Session experiential learning with a global perspective: overseas senior design projects

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Richard F. Vaz1 and Peder C. Pedersen 2

Abstract  All WPI undergraduate students complete three required projects, including a senior-level capstone design project that is equivalent in credit to three courses. Over 50% of WPI students complete at least one of their projects overseas at one of WPI’s residential Project Centers located around the globe. Here, we describe two Project Centers—in Limerick, Ireland and Copenhagen, Denmark—at which teams of WPI students spend an academic term completing electrical and computer engineering design projects for industrial sponsors. Examples of student projects are given, as are details of the learning outcomes and accreditation evidence they provide. Finally, logistical and operational issues are discussed.
Index Terms  Capstone design, international programs, project-based education, senior projects.


As engineering programs construct their cases for ABET accreditation, they face the challenge of providing evidence of some learning outcomes that are not easily achieved through traditional engineering coursework. Six of the eleven EC 2000 Program Outcomes that ABET has established for engineering graduates [1] are based on broad, general education outcomes rather than technical knowledge and skills. This has prompted many programs to consider ways to integrate these broad outcomes, such as communication and teamwork, into their engineering curricula.

One increasingly popular strategy for addressing the broader ABET outcomes is the senior design experience [2]-[4]. Senior design projects, depending on their implementation, can address many, if not most, of the ABET Program Outcomes. In particular, design activities that go beyond the classroom to involve team-based open-ended problem solving in real-world contexts can effectively demonstrate a wide range of learning outcomes.

A particularly challenging learning outcome is for students to demonstrate an understanding of how engineering relates to the broader contexts of society and the world. Possibly in recognition of this difficulty, the ABET Program Outcome associated with this is worded to require demonstration of “the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context”[1], rather than demonstration of that understanding itself. Nonetheless, our students’ lives and careers will be played out in an increasingly interconnected world, and in their roles as technologists, they must have a solid understanding of the contexts and consequences of their engineering efforts in order to make decisions that are both responsive and responsible.

In this paper we will describe how Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) provides students with senior design experiences in international settings. Project programs in Limerick, Ireland and Copenhagen, Denmark will be described, both in terms of their educational objectives and outcomes and in terms of logistics, financial support, and faculty involvement. The authors hope that this program can serve as a model for providing more US engineering students with opportunites for meaningful study abroad experiences so that they can better understand the impact of engineering in a global context.
Project-based Education at WPI
In 1970, the faculty of Worcester Polytechnic Institute adopted a new project-based curricular structure for its undergraduate programs of study in engineering, science, and management. In a distinct departure from the traditional engineering and science curricula of the university's first century of operation, the WPI Plan specifies degree requirements that feature three project experiences.

One of these projects, the Sufficiency, takes form as the integrative experience for a thematic course of study in some specific area of the humanities and arts. Conducted as an independent study under the guidance of a faculty member, this project requirement provides closure to an academic activity akin to a minor. Another undergraduate degree requirement, the Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP), serves to connect the students’ work in technical studies to their work in the humanities and social sciences. The IQP challenges students to examine how science and technology interacts with societal structures and values, by asking them to address a problem with both technical and societal aspects. This project is equivalent in credit to three courses and is performed in small teams under faculty supervision. Since the IQP lends itself naturally to different cultural settings, it has become the foundation for WPI’s Global Perspective Program[5].

The third of these requirements, the Major Qualifying Project (MQP), serves as the capstone design experience for engineering students. This project was designed to provide a professional-level application of the students’ knowledge in their major fields. Equivalent in credit to three courses and completed in small teams under the guidance of one or more faculty members, the MQP typically involves the design, synthesis, and realization of a solution to a real-world technical problem. This project usually takes place in the students’ final year, and challenges them to bring disciplinary and general knowledge to bear on an open-ended problem in a team setting; it culminates in a formal written technical report and a formal oral presentation, in addition to whatever other products or processes are appropriate to solve the problem at hand.

