WHAT MAKES A GOOD SENIOR DESIGN PROJECT?
The main goal of the senior design experience is embodied in this
statement found in the ABET handbook on accrediting engineering
"Students must be prepared for engineering practice through the
curriculum culminating in a major design experience based on the
knowledge and skills acquired in earlier course work and incorporating
engineering standards and realistic constraints that include most of
the following considerations: economic; environmental; sustainability;
manufacturability; ethical; health and safety; social; and political."
In Mississippi State University's College of Engineering, we also
of this process, and prefer to see students exposed to entrepreneurial
aspects of the process, including market-driven problem statements and
design objectives that stem from a need to solve a real world
problem. Unfortunately, too often students, in their youthful
exuberance, create over-ambitious projects that involve extremely
complicated systems, and require immense amounts of system
integration. So what is the essence of a good senior design project?
First and foremost, the students must demonstrate what I describe as the
engineering design cycle:
Students must ultimately answer the question: "What is the design
content in this project?" As Professor James C. Harden, MS State's
Computer Engineering Program Head and Senior Design instructor states,
"Students should define and solve some problem rather than explore
technology." The focus of the course project is not how ingenious your
invention is, or whether you have completely functional hardware, but
whether you have demonstrated a good command of essential engineering
skills in implementing your idea. For example, demonstration that your
simulations, prototype, and packaged hardware all satisfy critical
design constraints is extremely important. Verification that your
design performs as theory has predicted is essential. In the event
that your hardware does not work properly, did you use good
engineering skills to debug and improve your hardware? In short,
first-time success is not nearly as important as overcoming your
initial failures through good engineering.
So what types of projects are good candidates for senior
design? My favorite example is that of an audio
amplifier. This is a simple project that has very clear design
constraints: signal quality, power, efficiency, cost, size, etc. Each
of these constraints will directly impact the design of the
electronics involved. This system can be simulated in its entirety
using PSPICE, prototyped using inexpensive components, and fabricated
using any number of low cost methodologies available within the
department or accessible via the Internet. A good project idea must
lend itself to electronic circuit design, must include a significant
simulation component, and be capable of being prototyped using a bread
board (or comparable discrete component prototyping systems), and lend
itself to low-cost fabrication. Projects that can be prototyped in discrete
components, and then fabricated on a printed circuit board, are ideal.
So what is a bad project idea for senior design? Many students are
interested in doing wireless communications projects. Often, the
first draft of a project statement will read something like this "We
will implement a wireless communication and web interface to remotely
control a washing machine." When the students explain how they plan to
do this, they state "We will purchase a wireless communications
module, a XYZ microprocessor, integrate these two chips on a board,
and write the necessary software." The two most common pitfalls here
are lack of design content (using an off-the-shelf wireless
communications module circumvents a significant electronic design
component of the project) and proposing an extremely complicated
system (they will need to purchase a washing machine, interface their
digital circuits to this machine, write lots of high-level
software). Though at the surface this project idea might seem
ingenious, the details of the project will make it difficult to
satisfy the goals of the course, since there is not a lot of
engineering design involved in this project (except for the interface
circuitry on the washing machine). Further, some subsystems, such as a
wireless communications module, are not the type of things students
should attempt to build out of discrete components (unless, of course,
the group is serious about learning how to design a wireless
What is the most common mistake senior design teams make?
Successful teams share two distinct qualities: everyone pulls their
weight and all skills required for the project exist within the team.
Too often teams embark on projects that require software expertise,
yet they do not have a software person on the team. Similarly, often
groups decide on a project that loosely relates to their field of
interest (for example, wireless control of a power switching system)
and yet do not have a communications or electronics person on the team
(and hence are missing the key skills it will take to make this
What is the next most common mistake senior design teams make?
Choosing the wrong advisor. Too often, students select a theoretician
as an advisor (like me), and then come to him or her with questions
such as "Why does my microprocessor reset when I set pin 7 high?" or
"What type of transistor should I use to amplify a 1 volt signal and
deliver 100 watts of power?" When their advisor looks slightly
disorientated, and replys "Hmmm, that does sound like an interesting
question." students are often disappointed (I have found if I stroke
my beard they are usually impressed with such answers). Some faculty
enjoy getting their hands dirty in the lab working with students;
others prefer to challenge students on theoretical aspects of the
problem and expect students to find other resources to deal with
hardware issues. Students should shop their ideas around to several
faculty, and choose the faculty member that they feel will best fit
the unique needs of their project. (Note that this experience is good
practice for your first job search - make sure you talk to the person
for whom you will be working!)
Perhaps the hardest part of the development of a project idea is to
establish ten major design constraints. These must include five
technical constraints ("The signal to noise ratio must exceed 90
dB.") and five practical considerations ("The system must fit within a
1"x 2" x 2" package and weigh no more than six ounces.").
These constraints must be quantifiable and must be easily measured
in the laboratory. Constraints such as "easy to use" and "user-friendly"
are typically not allowed, since these are virtually impossible to
evaluate in a scientific way without conducting extensive human
Students often seem to prefer to create new ideas rather than improve
on existing designs. Yet, most students will function in the latter
mode in their initial job assignments. It is perfectly acceptable
to start with a project from previous semesters, and to improve on it.
It is also acceptable to work within the framework of an established
on-going project, such as the IEEE Southeastcon competition. Two important
resources to examine are:
Most universities now have extensive web sites on their senior design
projects. For example,
University of Illinois
is one of the largest EE programs in the country, and has an impressive
array of on-line resources for senior design.
North Carolina State University
has been national leader in entrepreneurship. If you still feel you
need more resources, talk to your course instructor.
Project Proposal Database:
all students must register their project in this database before they
enter the class.
Project Web Sites:
all projects maintain a comprehensive web site that is an excellent
archive of the project, and includes relevant schematics, data,
and design documentation.
Senior Design is called a capstone design course because it is intended
to be a crown jewel in your education. For many of you, this will
be the single most important topic of discussion at your job interviews,
and often result in a job offer and/or an initial career direction.
Your choice of project is a very important decision in your life.
It is never too early to start thinking about it.
Questions or comments about EE Senior Design can be directed to
Dr. Joseph Picone