Helping Young Engineers Design Their Own Future

5/13/24 Pratt School of Engineering

MEMS senior design students sharpen their problem solving skills and their industry preparedness.

students at the ME senior design fair
Helping Young Engineers Design Their Own Future

The senior design capstone for MEMS undergraduates at Pratt has been around longer than its two newly appointed instructors. 

Sophia Santillan and Nico Hotz, associate professors of the practice in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, have used their new leadership of the senior design sequence to help undergraduate engineers envision their future beyond the classroom.

The capstone, consisting of a two-semester sequence (fall and spring), has been part of the curriculum for over a decade. This year, Santillan and Hotz, who are both exceptionally experienced instructors at Duke, are leading the course as main instructors for the first time with co-instructors Linda Franzoni, professor of the practice in MEMS, and Greg Twiss, a lecturer in MEMS, although they have been involved with it in various capacities over the years. Additionally, George Delegrammatikas, professor of the practice in MEMS, has been instrumental in the course’s structure and overall direction.

MEMS senior design tasks students with working on a range of projects from different domains like mechanical, electrical and biomedical engineering, among others. These projects are diverse, including unique ones like building kinetic sculptures, developing prototypes for measuring blood oxygen levels underwater and creating software for data processing.

Seeing students mature and grow but also develop engineering skills that they demonstrate in these capstone projects was inspiring.

Sophia Santillan Associate Professor of the Practice in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Santillan and Hotz say projects are sourced from industry clients and faculty proposals, or some are even self-proposed by students, aiming to address real-world challenges and create usable prototypes. 

“Seeing students go from first-year, EGR 101 engineers to fully-fledged collaborators with industry professionals has been so cool – to watch them mature and grow but also develop engineering skills that they demonstrate in these capstone projects was inspiring,” Santillan shared.

This year, the course has emphasized external projects more significantly to enhance the real-world applicability of the student work. Companies and organizations propose projects, and some are selected based on student interest. The course this semester had 13 active projects, although initially, there were about twice as many proposals. Each project culminated in the presentation and demonstration of a prototype at the senior design fair.

Linda Franzoni spoke with students during the Senior Design Fair to evaluate the prototypes that groups would be presenting

“What we’re trying to do differently this year, and we’ll do more of in the future, is make the focus as real as possible,” Hotz said. “We knew companies and organizations that have had interest in the past and we knew we needed to capitalize on that interest for the course.”

Students were encouraged to consult with faculty members outside their main instructors if their projects aligned with other areas of expertise within the university. This interaction extends beyond the classroom, with students often reaching out to external experts as well. The overall course structure supports this interdisciplinary and proactive approach, with students meeting regularly with their client and receiving continuous feedback.

Upon completion of the projects, the outcomes are reviewed with the companies, and discussions about potential future collaborations or iterations may be explored as well. While some projects might lead to implementations or modifications in actual industry practices, others might not progress beyond the academic evaluation, but the skills gained through the capstone were plenty.

The students have been so creative with their proposals and their ideas span a broad spectrum. They’re all covering a lot of unique intersection.

Nico Hotz Associate Professor of the Practice in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

“The students have been so creative with their proposals and their ideas span a broad spectrum,” Hotz said. “For instance, we have one group working on a water sampling device connected to a drone and then another that’s looking at furniture – it’s very different and more art inspired, but they’re all covering a lot of unique intersections.”

What students have been able to demonstrate highlights what Santillan and Hotz have been hoping to tap into: Making it as real and applicable to the world around them as possible.

“The projects they demonstrated at our recent design fair shows how much more awareness they’ve gained as engineers and problem solvers,” Santillan said. “It’s been so evident that there has been a substantial change in their abilities and outlook as engineers, and they’re learning to really grapple with real-world problem solving in that way.” 

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