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A Legacy of Capstone: 30 Years in the Making

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In the words of Assistant Dean Jim Trent, the BYU College of Engineering Capstone is “a legacy program,” that has now reached its 30-year anniversary of providing students with real-world projects and experience in their undergraduate years.

Capstone is a two-semester culminating class completed in an engineering student’s senior year. Teams of students from Electrical, Mechanical, Computer, and Manufacturing Engineering work on projects in connection with professors and industry professionals.

Trent said Capstone also provides companies with a way to recruit students for full-time employment. Each team interacts with a liaison engineer from the sponsoring company, and companies get to know the students on their teams very well.

Paula Harper, the Capstone Administrative Assistant for Mechanical Engineering (ME), said the program is the cap on an undergraduate’s academic career, making Capstone a fitting term.

“It takes all of the theoretical things they’ve been learning and helps them learn how to apply their entire education in solving a specific engineering problem,” she said.

Capstone Through the Years

The Capstone program started in the 1989-90 school year when a new Manufacturing Engineering program was started. As part of the new freedom in curriculum, they were able to establish a yearlong Capstone program for students in the Industrial Design, Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering majors.

Associate Chair and Professor Carl Sorensen has been involved with Capstone each year for the past 30 years. He was tasked along with Professor Spencer Magleby, and Professor Emeritus Robert Todd with developing the Capstone program. They sought feedback from those who hired BYU’s graduates about how students could be better prepared for working in industry.

They found that most people were happy with the technical skills of the graduates, but they struggled to translate those skills into working on real projects. They sought to make Capstone the bridge needed to help students readily transition into being practicing engineers.

The first year, Capstone was a pilot class, with four projects, four sponsors, and about 25 students. After that, the class became required for all students enrolled in the new curriculum.

In 1998, the Manufacturing Engineering and Technology programs were merged together, and it later became optional for Industrial Designers to complete a Capstone experience. Over the next few years, the program slowly grew as more people realized the benefits it provided for students.

Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Entrance

In 2017, the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department asked to join the program. The number of students in Capstone almost doubled with the addition of ECE and the growth found in the ME department. They went from having between 180-200 students and 28-32 projects to 350 students and over 50 projects.

The ECE department previously had students complete a senior project, which was formally changed to the Capstone. Professor Brent Nelson was the department chair when ECE joined forces with ME. He and Professor (now Chair) Aaron Hawkins felt there would be a wide range of exciting and interesting projects that could work well for ECE students.

“We saw that it had a lot of value and some structure that we liked. We liked the idea of students working on interdisciplinary teams,” Nelson said. “It’s got them working more closely with students from other majors, which is a good thing.”

Sorensen said having ECE as a part of Capstone has been an awesome change, due to the breadth of majors that so many projects cover. “Having Electrical Engineering has allowed us not to worry at all about getting an integrated electro-mechanical project. We can just say “Yeah, we’ll take that project in a heartbeat!””

He said ECE’s introduction into Capstone has been a positive change for all those involved due to the diversity of projects they can now offer students. This has consequently given students a broader skillset they can bring into the industry.

Capstone’s Impact

BYU’s College of Engineering has about 7,000 alumni from the Capstone program, according to Sorensen. “The Capstone program is one of the things that BYU is r­­ecognized nationally and internationally for. We want to graduate engineers who can make a difference in the world,” he said.

Sorensen said there are three things that make BYU’s program unique: externally sponsored projects, the association of a full or part time faculty coach with each project, and the adequate timeline given to students to complete the project. “Those three things are the secret sauce that allows us to have a really outstanding program and get outstanding results,” he said.

Harper said Capstone goes beyond learning how to be an engineer, as students are able to learn how to handle relationship dynamics, such as dealing with coaches and sponsors, helping to prepare them for working with a company.

“We see a big difference when they first come into the Capstone program and when they graduate. Their confidence level is better, their all-around knowledge base has improved dramatically,” she said.

To Trent, if students can learn how to communicate the skills mentioned by Harper before they graduate, it will make them more valuable as they enter the work force. Those are the reasons he sees Capstone as being so successful.

The Next 10 Years

In the future, Sorensen expects to see continued refinement for the program; to him, Capstone’s trajectory is to try to improve their methods of helping students learn what they need to know. He said the focus will be not so much on how the program has changed, but on how great the students are.

“I expect that we’ll know better how to help students make changes in their lives and become successful design professionals, which is our objective in Capstone. We don’t exist in Capstone to do projects; we do projects in Capstone to get the educational outcomes we want,” Sorensen said.

In his role, Trent works with alumni all over the country, and when asked, they have said their Capstone experience was challenging, but the best thing they did at BYU. They consider it to be a great stepping stone towards becoming a professional engineer.

Trent said a lot of the credit is owed to Dr. Sorensen’s work on Capstone, and without him, the program would not be what it is today. He has built something that has wheels and will keep on moving.

"We see graduates of our Capstone program who have become leaders in the industry, largely by applying the skills that they learned at BYU, including from Capstone," Sorensen said.