Jack, H., “Teaching Management Skills Through Capstone Projects”, The 2004 National Conference on Integrating Practice into Engineering Education, Dearborn Michigan, Oct, 2004.

Teaching Management Skills Through Course Projects

Hugh Jack, Associate Professor, School of Engineering, Grand Valley State University


At Grand Valley State University (GVSU) [1] projects are an important part of the curriculum and are used in most of the engineering courses. The project experience culminates in a two semester senior project course where students do projects for companies who cover the cost of materials and other expenses. At least three quarters of the projects result in an automated machine that will be used in production, or in a test lab. All of the projects to date have been completed successfully and met customer expectations. The interdisciplinary project teams consist of four to six students in Mechanical, Manufacturing, Electrical and Computer engineering.

To prepare students for the senior project experience project management skills are gradually introduced throughout the curriculum. For example, a formally managed project is conducted with freshmen and junior level students. The freshmen are in EGR 101: Computer Aided Design and Manufacturing and the juniors are in EGR 345: Dynamic System Modeling and Control. In the fall of 2003 the project was an anti-sway control system for a gantry crane. Students in EGR 101 were primarily responsible for the design of the gantry cart. In cooperation with the juniors they developed a design for the cart, and then produced drawings and machined parts. The EGR 345 students were responsible for the overall design including the controller, theory/simulations, software and electronic interfacing. The paper will describe the project management aspects in detail, including anecdotal accounts of elements that worked well, and those that require revision.


At Grand Valley State University we endeavor to prepare students for engineering practice. An important part of professional practice is the ability to manage projects. As with any ABET accredited engineering program we have a significant capstone design project that helps solidify these skills. However, additional preparation in project management before the senior year strengthens the students abilities and improves the capstone project outcomes. We are in the process of expanding the use of project management skills at earlier stages in the curriculum. This paper will describe one project that was conducted jointly with teams of freshmen and junior students.

In the fall of 2003 a project was conducted to design and build a computer controlled gantry crane. The objective of the crane was to move a suspended mass between two positions and settle the mass in the shortest time. Students were expected to design and build the gantry cart, the electronics and the software. The outcome of the project was an overwhelming success. All of the teams completed the project with working systems that were able to travel 20 inches and settle the load to less than +/- 0.5 inches in as little as 2.15 seconds. The teams had three or four Mechanical or Manufacturing juniors taking EGR 345: Dynamic Systems Modeling and Control and one or two freshmen enrolled in EGR 101: CAD/CAM. The freshmen were responsible for the design and construction of the cart, while the juniors were responsible for all other aspects.

To ensure success there were a number of formal project management elements used including a contract between the students in EGR 101 and 345, clearly defined deliverables, timelines and peer reviews with specific evaluation criteria. The project management structure was set to emphasize a few pedagogical concepts, such as those listed below.

Design work should be completed before the construction begins.

The timeline must allow time for testing and design iterations.

Team members are accountable to their peers.

The team is accountable as a whole.

All elements of a project are important to success.

Essential Elements of Project Management

Students are shown how to successfully manage a project using industrially accepted practices. Some of the philosophical principles of managing the projects are i) define a set of goals, ii) track the progress of the work, iii) apply technical knowledge to solve problems, and, iv) utilize professional skills. The goals for the project are set with regular activities and milestones, as listed below. Each of the items focuses on the production of a ‘deliverable’ item.

Project launch: A formal start where student teams and the project are assigned.

Problem Identification/Statement: A statement of the design problem.

Specifications: A set of technical specifications.

Conceptual Designs: A set of design concepts are generated and one is selected.

Design Proposal: A detailed design.

Progress Reports: Students submit these to track progress between major milestones.

Testing: One or more testing sessions to allow design iterations.

Signoff: A formal acceptance or testing of the project.

Final Reports: A detailed description of the project work.

The elements listed below are used in proposals and reports as appropriate. These allow the instructor to anticipate and track the project.

Gantt charts: Used to track the project by tasks, including milestones and task sequencing.

Budgets: The cost of the projects must be tracked to determine when it is over budget and expenditures to date.

Purchasing: Students need to track purchased items including the source, cost, expected and actual delivery dates.

Self evaluations: These are normally used near the start of the project to group students into teams. In additional to technical abilities this may include personality type assessments.

Peer evaluations: These are used during the project to detect personality problems, and at the end of the project to influence the individual final grade.

