Starting this fall, ECE is offering a two-semester capstone design sequence that provides a technical design experience plus an industry-like environment that strengthens students' business, project management, and teamwork skills.
Project management and teamwork skills are critical to industry, according to Gino Manzo, who has joined ECE to serve as the lead instructor and program coordinator. "Over my career, I've hired many young, graduating engineers," he says. "My peers and I never question the technical talents of these graduates, but we always worry about them fiting into our teams. Will they get along Will they be a leader"
More than a dozen firms of all sizes are sponsoring a total of 20 different projects (see sidebar)limiting the experience to 100 students for the program's rollout.
The projects cover a range of technologies and applications, including designing and fabricating photovoltaic cells, sponsored by Micron Technology; refining and building a sensorless maglev system, sponsored by National Instruments; and developing a web-enabled high voltage waveform generator, sponsored by General Electric.
The projects are determined by the sponsors and can feed into their products and services, or can be representative of the type of work the organization does. Intel, for example, is sponsoring a project on reliable low K interconnect structures and offering a bonus for conclusive results on the root cause of time-dependent gate oxide breakdown (TDDB) in the structure.
The new capstone option is the brainchild of Department Head Luke Lester and the ECE Industrial Advisory Board.
The industry sponsors will act as the customers. The students will go though a full business acquisition/deliverables cycle, including responding to a request for a proposal (RFP), developing the statement of work and technical specifications, negotiating deliverables, designing and developing the technology, and final turnover. Each team will work with three mentors: an industry contact, a subject matter expert, and the course instructor.
"Everybody is a winner," says Manzo. "The motivation for industry is to expose students to the human side of what they are doing in school. Industry sponsors also get to audition potential hires over the course of a year." The students, he says, will get exposure to what work in industry is really like while building their networks.
Students planning on graduate school will benefit by seeing the cutting-edge problems in the field and enhancing their professional development, he adds. Students electing the new capstone alternative will earn three technical credits and three capstone design or design technical elective credits for the two-course sequence, ECE 4805 and ECE 4806. The classes will incorporate lectures, team time, customer time, and instructor mentoring.
During the fall semester, the students will spend half their time in technical design, building the concept, detailed design, and initial simulations. The rest of the course will cover the business process, project management, communication, and professional developmentincluding leadership/team skills, listening skills, and strengths and weaknesses.
"These soft, people skills are very important," Manzo says. "Your strengths, weaknesses, ethics, how you deal with diverse perspectives, are all critical to a project's success." Diversity, in particular, is important, he says. "The more diverse your team is, the better your solutions."
The spring semester will be about 60 percent design implementation, including simulations, prototyping, design of experiments, and testing and validation. The remaining 40 percent of spring semester will cover project management, communication, and professional development. All the projects will be presented in a public forum.
The previous two-semester project courses are still available for students, as are the traditional, single-semester capstone design courses.
Industry's take on capstone design
Lockheed Martin is a strong supporter of the new ECE capstone program and is sponsoring three different projects. "We see a tremendous value in being part of forming the next generation of engineers," says Kenneth Schulz, responsible for Lockheed Martin's RFIC Design Center Strategy and Research and member of the ECE Industrial Advisory Board.
"These are real projects that give the students the chance to deal with a customer and overcome the pitfallsin an academic environment," he says. For a small investment in time and money now, "we think we'll have more of the graduating engineers be more ready for what they'll face in industry."
Lockheed Martin's three projects involve IC design, nanotechnology, and data encryption; two relate to skills and technology needed today, and the third relates to technology the firm expects to engage with in the near future. The first project involves the design and simulation of IC building blocks. The students on this project will gain a basic understanding of what it takes to design and to simulate a circuit, using the same software tools used in industry. The process is very complex and most undergraduates do not get the experience, Shulz says, adding that the center typically hires only graduate students for this reason. "This project gives the opportunity for an undergraduate to get hired directly into our center or be able to transfer into the MICS group."
A second project that relates to current needs involves data stream compression and encryption IC design. Students will design a circuit that can take an unspecified 32 bit wide stream of data compress it, and apply an encryption algorithm. "This is a real-world problem right now," Schulz says, referring to the rise of corporate hacking and cyber warfare.
The third project, asymmetric material design analog circuit, is more future oriented, according to Schulz. "We're seeing that nanotechnology will someday impact electronic circuits, and this project gives the students the opportunity to do research and experimentation with materials that have nano' properties, without requiring all the instruments in a nano tech lab." He referred to new materials such as conductive inks, dielectric polymers, powders, nanomaterials, and "organic electronics" that are now available from a range of catalog sources.
Lockheed Martin has strong expectations for its student teams. "We expect the students to do basic research in the topic area, create realistic project plans, make corrections along the wayall while keeping the customer priorities intact," Schulz says. They expect students to learn project planning skills, risk management methods, how to adapt a plan while keeping delivery commitments, communication skills, teamwork, and a sense of ownership.
Virginia Tech is a particularly important school for Lockheed Martin technology, says Schulz. "Not only is it very strong academically, but Virginia Tech goes out of its way to synchronize and collaborate with industry." The faculty really seems to care if its students are successful in industry, and "I think that's fantastic."