Senior Design 2016 in Review

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Each spring, members of Penn Engineering's senior class are not only studying for their last exams as undergraduates, finalizing post-graduation plans and picking up their commencement regalia.  They are also staying up all night putting the finishing touches on the projects known to the Engineering community as "Senior Design."

Getting Started

While grounded in two required courses taken in the fall and the spring semesters of the senior year, Senior Design has a lasting goal in that it asks and prepares students to do what they will have to do as real-world engineers: identify a problem of significance and solve it in a new way. Students form teams and work with faculty advisors to come up with devices, apps, and diagnostics that are then presented at departmental and, if they advance, school-wide competitions. "Senior Design provides students with a completely open-ended task, something they rarely encounter in traditional university studies," explains Graham Wabiszewski, lecturer in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM). "It is a valuable opportunity to define and solve a problem, a skill that the students will inevitably need in their post-graduation employment."

Traditionally students form teams within their majors, but not all groups are structured along departmental lines. "A notable feature of Penn Engineering's Senior Design is that students from multiple departments can participate together in the same project," notes Jennifer Lukes, professor in MEAM and advisor of team OCEANUS. "After Penn, many of our graduates will work in groups comprised of people with varying backgrounds and strengths, and this is good preparation for that." Students often find that this mixing of disciplines ultimately benefits the group. Chevonaé Walcott, also a member of team OCEANUS, recalls, "We stuck with one another based on knowledge of our previous engineering abilities and because we had complementary specialties such as materials and manufacturing, entrepreneurship, energy and sustainability."

Going Before the Judges

Sponsored by the Penn Engineering Alumni Society, the school-wide Senior Design competition requires project teams to present their accomplishments to a panel of real-world judges from a diverse set of technology disciplines. Each team must articulate their project's objective, strategy and results, all while demonstrating the ability to clearly communicate (communication is 40 percent of the score!) in just 15 minutes their complex subject matter to those who may not be experts in that field.

"Communicating your design ideas so they'll be accepted by your peers and management is a key part of the engineering profession," says 2016 Senior Design judge Eric Benshetler (EE'77, GEE'77), a Program Manager at NextGen Healthcare. "Even those who may pursue non-engineering careers such as consulting must give effective presentations to a wide scope of listeners." Dawn Eringis (CHE'85 WG'89), a Principal at DPE Strategy, agrees. "Each of the different engineering disciplines approaches the senior projects in a slightly different manner, so the information contained in them and the projects themselves are all quite different," she notes. "That being said, it is crucial that ‘real-world' engineers know how to communicate their ideas to engineers and non-engineers alike."

Paul McLaughlin (GEN'86), Chief Engineer at Honeywell Process Solutions, states that the judges evaluate each team for both the quality of the presentation and mastery of the subject material. "When judging, I look to see if the students can tell ‘a story,' one that clearly explains what the goal was, what was developed and learned, and what their next steps might be."

As always, the hope is that the process will leave students with something that they can universally apply once they have graduated. "The Senior Design process mirrors real-world projects across many disciplines, not just engineering or business, and helps prepare students to face future challenges," says Erik Graber (ENG'91), Chief Operating Officer at MF Global.

And the 2016 Winners Are…

It is exciting for Penn Engineers, both students and faculty alike, to anticipate the month of May and what the best and brightest minds of each class have innovated. With ideas from improving cancer detection to responsive building materials, the slate of projects that comprised the 2016 Senior Design Competition was no exception.

OCEANUSTaking home first place was "OCEANUS: Autonomous Wave-Powered Desalination," developed by Chevonaé Walcott, William Cheng, Christina Springer and Sasha Klebnikov, seniors from both MEAM and Materials Science and Engineering (MSE). The group was advised by Jennifer Lukes, professor in MEAM.