Demonstrations / Presentations: Project results are demonstrated to verify the success of the design. This can is done with methods such as formal presentations and posters.

Students normally have previous knowledge of technical topics, but are unsure how to apply it to problems found in large projects. The following elements are stressed as essential technical components of projects.

Research - Students must often identify existing and alternate approaches to solving problems through research. In some cases this is as simple as an internet search, or a trip to the library.

Drawings - Drawings are essential for communicating designs between team members. These can include mechanical drawings, electrical schematics, or other figures.

Theoretical Calculations: Design concepts should normally be verified for adequacy, such as factor of safety calculations or system simulations. In advanced system designs calculations may be needed to select parameters.

Building - The fabrication of any design must be addressed with the goal of eventually building and testing.

Testing: Testing is essential to verify the design work and identify deficiencies relative to the specifications.

The professional skills listed below are reinforced throughout the project. The methodology requires students to make sound technical decisions, instead of ‘rushing to build’. The outcome should be that the needs of the client/customer are satisfied. People skills are required to ensure that students behave as professionals, placing the project work ahead of their own interests.


Designs must be selected from alternates

Design work comes before building begins

Designs must satisfy the customer

Building and testing is completed early to allow time for revisions.

The final results must be successful

People Skills

Teamwork skills / Teams are formed for abilities, not friendships

Professional conduct


Team Selection

Project teams are selected for the design task, primarily to have complimentary technical abilities, but also to balance personality types. Technical abilities are assessed using self evaluations. Personality types are assessed using formal tools, with peer evaluations, or with faculty knowledge of individual students. Ideally each team is designed with one leader and complimentary personalities. However, occasionally a team may be formed to encourage students to mature. Whenever possible close friends are not placed on the same team.

Working in a team does reduce individual productivity somewhat, so teams are normally overstaffed by up to 50%. Once formed, teams are encouraged to divide tasks so that they may work in parallel towards a common goal. Some of the basic teamwork rules are listed below, reinforcing professional conduct with peers.

1. Treat others as you want to be treated.

2. Communicate expectations and problems clearly.

3. Be polite and accommodating.

4. When problems arise, help to solve them, even if they are not your fault. Don’t lay the blame for problems on others.

The careful process of selecting teams reduces the number of personality problems on the teams but they still occur occasionally. Minor personality problems, such as laziness, may passively hurt a team. They are evident through the peer evaluations, and can be dealt with early in the project by the instructor working directly with the team. If the problems persist the final grade of a student may be penalized. A firing mechanism can be used for extreme cases where a student is proactively harming a team.


A sample project timeline for a semester is given below. The use of a formal design proposal stresses that design work must occur before anything is ordered or built. When this is not done students often rush to build something and then try to justify their results with calculations. Needless to say this results in inferior designs. Formal testing is used during the semester to allow assessment of the design, and to allow time for iterations. When this is not done students will frequently complete construction hours before the project is due, with no testing or verification. Using formal testing commonly results in 100% success rates for the final design.

Week 2: Teams assigned

Week 3: Team submits initial problem description

Week 4: Preliminary design concept submitted including specifications, materials list estimate, budget estimate, Gantt charts

Week 5: Design concept approved

Week 7: Design Proposal submitted including detailed drawings (CAD), materials list, budget, calculations/simulations

Week 8: Proposals approved, building begins

Week 10: First test

Week 11: Second test

Week 12: First draft of report submitted

Week 13: Project demonstrated and signoff

Week 14: Final report submitted


Written reports are used throughout the project to document decisions and track the progress. There are various approaches to the content of the design proposal and the final report, but in all cases the technical content is kept unique, for example as appendices summarized in the body of the report. Rough drafts of the design proposal and final report are reviewed, with assigned grades, to provide feedback to students.

Conceptual Designs: These document alternate designs using methods such as sketches, electrical schematics, block diagrams, calculations and flowcharts.

Progress Reports: These are due once each week once the project had been approved. The required elements often include updated Gantt charts, budgets, design issues, fabrication issues, purchasing, and testing.

Design Proposal: A formal design proposal is required before building can begin. The reports include elements such as a cover page, a table of contents, three view/isometric/assembly drawings, a bill of materials, system block diagrams, circuit schematics, motion profiles, budget, a weight inventory, calculations (e.g. stress), equations of motion, simulations, and flowcharts.

