Jack, H., “Teaching Management Skills Through Capstone Projects”, The 2004 National Conference on Integrating Practice into Engineering Education, Dearborn Michigan, Oct, 2004.
At Grand Valley State University (GVSU)  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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 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 . 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 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.
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.