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Students collaborating around a table with laptops open.

Engineering for the real world

College of Engineering students are solving tangible issues in a unique two-semester interdisciplinary capstone through the Department of Engineering Education.

Tell first-year engineering students they need to work in teams, and you’ll most likely be met with a chorus of groans.

Announce that same thing to the same group of students three years later, and they’ll jump at the chance, particularly if they can tackle real-world problems. In the College of Engineering’s newest Interdisciplinary Capstone course, senior engineering students can do just that.

“It’s essential for engineering students to see collaboration and interdisciplinary work modeled,” said Robin Queen, professor in the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and Orthopaedic Surgery. “It’s what they’ll be faced with when they leave – working not just with other engineers, but also co-workers on the business side.”

Queen, director of the Kevin P. Granata Biomechanics Lab and whose own career defines interdisciplinary engineering, was a driving force behind the Interdisciplinary Capstone course (IDC), now homed in the Department of Engineering Education.

Launched this fall as an approved course and directed by David Gray, collegiate assistant professor in engineering education, Interdisciplinary Capstone is a unique two-semester course designed to bring together students from across the College of Engineering. This year, nearly 100 senior engineering students will partner on industry projects with Lockheed Martin, the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing, or the Virginia Department of Transportation. They will work in competition teams such as BOLT and Hokie Electric Vehicle and on the solar car and auto-drive teams.

Students collaborating around a table with laptops open.
Two students in a classroom with laptops.
Students work in teams during the classroom portion of the course. Photos by Peter Means.
A laptop open with a diagram on it.
Two students in a classroom with laptops.

“For the vast majority of their courses, the students are very segmented,” said Gray, “where they’re given problems with closed solutions, and a right or wrong answer. In IDC, we’re saying there’s virtually infinite paths to a solution. Students need to use their experience, and as a team, pull in all the different lessons they’ve learned to make something tangible.”

Cultivating these teams requires behind-the-scenes work across the college, with individual students selecting Interdisciplinary Capstone projects when registering for the course. Gray and his fellow department capstone faculty (from mechanical, electrical and computer, industrial and systems, biomedical, mechanical, and material sciences engineering) then accept those students who fill the needs of the specific industry teams. Competition teams are selected for the Interdisciplinary Capstone based on best fit with instructors and resources.

David Gray teaching a class
The course is directed by David Gray, collegiate assistant professor in engineering education. Photo by Peter Means.

The course emulates the real-world structure of engineering, demanding high-level communication and partnership from students of all engineering disciplines, from industrial and systems to biomechanical to electrical engineering, while meeting project milestones.

The Interdisciplinary Capstone format also fulfills the vision of Robin Ott, associate professor of practice in mechanical engineering, when discussions for a cross-college capstone course began nearly six years ago. As an engineer with 20 years' industry experience, Ott is invested in prepping engineering students for collaborative careers.

“In mechanical [engineeering], roughly 85 percent of the students go straight into industry, and 15 percent continue onto grad school,” she said. “We as educators need to truly prepare students. Every company I’ve ever worked for has interdisciplinary teams, and so we must expose them to interdisciplinary teamwork.”

Students working with a robotic arm.
Students work to program a robotic arm for gently cleaning delicate, 3D powder-printed parts. Photos by Niki Hazuda.
A student working in front of a laptop
Students working with a robotic arm.
A student working on a robotic hand.
The robotic hand student team collaborates to create a unique prosthesis for one of their own relatives. Photos by Niki Hazuda.
A robotic hand project in a lab.
Students around a conference table

Whether in the mechancial engineering senior design courses she teaches – which were the foundation for the two-year pilot of the Interdisciplinary Capstone that started in fall 2020 – or the Interdisciplinary Capstone itself, Ott views the industry connections students can make through capstone courses as instrumental exposure.

Queen agrees, highlighting the feedback she received from industry partners during the Interdisciplinary Capstone pilot.

“The industry experts came back and said the course is an invaluable experience for these students to have while they’re in school. They’ll understand how to do the work asked of them when hired into the companies and asked to do the same thing,” Queen said. “The industry partners were also very impressed with the students and the work they were able to produce during the year-long course.”

A close up of a student working on an electric motorcycle.
Student working on a laptop in the Ware Lab.
The all-electric motorcycle team BOLT is among the capstone course's competition teams. Mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering students work together to evolve electric vehicle technology and increase the visibility of clean emissions motorsports. Photos by Peter Means.
Laptop computer with a CAD drawing of a motorcycle on the screen.
Two students working an electric motorcycle in the Ware Lab.

The Interdisciplinary Capstone also presents a unique opportunity for industry partners to preview the curriculum and guide the next generation of Hokie engineers.

“Lockheed Martin was very happy with some of the risk management we did last year, and they asked us to make sure we bring that back for this year,” Gray said. “So, as we build this relationship together, they have a path to influence a little bit of what the curriculum could be and share what they are looking for in future employees.”

Recent survey data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers identify problem-solving and analytical skills and the ability to work in a team as the top three attributes preferred in future college graduates. Through capstone connections, like the Interdisciplinary Capstone or Ott’s senior design classes, industry partners benefit from the potential employee connections, student creativity, and mentorships.

“It’s almost like an altruistic payback to education they’re doing,” Gray said. “But it will go to a larger pool of Hokie engineering talent that will pay them back down the road just by raising the bar of who a Virginia Tech engineer is.”  

Queen, a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, anticipates raising the bar for the Interdisciplinary Capstone course, as well. Despite having spent more than half a decade in deliberation and documentation for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Queen views the course as only the first step of interdisciplinary connection for engineering students.

“I would love for the course to be interdisciplinary outside of the college,” she said, “because, ultimately, when our students leave Virginia Tech, they’re going to be asked to work in teams across a variety of backgrounds.”

She sees natural synergy between engineering and the Pamplin College of Business. Whether discussing marketability, pushing product design, or conducting market analysis, the business perspective can help answer the “big questions” of real-world engineering.

“Giving students the opportunity to work on those communications skills and gain an appreciation of how to explain what they’re doing to non-engineers — those are incredibly important and marketable skills for employment,” Queen said.

If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.