Taken together, these degree requirements form the basis for degree programs that emphasize critical and contextual thinking, written and oral communication, integration and synthesis, and interdisciplinary collaboration. In particular, the IQP and MQP, with their broad focus and experiential nature, are intended to help students learn how to apply their skills and knowledge to unscripted, real-world problems. Therefore, these projects are not limited to academic investigations on campus, but lend themselves natually to work done for external organizations, both in the local community and far afield. WPI’s conscious decision to educate “technological humanists” has shaped the institution’s development since the WPI Plan was adopted, and has led students and faculty away from the campus and classroom settings in search of project opportunities.

The Project Center Model

In order for the student projects to take place in broader cultural contexts, WPI has established “Project Centers” around the globe. This effort began in Washington, DC in 1974, and then expanded to include London, Venice, and Bangkok in the 1980s; currently there are 14 WPI Project Centers, including operations in Hong Kong, Australia, Namibia, and Costa Rica, operated under the aegis of the WPI Global Perspective Program. All three types of degree requirement projects are carried out at Project Centers; in particular, they have become the primary setting for IQPs, over 60% of which are now done at Project Centers. In more recent years, the main growth area has been in Project Centers for the senior year design projects; currently, about 35% of all Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) students, for example, complete their senior design projects in a single term at an off-campus Project Center.

These Project Centers provide a structure within which WPI students—usually accompanied by WPI faculty—live and work fulltime at locations far from campus, addressing problems of importance for local companies, agencies, and organizations. In this way, student teams apply their formal learning in new cultural and professional contexts. Unlike traditional study abroad, for which engineering curricula are typically not well suited, a term at a WPI Project Center fulfills a degree requirement and is integral to the students’ programs of study. Furthermore, unlike many study abroad programs, WPI Project Centers immerse students into the host culture; they experience both the engineering workplace and daily life as young professionals.

Limerick, Ireland Project Center
In 1996, members of WPI’s ECE Department traveled to Limerick, Ireland to meet with prospective project sponsors and seek out suitable student housing. On the strength of previously existing professional contacts, project sponsorship was obtained, and the first team of WPI students went to Limerick to complete a senior design project at Analog Devices. Since that time, 34 students have completed 12 projects for 6 different corporate sponsors in the Limerick area. The students live in rented apartments in the city and spend 10 weeks on site, bringing technical problems from definition to completion.

In 2001, four teams of students completed design projects at the Limerick Center. One team, working with Analog Devices B.V., developed both the hardware and software for a DSP-based approach to the precision control of brushless DC positioning motors. A team working with Internet Control Solutions, Ltd., developed a working prototype of a remote surveillance system over the European GSM network. A team working for Datamate Communications designed and implemented an FSK transceiver to upgrade the communication board in an existing commercial device. The fourth team, working in a laboratory at the University of Limerick, designed and implemented an automated system to test the efficiency of thick-film planar transformers in a switch mode power supply environment.

In each case, the students arrived on site with no prior knowledge of the specific design challenge facing them; since the projects are by design tied to the current needs of the sponsoring organization, they cannot be defined far in advance. With guidance from the WPI faculty advisors in residence at the Center and the professionals at their sponsoring agencies, the students spent the first two weeks doing background research, defining goals and objectives, developing specifications, and writing a formal proposal including design methodology. During the subsequent eight weeks, they brought the projects to successful conclusion, delivered working systems to the sponsors, submitted extensive formal project reports to their advisors, and publicly presented the results of their work.
Copenhagen, Denmark Project Center
The MQP Project Center in Denmark began in 2000 as an extension to an existing WPI project activity in Denmark: a center at which students complete their interdisciplinary IQP projects. The operation of the MQP Project Center has been assisted by the close cooperation between WPI and the Engineering College of Copenhagen, located in one of the suburbs of Copenhagen. All the students from WPI enroll as students in the Engineering College, which provides access to the library and to the laboratory and computer facilities of the college. The Electrical Engineering (EE) Department at the Engineering College assigns a faculty advisor with whom the WPI students meet weekly and facilitates identifying project sites as the EE Department has numerous industrial contacts.

