Designing a successful online shift for engineering student capstone projects

Jamie Oberdick
April 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Like many Penn State faculty, Spencer Szczesny, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, did not have experience teaching online prior to this semester, but he found that moving to online instruction went relatively smoothly.

All Penn State biomedical engineering students are required to complete BME 450W: Biomedical Senior Design prior to graduation. The capstone design teams have planning meetings, work together in labs and have other in-person activities to complete their projects. When COVID-19 required classes to go online, this presented a unique challenge to the five teams of students working on spring 2020 projects, and to Szczesny, the course instructor.

“It takes some practice managing a lecture online and keeping students engaged,” Szczesny said. “Additionally, having rapid meetings with the five different teams of students to discuss their projects has been interesting. What has made it easier is that the students have been very understanding and flexible with their expectations. Adjusting the course content and deliverables has been a successful mutual effort between myself and the students.”

Normally, the students would develop a physical prototype of their project, but for this semester, all prototyping will be virtual. This means that instead of physical testing, they will perform computational analysis, and instead of providing their project sponsors from industry with physical mockups, they will provide visual renderings. At the same time, students are still expected to complete the engineering drawings and manufacturing plan necessary to build their device. 

The projects cover a variety of subjects, including one that has relevance to the current pandemic. A team sponsored by Penn State’s School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs is developing a sink that is self-sanitizing via UVC lights that are built into the sink’s hot and cold water knobs. People can still be exposed to viruses even after washing their hands due to touching the knobs to turn off the water, but since UVC lights kill both viruses and harmful bacteria, this technology could potentially eliminate that risk.  

K’Ashe McKinney, a senior in biomedical engineering who is part of the team, said that not being on campus and seeing her project team members in person added a layer of challenge to the project. However, she said it was not as hard as expected to adjust. 

“I learned to be organized in a different way, using more specific time management skills and effective means of communication as I used to see the other team members in class and in our building, but now that visual reminder is gone,” McKinney said. “Now we make the effort to reach out to each other via zoom meetings, and group text where we have to continually check the messages, respond and give feedback.”

McKinney said that working on this project remotely encouraged thinking outside of the box. 

“When we were on campus, everybody had busy schedules due to other activities, so we were super stressed out and that made thinking about design concepts challenging,” McKinney said. “But the minute we switched to online classes, we had the time to come up with more creative and implementable concepts. It allowed us to develop this really great design.”

Katherine Martin, a senior in biomedical engineering, is a part of a team tackling a project sponsored by Ford Motor Company that aims to enhance driver comfort by introducing aspects of nature to the design of automobile interiors. 

“We chose to focus on triggering senses related to relaxation and feelings of sanctuary,” Martin said. “Our project is very exploratory in nature. Unlike other capstone groups, our main source of feedback is from qualitative data collected in customer clinics. When classes were moved online, we had to cancel all in-person clinics. To overcome this challenge, we created surveys for people to take online where they rated the different aspects of our virtual renderings.”

Martin said her team is still finalizing their design based on feedback from the online surveys.

“I am learning about how the same stimuli trigger completely different responses from people,” Martin said. “It was interesting trying to create something that satisfied the majority of the public.”

Overall, Szczesny said the adjustments he and his students have made resulted in a positive experience with benefits for all.

“For myself, I probably will be more comfortable giving online lectures in the future,” Szczesny said. “For my students, I do believe that they will gain additional computational and communication skills through this virtual design experience.”

 

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Last Updated April 27, 2020