Senior design course

By Anita

Imagine managing 30 students working on nine distinct industry-sponsored projects for one semester. For some of you (who may or may not have been previously involved with capstone courses), that may send a chill down your spine. Many questions crossed my mind three years ago when I began teaching the senior design course in the Edward P. Fitts Industrial & Systems Engineering Department at North Carolina State University (NCSU). What is the most effective way to teach a capstone course? How do you give students enough guidance to be successful without micro-managing their projects? I was fortunate enough to be able to draw upon several years of experience managing projects from a global operations perspective at a large high-tech company.

Reflecting on that experience, I identified three key takeaways in regards to managing projects: 1. communicate clearly and often; 2. focus on defining the problem; 3. learn project management skills.
Communicate clearly and often. Students are aware that communication skills are critical to their success as new engineers, but often presentations in the classroom focus on technical content alone. Many students have not received honest feedback on their presentation style, tone and content. While the typical ISE/ORMS faculty instructor is comfortable presenting, we are by no means experts in the area of technical communications. I decided to collaborate (another lesson learned from my industry days) with Sarah Egan Warren, who teaches the Technical Communications for Engineers course at NCSU, to develop course content that is tailored to the capstone course student experience. Specifically, she developed two lectures. The first is focused on identifying your audience and creating effective messages for that audience. The second lecture focuses on improving visuals such as how to display complex data analysis.

For assessment purposes Sarah and I developed a presentation rubric that is used by the students in the class as a peer evaluation tool. In addition to peer feedback, Sarah gives individual feedback during the two most important presentations – the project proposal and the final presentation. Some examples of feedback that I feel are critical but are often not given in technical courses include the number of “ums,” posture, confidence and transitions. It’s amazing to see the students improve through the semester on these measures, which impact how they are perceived in a business setting.

The increased professionalism that they display in both their content and delivery has been noted by external industry reviewers who have been attending our final presentations for many years. By bringing in an external subject matter expert, I am free to focus on the technical content, which is my expertise. Our goal here is that with the integration of communication in the capstone course (vs. a non-engineering course) the learning transfer increases and persists into their careers.

Focus on defining the problem. As analytically minded individuals, students tend to focus on developing a model (and quickly). The issue with this proclivity is the potential for not fully understanding the problem itself. Overlaid on the project management phase course structure, we cover the Six Sigma phases in order to present tools that are used to define the problem, benchmark the current process, analyze the system and improve the system. The first and arguably the most important deliverable is the project charter. The objectives of the project charter are presented in class and the teams are then given time to work on their charter and receive initial feedback. Next, they present a draft of the project charter in class and work with another team to “pair and share” feedback focusing on developing project objectives that fulfill the SMART criteria. Finally, they present the final, revised charter in its entirety. This iterative process evolved as I observed the students struggling with setting goals. For example, each semester the students proposed objectives such as “build a simulation model” and were unfamiliar with the concept of developing performance measures.

Learn project management skills. Most of our ISE students have not had formal instruction in project management methods prior to the capstone project. Without a project-based course that facilitates a formal mechanism for defining and tracking milestones, how can the students be successful? Again, the intent here is not to micromanage the projects; in fact, the students have total responsibility for their success or failure. The framework I have leveraged is not only intended to give students tools and concepts that they can apply to their project but also to bring industry standard project management skills to the workplace. We use a phased approach (concept, planning, implementation/execution, and close-out) to guide the progression of the projects through milestones and deliverables. Project management topics that are covered span from developing a schedule and understanding project risks to working in multidisciplinary teams.

The value of presenting these concepts in a capstone course is that students can immediately apply them. During each in-class meeting, the student teams have an opportunity to apply the tool or concept within the context of their project. In doing so, productive discussions can emerge between teams and the instructor, which simplify the issue of “tracking team progress.” Another mechanism we use to quickly assess team progress is the status chart. We adopted a simple one-page chart using industry standard color-coding (red, yellow and green) to mark progress toward the project milestones. These documents are shared with both faculty and industry sponsors in order to facilitate a consistent stream of communication.

Refining the capstone course is far from over, but this framework has laid the groundwork for stability each semester. If you are interested in learning more about our capstone course structure see the ASEE

2012 proceedings, “Integrating Project Management & Lean-Six Sigma Methodologies in an Industrial Engineering Capstone Course.”

Anita Vila-Parrish ( is the director of Undergraduate Programs and Teaching Assistant Professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University.