The WPI project students spend 10 weeks carrying out their projects, during the latter part of August, all of September and part of October. The project activity in Denmark is preceded by a one-week intensive preparation at WPI followed by a few days of on-site orientation in Copenhagen.

In 2001, one group focused on developing a way for intercity rail passengers to have high-speed internet access during their train ride. Their project sponsor was Atkins Denmark, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in technology connected to rail travel. The student team critically examined all available options and developed and executed a series of trials to test the limits and capabilities of high-speed communication between a stationary access point that transmitted its signal using a cavity antenna along a vehicle's pathway and a moving vehicle equipped with a wireless bridge connected to an omnidirectional antenna. The overall goal was to prove that an 802.11 WLAN system could be used to provide a high transfer rate to a roaming target moving at speeds up to 120 Km/h. Their results indicated that that a high-speed, always-on system for rail passengers would work if implemented correctly. The students also identified the capabilities and limitations of such a system.

The other team developed an effective method for measuring the properties of acoustic devices and responses of acoustic environments, in the form of a Maximum Length Sequence (MLS) analyzer, for Brüel & Kjær, a world-renowned firm developing test equipment for noise and vibration measurements. MLS analyzers are used to measure the impulse response and frequency response of loudspeakers or other acoustic devices, or of an acoustical environment such as a concert hall. The team completed a mathematical analysis of the MLS method and investigated the most efficient ways to implement the software, which was required to run on a Windows 2000 platform. The acoustic responses measured with the MLS analyzer developed by the student team were close to those obtained with other systems in use at Brüel & Kjær.

Logistics, Funding, and Sponsor Relations
Both of these Project Centers were established by faculty members with connections at the site; each is sustained by the ongoing commitment of a faculty member who serves as Center Director. The Center Director negotiates with project sponsors, locates suitable student and faculty housing, recruits and selects student participants, and either serves as faculty advisor to the projects or recruits colleagues to do so. Since WPI has a network of Project Centers around the globe, there is a considerable infrastructure on campus to support the student application process, to ensure that health and safety issues are addressed, and to provide basic information regarding travel issues. On-site support is also crucial; for example, in Limerick, a Local Coordinator works part-time for WPI to assist with housing, travel, and sponsor logistics.

WPI has made a substantial commitment to providing its students with global opportunities. All students are eligible to receive a free passport upon matriculation, and all students who receive financial aid are automatically given enough extra aid to make their off-campus experience cost-neutral. Since student project advising is an integral part of the teaching responsibilities of all WPI faculty, on-site advising can be accommodated, as long as there are enough students on site—typically 12 is the minimum—to justify a residential faculty advisor. For fewer students, the faculty advisor will typically spend the first week or two on site, thereafter doing most of the advising by e-mail, fax, and telephone.

Since the students are receiving academic credit for their project work, they cannot be paid; however, we have found that project sponsors are often willing to provide fees to support such project programs. In addition to direct support, sponsors will usually provide students with local transportation, and sometimes with housing. Most important is the sponsor’s commitment to provide a liaison, usually an engineer or engineering manager, to work closely with the student team. It is important for project sponsors to understand the educational goals of these team projects, since they are quite different from the objectives of a typical internship. We have found that project liaisons provide a key component of mentoring and guidance to most projects.
Learning Outcomes and Evaluation
All WPI senior design projects, regardless of location, provide students the opportunity to work on a large-scale, open-ended problem in their major fields. Furthermore, they all involve extensive formal documentation and presentation of results. As such, they both address and provide evidence for such learning outcomes as:

