The Senior Project Handbook is an idea that came from the Tufts Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) students. The request was a simple one: is there a way we can learn about what everyone is doing?

The Senior Design Project is a required course starting in the Fall of the senior year and completed the following April. The objective is for ECE senior students to have a reflective and experiential element as they take ownership of the formative practices, methods, tools, and knowledge elements of the curriculum. This is achieved by completing, whether individually or as a team, a significant design project, under the guidance of a faculty supervisor and project mentor.

This project is often referred to as the Capstone project. Senior projects span the breadth of electrical and computer engineering. The topic areas have included communications, signal processing, robotics, image processing, radar and detection, power amplification, and sensors, while the applications have varied from traffic coordination, ambulatory guidance for stroke victims, automated psychological testing and data processing to mitral value failure detection and wireless testing, to name but a few. Additionally, the students interact with a project sponsor, passing through each phase of the Engineering Method – idea, concept, planning, design, development, and launch – while monitoring their progress using risk and project management techniques. The Capstone is the intended to be the crowning achievement of the undergraduate study in engineering, analogous to the last block positioned on top of an architectural ediface to secure together the entire structure.

As part of this experience, seniors are asked to make presentations along the way to inform their classmates of their learning while working on their projects. Many times the remark was made, “I wish I had time to learn more about that.” Student feedback initiated the idea of a website where seniors could document the experiences associated with their Capstone and share it in more detail with the class and, especially important, to connect to future seniors. As with most designs, we tried to blog, we tried to do a wiki, and we tried to do detailed presentations. None were sufficient for the students, either from a content or assignment perspectives. Finally, the suggestion emerged to modify the writing and communications assignments into a mini-research project on product design and development.

The project assignment is to write a three to five page article on product design and development from a list of the topics and presented in the course as if the article were being submitted for publication. This implied that style and content needed to be similar. A handbook style was adopted to provide information on the topic, a case study, and application to Senior Design, either the student’s senior design project or that of one of their classmates. Potential topics included fuzzy front end, market opportunity, planning, customer needs and requirements, concept generation, design selection, product architecture, industrial design and human factors, design for X (manufacture, environment, testing), rapid prototyping, product liability, intellectual property and patents, engineering economics, project management, and design and development processes to present a representative sample. The students selected their own topics, based upon their interests, with approval by the instructor. The first step was to conduct research. This required the students to find authoritative sources on the subject matter and to organize and summarize their findings. The handbook’s publication objective made it necessary for the students to work with an editor and writing consultants to unify their approach and to ensure adherence to a publication template. The students completed three iterations before they submitted their final product. While this year’s topics focus on the mechanics of the process, next year’s topic will consider collaboration, teamwork, leadership, societal awareness and impact, ethics, and other organic topics showing the interweave of people with process.

This is our most recent attempt to meet the students’ request. Although it is called the Electrical and Computer Design Handbook, the design objective is to articulate and express, in richer detail, shared knowledge to make the reflection element more complete. If we have not succeeded as much as we desired, there is always next year, and iteration and synthesis combined with analysis and aesthetics, are the foundations of design. As engineers, designers, and writers, we know that we can always make it better.

April 2013