Senior Design in the Time of COVID-19

Typically a team-based, hands-on experience, Drexel Engineering Senior Design, like many University-based experiences, pivoted quickly in light of the in-person closures due to COVID-19. Groups performing experiments, characterization, and building prototypes for their capstone projects were suddenly left with a new engineering challenge to figure out—how to complete and present their final projects without access to the typical on-campus resources.

Faculty and students alike have been resilient and resourceful in adapting to a new platform for students to complete their projects. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) moved students to perform more in-depth analyses of their existing results and data and submit their findings in a written report and NSF-style “Quad Chart.” “Students have been working closely with their advisors and graduate mentors online to complete their projects,” reports Dr. Richard Knight, teaching professor, associate department head, and undergraduate advisor in MSE.

Dr. Jennifer Atchison, assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics (MEM) and Dr. Adam Fontecchio, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Director of the Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence (CASTLE), teamed up on their approach to Senior Design throughout the year. Students within both departments maintained a similar timeline and have produced video elevator pitches, posters highlighting their prototyping process, a project abstract, group portraits, Instagram images, and prototypes and design. Additionally, senior design teams had the opportunity to hear from experts, including patent attorney Mr. Aaron Ettelman from Ice Miller LLP, and website development expert Mr. Jervis Thompson from the Interactive Digital Media department. “The addition of these elements has given our students the opportunity to consider their projects in the context of an entrepreneurial endeavor, providing valuable lessons in taking a project from conception to market,” observed Fontecchio.

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Electrical and Computer Engineering students give their elevator pitch as part of their Senior Design project earlier this year.

To bridge their in-person experiences to a virtual platform, students were tasked with wrapping up their physical projects and focusing on designing ways to highlight their technical prowess and creativity. Comparably to what employees experience in industry, students completed a project closeout, documenting their processes. “How to handle a decision that you may not agree with in your professional life can be a career maker,” shares Atchison. “This disruption has been an unanticipated opportunity for our seniors to learn self-management skills and to practice resiliency.”

In addition to a written report and a recording of their final presentations, students have reflected on their work by curating an e-portfolio highlighting their accomplishments, bringing together all parts of the three-quarter Senior Design program into one digital portfolio. Ms. Nicole Dalberto, associate director of career service from the Steinbright Career Development Center (SCDC) was also tapped to share how to put together a quality LinkedIn profile, to help refine the students’ approaches to their projects and look towards the impact on future employment.

“For the final quarter of Senior Design, our students have been able to reframe their experiences to focus on their successes and look to the future and share what they have learned with the world,” says Atchison, something she believes will be an asset to students as they apply for jobs and interact with future employers.