The main goal of the senior design experience is embodied in this statement found in the ABET handbook on accrediting engineering programs: In Mississippi State University's College of Engineering, we also stress the entrepreneurial nature 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 communication circuit).

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 project work).

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 factors experiments.

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.

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 (picone@cavs.msstate.edu).