning by design

Learning by design

Mar 7
K.C. Ting, Head, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering

On February 13 and 14, I participated in a review of industry-linked capstone design projects. The capstone design is a required course offered every spring semester for the B.S. degree in Agricultural and Biological Engineering (ABE) at Illinois. Most ABE seniors take it right before graduation in May. The course provides students practical learning experience in engineering design. Every team of five to six students works on a “real-world” project identified by a sponsoring organization.

This spring, the sponsors include an off-road equipment manufacturer, an agricultural chemical company, a waste water treatment plant, a grain postharvest loss research institute, and a non-governmental organization. The sponsors present challenging problems and the student teams respond with engineering solutions within approximately 15 weeks. The students are required to work as professional engineers and engineering project managers. They take systems approaches that integrate the knowledge and skills acquired from their previous courses to solve the problems. The deliverables are quantitative analyses, engineering designs, prototype evaluation, a high quality written report, and an oral presentation. Most projects have staff engineers from the sponsoring organizations acting as technical resource persons for the student teams. Many projects also have faculty members serving as their academic advisors. Steve Zahos is the instructor for the course and Dr. Alan Hansen is the faculty member overseeing the development of the course.

The purpose of the February review was to assess the progress of all nine projects. Every project team presented its analyses of the problem scope, alternative solutions, potential design concepts, and cost estimations. The design projects cover a wide range of engineering problems. Examples include devices for pollen sample screening, sensors for grain storage conditions, improved mechanical parts and operations for large agricultural machineries, and processes for water treatment. Several projects are working to improve the quality of life in developing countries.

It is always delightful for me to watch how our students creatively apply their knowledge to solve open-ended problems. The effective ways they connect their educational experience to “professional” practices are clearly demonstrated in their independent contributions and team work in conducting their projects. The capstone design provides an opportunity for students to use what they have learned and learn how to develop professionally. The course is truly designed to bring together the learning partnership of the students, teachers, and industry/business.