A new design for senior engineers

By Lee Feder

As a freshman in Engineering, everything seems difficult. Almost every class is a weed-out course and the material is the exact combination of boring and difficult to make studying an even greater chore than normal. Despite the challenges, thousands of students persevere through the early days of Engineering to get to the final test, senior design.

In the College of Engineering, senior design varies by department. Some have projects sponsored by corporations, some feature student-driven ideas, and some accept large group work like Formula SAE and Solar Decathlon instead of the more traditional one-semester course for senior year. That course, much feared by freshmen and reviled by upperclassmen, could use some freshening up. From my own experience in the well-run and well-organized Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, senior design fails to deliver on the promise of real-world experience on projects when such opportunities seem achievable.

The ME senior design course matches student groups to corporation-sponsored projects and incorporates a classroom lecture series. Some are interesting, some are simple and some are flat-out impossible. The variation across the board is somewhat unfair, especially considering some groups do not receive any of their three preferences as their project while the lectures, while clearly well-intended, are more of an early morning nuisance than of any real benefit.

So as not to appear merely critical of an otherwise stellar department and college here at the University, I propose at least an alternative to the current senior design program that could evolve into an overhaul. The College of Engineering should begin investigating cross-departmental projects that mix electrical, mechanical, civil, nuclear, computer and aerospace engineers as much as possible. Obviously, this would require significant logistical work, but the payoff would significantly augment the value of an already powerful UI engineering degree while garnering even more accolades for the College.

Mixing majors in groups would provide several opportunities for UI engineers. First, in only a select few companies do mechanical engineers only interact with other mechanical engineers. The various specialists must, by the nature of a team project, share data and learn to communicate their sphere of knowledge to people who do not have a similar background.

That lesson is far more valuable than solving another heat transfer problem. Similarly, cross-major projects would expose students to the challenges that might only affect one type of design. For instance, mechanical engineers are often whimsically completing designs with the thought, “And now we bring in the electrical people to design some kind of doo-dad that works.” My guess is that those “doo-dads” do not always exist nor can a small group always design a cost-effective solution. Sometimes a little information sharing across spheres of expertise can result in a better, simpler overall design.

Another benefit to a senior design program such as this is a greater variety of interesting projects. When a team is limited to four mechanical engineers (as my senior design course is), there are practical boundaries of the scope and type of work the project can address. Both the breadth and depth of projects would increase if teams were larger and included a few specialists in various areas.

Civils could work with electricals to design a better way of controlling building lighting, and perhaps a couple of mechanicals could join the project and enhance the HVAC system while industrial and enterprise engineers manage the project analysis. Aerospace engineers could work with nukes on an analysis of a nuclear rocket. By broadening the accessible expertise, the College would broaden the project scope, making finding projects easier and allowing for more fun and interesting ones.

The last benefit of this option will seem trivial to those outside of Engineering. Our classes are, at best, sterile. Not because of the professors, or even entirely because of the material. Engineers, on average, are not “people” people. Most prefer numbers and thoughts to writing and presenting, manifesting insufficient social skills for the marketplace.

By forcing engineers to work with students outside of their major, every team member would have to overcome social barriers and fears in the name of the all-mighty-A.

Much of this sounds critical of the current offerings in Engineering and even of engineers themselves. None is meant to lambaste or accuse, but a college with the human and alumni resources of the University of Illinois College of Engineering should deliver a positive, valuable real-world senior design course. The current program seems almost beneath what we have when compared with what students and faculty could accomplish.

Lee is a senior in mechanical engineering and mildly crisp from the Las Vegas sun – congrats to IMVB on another tournament victory!