Final Report: The final report describes the design and the outcomes in detail. It typically expands upon all of the content in the Design Proposal, revised to include the final design details and test results.

Project Management Elements in the Curriculum

The pedagogy of teaching project management begins in the freshman year where students receive highly structured projects, but of limited technical scope. Eventually, by the senior year, students are expected to be able to plan and manage projects. Skills that are expected to mature from the freshman to senior year are,

Self defined project goals as students become more senior,

Objectives and constraints are less defined, but more important for the senior years,

The concept of design cost is more important in senior years. More senior designs have competing ‘costs’ such as financial vs. time,

Senior designs do not tolerate weak points while freshmen level designs can permit some and still be acceptable, and,

Senior level designs rely upon a depth of technical knowledge.

Table 1 presents a formal list of project elements related to expectations at different year in the curriculum. These define the minimums expected, however there will always be students who exceed these.


Table 1: Project Management Expectations






follow a timeline





plan a timeline





identify a design problem





formulate a problem statement





develop specifications





interact with customers





communicate professionally





generate design concepts





select design concepts





track budgets





Course Projects

The curriculum has many courses with projects. An incomplete list of the course with projects is given below. In particular, EGR 345 is used as the primary focus for increasing the project management skills in the junior year.

EGR 101: CAD/CAM: a project where students design and build a creative object using Pro/E and CNC machining.

EGR 209: Statics and Solid Mechanics: Tie rod and bridge design.

EGR 226: Introduction to Digital Systems: Write a program to guide a mobile robot through a maze.

EGR 345: Dynamic Systems Modeling and Control: A gantry crane using feedback control with a 68HC11 microcontroller. This project was actually done in conjunction with two laboratory sections in EGR 101 to produce teams of juniors and freshmen. This is described in detail [2][3]. In the fall of 2003 the project was an anti-sway control system for a gantry crane. Students in EGR 101 were primarily responsible for the design of the gantry cart. In cooperation with the juniors they developed a design for the cart, and then produced drawings and machined parts. The EGR 345 students were responsible for the overall design including the controller, theory/simulations, software and electronic interfacing.

EGR 360: Thermodynamics: Paper vs. Polystyrene life cycle analysis.

EGR 450: Manufacturing Control Systems: Projects normally done for local companies.

EGR 474: Systems Integration: Design and build a manufacturing workcell.

Capstone Projects

The capstone project in the engineering program involves a two semester course sequence, EGR 485 and 486. The project teams are comprised of four to six students from all disciplines (Electrical, Computer, Mechanical and Manufacturing). These projects are normally done for local companies that cover the cost of materials and incidentals, however there is no cost for student labor. The project outcomes typically return to the company and are normally used in production or testing. Some of the projects completed in the summer of 2003 and the sponsor are listed below.

Design of Universal Lighting Ballast, Access Business Group

Portable Testing Device for Dashmat Grommets: Cascade Engineering

Oil Detection and Containment System: Dana Perfect Circle Division

Destructive Weld Test Machine: Knape & Vogt

Controllable Magnetic Field Generator: L-3 Communications Corp.

Automated Adhesive Tape Applicator: N-K Manufacturing Technologies

Multiple Analog Signal Generator: Smiths Aerospace

Effect of Part Geometry on the Mechanical Properties of High-Pressure Aluminum Die-Castings: SPX Contech

Variable Storage Device: Trane West Michigan

Platt Windfeather Wind Turbine: Dr. Steve Platt

Pallet Dismantler: Industrial Resources

The projects are managed by the students, under the supervision of one faculty member. The final results of the project must be approved and signed for by the customer. To date all of the projects have been accepted by the customers. The budgets for the projects are normally in the range of thousands or tens of thousands.


The success of the course and senior projects is a clear indication that the project management skills taught in the curriculum are preparing professionals ready to work as engineers. Within the curriculum, the use of project management skills allows students to do course work at a much more mature level than possible otherwise.


Hugh Jack earned his bachelors degree in electrical engineering, and masters and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently an associate professor at Grand Valley State University and chairs the graduate and manufacturing programs. His research interests include using open source software for industrial control.


[1] http://www.gvsu.edu/engineering

[2] Jack, H., Farris, J., “Teaming Freshmen and Juniors“, ASEE Annual Meeting, Salt Lake City, June, 2004.

[3] Jack, H., “EGR 345: Course Homepage”, http://claymore.engineer.gvsu.edu/~jackh/eod/egr345.html