  • The ability to apply math, science, and engineering

  • The ability to design and conduct experiments, analyze and interpret data

  • The ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired needs

  • The ability to identify, formulate, and solve engineering problems

  • The ability to use techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools necessary for engineering practice

  • The ability to communicate effectively

When these projects are completed at an overseas Project Center, teams of students work closely with professionals from the host culture, and experience daily life in the culture. Additionally, they address real-world problems that typically require considerable background research and a fast learning curve. As a result, the students also gain and demonstrate:

  • The broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a societal and global context

  • A recognition of the need for, and an ability to engage in, lifelong learning

  • A knowledge of contemporary issues

Since these projects feature such a rich set of learning outcomes, WPI’s ECE Department has developed a variety of assessment approaches for continual improvement. The faculty advisors, of course, provide students with detailed evaluations of their work and formal project reports; the reports are archived in the WPI library. Students, faculty advisors, and sponsor liaisons complete evaluations of the project’s learning outcomes. An independent faculty committee reviews all project reports on a biennial basis. Finally, all students deliver oral presentations of their project work that are evaluated by faculty.

Senior-level capstone design projects are commonly recognized as vehicles for providing students with an integrative experience in their major field. However, they can also provide the opportunity for meaningful international experiences. WPI’s Global Perspective Program sends teams of students overseas to complete real-world senior design projects for external sponsors.

The high levels of participation in this program—over 50% of WPI students complete at least one degree-required project overseas—can be attributed to a number of strategic decisions. First, the work done by the student teams while overseas is directly in fulfillment of a WPI degree requirement, so there are no obstacles to participation based on transfer of credit or progress toward degree. Second, WPI has made the commitment to make global opportunities readily available to all students, by providing free passports and financial aid incentives to make the program more affordable. Third, a well-developed infrastructure on campus and overseas supports the processes of recruiting, preparing, and sending students, and ensures that health, safety, and academic issues are carefully monitored.

Colleges and universities looking for ways to integrate broad educational outcomes such as global awareness into engineering programs would be well advised to consider looking beyond the traditional course-driven curricular structure. When engineering students participate in real-world design experiences in international settings, they gain more than an understanding of the design process; they learn about the profession, the world, and themselves.
We thank John Orr of the WPI ECE Department and Paul Davis of the WPI Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division for their unwavering support of the Limerick and Copenhagen Project Centers. We also thank John McNeill, Natalie Mello, and Tom Thomsen of WPI and Charlotte Tuohy of the University of Limerick for their dedication to making these programs successful. We are grateful to Analog Devices B.V., Internet Control Solutions Ltd., Datamate Communications, the University of Limerick, Atkins Denmark, Inc., Brüel & Kjær, and the Engineering College of Copenhagen for their support. Finally, we acknowledge WPI’s talented and enthusiastic project students, whose participation makes these programs rewarding and enjoyable.

  1. "Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs", Engineering Accreditation Commission, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc., Baltimore, MD, 2001.

  2. Moor, S.S., and Drake, B.D., "Addressing Common Problems in Engineering Design Projects: A Project Management Approach", Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 90, No. 3, July 2001, pp. 389-396.

  3. Farr, J.V., Lee, M.A., Metro, R.A., and Sutton, J.P., "Using a Systematic Engineering Design Process to Conduct Undergraduate Engineering Management Capstone Projects", Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 90, No. 2, April 2001, pp. 193-197.

  4. Moore, D., and Berry, F. “Industrial Sponsored Design Projects Addressed by Student Design Teams”, Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 90, No. 1, January 2001, pp. 69-73.

  5. Vaz, R.F., “Connected Learning: Interdisciplinary Projects in International Settings”, Liberal Education, Vol. 86, No. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 24-31.

1 Richard Vaz, Worcester Polytechnic Institute,

2 Peder C. Pedersen, Worcester Polytechnic Institute,

0-7803-7444-4/02/$17.00 © 2002 IEEE November 6 - 9, 2002, Boston, MA

32nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference

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