Senior capstone projects teach students skills for the industry

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a small workshop, just north of the Ag Arena on Penn State’s University Park campus, Quinn Holland, a biological engineering major with the agricultural engineering option, talks about a half-assembled contraption that sits in front of him.

This project is part of Holland’s and other students’ final year at Penn State. All biological engineering students must complete a one-year capstone project, in which they apply and execute what they have learned in the major.

Unlike conventional capstone projects, which last a single semester, this experience allows students more time to design a solution to a problem and come up with a more comprehensive and better thought-out project.

During their first-semester class, team members establish design specifications and develop and select preliminary design options. In the second-semester course, the teams complete and test the detailed designs.

Students communicate directly with industry, community or academic sponsors, giving them a taste of what they can expect in the workplace after graduation.

Paul Heinemann, professor and head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, was one such sponsor. As a project idea, he proposed the redesign and improvement of an existing Apple Harvest Assist Unit, a device that one of his past graduate students had designed and built, but that he found was not entirely appropriate for the eastern United States due to the uneven and often hilly terrain.

Originally, the device was mounted on the Orsi EcoPick, a two-person picking platform that fits between trees in an orchard. “It was good for driving through flat orchards, but it wasn’t so good for Pennsylvania, which can be very hilly,” said Heinemann.

The original vehicle, according to Heinemann, was one solid platform. To raise and lower the platform, “you actually had to get off of it, you had to pull pins, raise the whole thing, then put them back in.”

Along with Rob Crassweller, professor of pomology in the Department of Plant Science, Heinemann purchased the Bartlett Chariot, a double-platformed picking vehicle that had “independently operating platforms, so each could pick-up and lower platforms independently.” A team was given the task of redesigning the device to fit on this new vehicle as its capstone project.

Holland, from Littlestown, Pennsylvania, was one of the students who worked on the apple picker redesign. While he looks for full-time employment Holland is working part-time for the department, making last-minute adjustments needed for the device to work properly.

“Since they started growing apple trees,” he said, “the way you harvested was that you basically climbed up a ladder with a basket strapped to your chest, you picked the apples, put them into the basket and you dumped them into a big plastic bin.”

This method of picking is very hard on workers, who sometimes have up to 50 pounds of apples in each basket. The mechanically assisted device the team is building will take some of the strain out of the work and protect workers' backs.

The machine also will reduce bruising on the apples, increasing their market value. Instead of simply dropping apples into a container, workers place them in small bins on the sides of the picking platform. The apples then move down black tubes until they reach the center point. From there, a rotating plate gently deposits the apples into a plastic tub. As the tub gets full, the rotating plate rises to accommodate. All surfaces, from the bins to the rotating plate, are padded.

Like many biological engineering projects at Penn State, the apple picker has the potential to be picked up for commercial use.

“At some point, we would want to work with a company in Ontario called N.M. Bartlett, that they could start manufacturing, selling it, maybe, under license with us,” explained Heinemann.

Another student team in the class worked on a project to improve the nearby Bellefonte Borough’s composting facility. Like all community sponsorships for undergraduate biological engineering capstone projects, the effort was conceived and arranged by Penn State’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative.

The Bellefonte composting project was so complicated that it ended up being split into two parts. One group focused on site design, while the other focused on the science behind the composting.

BE students at the Bellefonte Borough composting facility

Students from both of the composting groups on a 2017 biological engineering capstone project explore State College’s composting facility. Students in these groups were tasked with making Bellefonte’s composting facility more efficient through science and site design.

Image: Penn State

Chris Valdez, a biological engineering major with the natural resource engineering option and a minor in environmental engineering from Warrington, Pennsylvania, worked in the site design group. His group worked to create a site design and a layout for the composting facility to improve the flow of materials through the site.

“Bellefonte Borough has a very young and new composting facility that is very unorganized as of now,” said Valdez. “They throw the grass and the leaves together and over a year’s time it turns into compost.”

The single biggest thing the facility was missing, according to Valdez, was an "engineered composting pad," an area that must be harder than dirt, made from either concrete or asphalt. The composting pad prevents harmful substances from penetrating the soil and polluting aquifers and surrounding areas.

Peter DeMartino, a biological engineering major with the food and biological processing option and a minor in environmental engineering, from State College, was a member of the group that worked on the science behind the composting.

“We had to research what different municipalities were doing for composting,” said DeMartino. “We had to look up the whole procedure because we weren’t really sure what was going on.”

The team came up with a composting calendar, which shows when each pile should go through each process and also how much time is needed before starting a new pile. They also looked into what kind of equipment the facility would need, and ultimately decided they would need a screener, a device that removes large particles from the compost.

The single biggest challenge they faced, said DeMartino, was staying within the budget they were allotted for the project. In the future, the facility will need to be able to accommodate food waste and potentially even biosolids, the sludge that is the result of wastewater treatment.

For now, the facility is giving the compost away for free, but intends to sell it in the future.

The biological engineering major is offered by the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, which is jointly administered by the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering.

Students can pick from three options within the major: the agricultural engineering option, which has an emphasis on machinery systems and structural design; the food and biological process engineering option, which has an emphasis on microbiological production and food processing; and the natural resource engineering option, which has an emphasis on protection of the environment from nonpoint source pollution.

Media Contacts: 
Last Updated July 26, 2017