‘If it's not broke, don't fix it’: Pratt faculty and students disagree over changes to senior capstone design course

Pratt School of Engineering faculty this year introduced significant changes to the required senior design class for mechanical engineering students, an update many seniors say they’re unsatisfied with. 

The upper-level ME 421L and ME 424L classes comprise a capstone design course sequence in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS). Their objective is to tie together all the skills a mechanical engineer learns in their four years at the University through the completion of several hands-on projects, including a term design project that spans nearly the entire senior year.

In past years, mechanical engineering seniors collaborated in teams of about 7 to 8 students to execute these term projects. Some were pitched by University faculty and industry representatives, while others were conceptualized by students themselves, according to Becky Simmons, associate professor of the practice in the MEMS department. 

However, in the 2022-2023 academic year, this model was changed to one where the class of 70 students was split into two teams of 35 students, each with a pre-defined objective: to design and build a mobile smart home within a trailer. 

As a result of the change, many students feel like they lost out on a senior design experience that they were looking forward to. 

Senior John Smalley is the current president of Duke AERO, a Pratt student club focused on aerospace engineering and rocket design. He said that in past years, student-proposed projects included a self-landing rocket, a drone designed to fight fires, a suitcase that followed its user through the airport and more. Thus, he said student teams like AERO, Duke Motorsports and Duke Electric Vehicles were hoping to integrate their high level of technical work with their senior design project.

“We were sending in ideas before the semester even started because we were thinking we would be able to do a project that’s relevant to what we want to do with our life,” Smalley said.

However, he said that about three weeks into the fall semester, the seniors learned about the new format without warning. He said that while some students were excited about the prospect of getting to work with a larger team due to Duke’s smaller size, others like him were not as excited due to the stress that working with a massive team can bring.

To Smalley, the chosen project signals a shift in the focus of the course from a mechanical design course to a product design course, as a tiny mobile smart home sounds to him more like a marketable product than novel engineering produced by research and creative development.

“The reason Duke is so cool is because they teach you not what to think, but how to think as an engineer, which I really appreciate,” Smalley said. “But we can't really use that on this smart home, because a lot of what we're doing is taking off-the-shelf items, bolting them together and then saying that's our senior design project.”

According to senior Luis Trejo, providing opportunities for a diversity of interests within mechanical engineering is especially important as seniors look to their upcoming careers. 

“Being able to choose your project gives students an opportunity to get insight into what they’ll be working on full time and see if it’s a good fit for them,” Trejo said. 

The two teams of 35 students are broken down into smaller subteams, each with their own assignment in building the trailer together. However, Trejo believes the new model has reduced the average engagement of each student, since when 35 people are working on one specific project it’s inevitable some will do more work than others.

“Under the old model, students would have been able to ‘own’ their part of the project,” Trejo said. “They would have been responsible for more, they would have had more to talk about, they would have acquired more skills.”

Senior William Kim is on the subteam tasked with building a plumbing system for the trailer, including the shower, toilet and sink, a role he was not necessarily interested in but simply took because it was available. He said that while he believes the communication within his 30-person team has been executed nicely, he doesn’t feel like he’s applied his four years of mechanical engineering knowledge.

“We say, ‘If it's not broke, don't fix it,’” Kim said. “I don't understand what was so broken about the previous format that it required such a radical reset.”

Simmons and Greg Twiss, an adjunct professor in the Pratt School of Engineering, co-taught the fall component of the course this year. They explained that a primary motivation for the change was to challenge students with the realities they may face upon graduating and working in industry. 

“In industry, it’s rare that you get to pick your project and the people you work with,” Twiss said. “We wanted to accentuate what they're already doing with elements that I think more replicate the kind of the challenges that they're going to see in industry, namely more open-ended problems.”

Twiss said that as an instructor, he would hate for students to come back to him years from now and say that they had a fun time in his class but ended up completely unprepared for their future careers.

“I'd rather have them go, ‘You know what, Professor Twiss, I was kind of ticked at you. But you know, after five years, I see why you did what you did,’” he said. “I'll take that maybe they're not quite as happy, but it sets them up better long-term versus ‘Oh, what a wonderful time, I got everything I wanted, but why didn’t you tell me?’”

Simmons emphasized the importance of providing students with a larger team experience. 

“Students might have a subteam in this project of four to six students, but they are a part of a much bigger group and all of the great or messy things that go along with that,” she said. “Hopefully students learn a lot that they can bring into their next professional lives.”

She also said that each team of 35 students was paired with six mentors from academia and industry that they are able to reach out to.

Kim said that he respects the intent behind the professors’ goal of preparing seniors for the professional engineering industry after they graduate. But he also argued that his experience in AERO and Motorsports has prepared him just as much.  

“The intended effect was to make seniors learn how to work as large group as small subteams towards a larger project, but I already knew that, so I don't feel like I learned anything,” Kim said, acknowledging that this may not be the case for every senior. 

Kim also believes that smaller, four-to-eight-person teams are present in professional engineering circles, a sentiment echoed by Smalley when he described his industry internship experience at Northrop Grumman last year.

“I worked on a team of four for the entire summer,” he said. 

Senior Josh Klinger, chief engineer of Duke Motorsports, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that while he knows a number of students who have issues with the new senior design model, those who choose to speak out “fear academic retribution” in regards to their grades. He wrote that multiple times he has been “smiled” out of meetings while expressing concerns about the course. 

When asked if the course will revert back to its original format, Simmons and Twiss both emphasized that they do not believe in the course being static.

“A big part of design is getting feedback and then reflecting on the positives, the negatives and how both of us should continually strive to make improvements and try to enhance the student experience,” Simmons said. ”Will it look like this next year? Probably not, because we will take lessons learned.”

“But I think the principles we will try to incorporate … in a maybe different way,” Twiss added.

Twiss said that he and Simmons have been emphasizing the concepts of change, ambiguity and openness to new ideas to their students. Because of this, he believes it wouldn’t make sense to keep the course exactly the same year after year.

“If we're preaching that, and then we're not even doing that with our own instruction, what kind of message does that send? ‘You’re telling us to do that with the product, but, the course, you’re not doing that yourself,’” he said. “I think it’s perfectly fine to take risks for good reasons.”

Simmons and Twiss are hopeful for the outcome of the class, especially after what they observed in both teams’ progress, engagement and student leadership during the fall semester. 

“When they start interviewing [for jobs], ‘Tell me about one of your team experiences’ is a classic question they’re going to get,” Twiss said. “They’ll be able to say, ‘I was on a large team of 35. We had a super ambitious project, limited budget and limited time. And we were responsible for the full design and integration of this vehicle.’”

Smalley, Trejo, Kim and Klinger all expressed that they believe the course should be changed back to its original model.

“In my perfect world, you would be able to take Motorsports, Duke Electric Vehicles, AERO, etc. as a class,” Smalley said. “Our colleagues at state universities can take their club as a class because it is directly relevant to their research interests.”

Similarly, Klinger referred to his involvement in Motorsports as “a real mechanical engineering senior design project.” 

Smalley admits that no model will come without flaws. 

“It’s never perfect,” he said. “But at least [in the previous model] you’re doing something novel.”

Alison Korn contributed reporting.


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