OCEANUS is an autonomous system that provides for the fresh water demands of families in remote locations by directly integrating a Wave Energy Converter (WEC) with a reverse osmosis desalination system. In essence, the system uses springs to modulate the pressure that waves put on the reverse osmosis membranes, greatly reducing the membrane wear and tear while maximizing fresh water output. Klebnikov recalls, "We had an early interest in the world of energy, as we saw many large, complex systems that presented fascinating engineering challenges. Once we discovered the existence of wave-based energy, the connection between this key renewable resource and generating fresh water was clear. Using the power of ocean waves to make fresh water is an incredibly alluring idea. Implementing it turned out to be far harder than expected, but ended up being a fascinating and rewarding project."

SCUBAssistSecond place went to "SCUBAssist: A Semi-autonomous Underwater Vehicle for SCUBA Divers," developed by MEAM students Foster Collins, Justin Chang, Mike Meigs, Aedhan Loomis and Andrew McGrath. Their advisors were Jonathan Fiene and Graham Wabiszewski, both lecturers in MEAM.

SCUBAssist is a semi-autonomous underwater vehicle that aims to be the ultimate recreational SCUBA diving assistant. It does this by both assisting with dive site scouting via tethered remote control and by following divers semi-autonomously to record well-framed and stabilized video of the dive. Once a diver enters the water, the vehicle can be switched between a manual, joystick-operated mode to one where it follows the diver autonomously, tracking fiducial markers on the diver's tank.

"The summer before senior year we started throwing around ideas and topics for our project. We found this to be one of the hardest parts of the Senior Design process," remembers McGrath. "It took us a long time to come up with a project topic, but coincidentally while discussing our summers, SCUBA diving came up and eventually the ‘ah-hah' moment came and we decided on making an underwater vehicle." 

HAMRReceiving third place was team "HAMR: Holonomic Affordable Multi-Terrain Robot," created by MEAM's Tighe Costa, Christian Wang, Golam Kibria and John Kim. The group was advised by Mark Yim, professor in MEAM.

Holonomic robots (which have the ability to freely move in any direction instantaneously) are desired by roboticists because of their high level of maneuverability. However, these platforms are often cost-prohibitive and are limited by the surfaces they can navigate. HAMR is a robotic platform designed to be both affordable and functional on multiple surfaces, with a sub-$1000 bill-of-materials cost, and is tested for maneuverability in ADA-compliant buildings. Costa appreciated the opportunity that Senior Design gave the group, noting, "There are few opportunities in undergraduate courses to work on projects lasting more than a few weeks. A year-long project allowed us to reach outside our classes and labs to create something that impacts a larger community."

Lasting Effects

While Senior Design can be viewed as the pinnacle of the Penn Engineering undergraduate experience, its effects last well beyond time spent on Penn's campus. Collaborations are formed and contacts are created, allowing students to add to their networks as well as their resumes. "I think the team for Senior Design is much more important than the project topic," states McGrath. "We spent a ton of time working together over the 9 months of the project and are still great friends. I almost feel that working on SCUBAssist was a full-time job and similar to working at a very new startup."

Perhaps most importantly, students are left with the knowledge that, no matter where they may find themselves, or in what profession, they have achieved what they may have once felt to be impossible. "The best thing about the Senior Design experience is the first time that the product works," remembers Springer. "Our team was in the basement of the engineering quad the first time that our OCEANUS prototype was able to desalinate water, and we were yelling and celebrating together. That was the moment that I felt most accomplished."

Collins states, "I think the amount of knowledge that you learn accidentally throughout the process is the best thing about Senior Design. These lessons go deeper than just technical skills, from team dynamics to personnel management.  You go in thinking you know how you are going to solve a problem, then nothing works, and you have to learn about a whole new thing you never anticipated."

"It's hard to put in words how much I grew as an engineer and teammate as a result of Senior Design," says McGrath. "From applying topics I learned in other engineering courses to having to learn and apply entirely new concepts to complete this project, Senior Design was truly a capstone project and culminating course to my engineering education."

Interested? Learn more!

Penn Engineering Senior Design Program

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