Design Spine Brings Engineering to Life

2/10/2012

Five years have passed since the publication of the famed National Academies’ report entitled “Rising above the Gathering Storm,” which asserted that high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs are crucial to U.S. competitiveness. Today more than ever, engineering enterprises that lead to the discovery of new technology are recognized as a driving force behind economic growth, political dominance and social well-being.

Throughout its 140 year history, Stevens – through its Schaefer School of Engineering and Science – has been dedicated to educating our future engineering leaders. It is one of only a handful of colleges nationwide that offers a Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) degree accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering & Technology (ABET).

Seventy percent of students at Stevens pursue a B.E. degree in one or more of the nine engineering majors offered in the Schaefer School. The combination of practical design experience and all-encompassing engineering knowledge typically translates to excellent career and salary prospects for B.E. students. The average starting salary of Stevens’ 2011 B.E. graduates was higher than the national average for B.S. in Engineering graduates, contributing to Stevens rank in the top five percent of nationwide colleges for return on investment.

One of the main reasons Stevens engineering students are so successful when they enter the workforce is the unique Design Spine component within its engineering curriculum, which was introduced in the early 1990s and has continued to evolve every year since.

“Design Spine is the most distinctive feature of the engineering curriculum and Stevens is one of the few universities in the country to offer it,” said Daniel Gallagher, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions. 

Design Spine is part of the core engineering curriculum that all B.E. students, regardless of discipline, must take. It consists of eight core design courses taken throughout all eight undergraduate semesters of study – including a two-semester capstone senior design project – which introduce students to the underlying principles of engineering design through hands-on and project-based learning.

“The design-intensive program is what allows our students, when they become engineers, to come up with workable solutions to existing problems that can actually be implemented in the market,” said Costas Chassapis, deputy dean of Schaefer and Mechanical Engineering department director. “By the time they are graduating seniors, they have already become innovators and practitioners, with eight semesters of engineering design experience under their belts.”

By providing broad-based exposure to the many fields of engineering and hands-on problem solving experience, the Design Spine is critical in preparing Stevens engineering students to succeed in the workplace. Students like Kevin Heaney, Rowena Lee and Stephanie Miller – three recent B.E. graduates who also obtained Masters degrees in Engineering – have used their Design Spine learning to make an immediate impact in industry and society. Through their Senior Design project and in collaboration with Academy Learning Center in Monroe Township, N.J., the trio developed a toy that fosters social interaction among autistic children. All three have secured jobs with national companies – Heaney with PSEG, Lee with L’Oreal and Miller with ExxonMobil.

“Juniors in the B.E. program are already functioning as entry-level engineers,” said Lynn Insley, director of career development at Stevens. “Innovative problem solving that addresses big picture, real-world challenges is embedded in our educational experience. Stevens engineers have the vision to see a world that’s different.”

In Design Spine courses, teams of students use knowledge drawn from all of their other courses in that term as well as all of their preceding courses to engineer innovative devices and technologies such as remote-controlled cranes, environmental monitoring stations and remotely-controlled robots.

Each Design Spine course reinforces technical skills and helps students develop soft skills in areas such as teamwork, project management, creative thinking, communication, oral presentations and technical writing. For example, for the major project in Engineering Design I, students use electrical, mechanical and computer engineering concepts, as well as programming skills, to design autonomous, four-wheeled robotic vehicles that compete against each other in a 4 by 8 foot arena. Working in groups, they must design and program their robot to seek and turn off a sequence of target lights in the arena before their competitor while simultaneously navigating around obstacles. In addition to the design competition, the students must give an oral presentation and write a technical report that documents their design activities.

“With the Design Spine we are recognizing that classroom instruction alone is not enough to develop successful engineers. We give students actual experience and hands-on design work that combines technical skills, soft skills, and having fun,” said Edward Blicharz, industry professor in Schaefer who oversees the first four Design Spine courses.

Design Spine courses follow this theme and build upon prior learning experiences to tackle an array of multidisciplinary design challenges. In Engineering Design II, students learn about sensors, data acquisition and controlling systems by designing and building urban search and rescue vehicles, hazardous environmental monitoring systems, or remote-controlled cranes. Engineering Design III tasks students with building trusses and I-beams to learn about structural engineering. And students in Engineering Design IV are focused on electronic circuits and instrumentation, using modeling and simulation tools to design a chemical plating system.

Throughout each course, critical soft skills necessary for young engineers to succeed on the job are always embedded into the projects and course work. For example, projects always involve teams of students from diverse engineering disciplines who have to work together to solve problems – exactly as they would in industry. Project management skills are also developed. Students must create and adhere to a work breakdown structure and project schedule. The team must meet major design and test milestones depicted on the schedule and individuals must deliver their assigned work outputs to the team on time.

“Design Spine courses are the major vehicle for developing teamwork, creative thinking, problem solving, communication, ethics, management and systems thinking in our engineering students,” said Chassapis. “These competencies are of utmost importance as engineering problems become more complex and numerous disciplines are needed to solve them.”

For freshman Ryan Lacey, a Mechanical Engineering major who has completed Engineering Design I and is currently enrolled in Engineering Design II, the interdisciplinary nature of the Design Spine was critical in helping him choose his major.

“It is hard for a college freshman to decide what specific area of engineering they want to study because they have little to no experience with engineering in high school, but the Design Spine curriculum gives students a taste of the varying disciplines within engineering,” Lacey said. “It exposed me to areas of engineering that I never thought I would be interested in.”

Design Spine overcomes another major issue facing traditional engineering education. While many engineering programs instill students with a deep understanding of basic scientific theory and principles, it is rare that they emerge with a well-rounded and comprehensive skill set that allows them to immediately tackle complex problems when they enter industry as engineers. At Stevens, however, each semester’s Design Spine course draws from the engineering and science-based courses students take that semester, so projects provide a tangible context for theories and lectures. For example, students take Engineering Design I concurrently with a Computer Programming course and Engineering Design III concurrently with a Mechanics of Solids course.

“Students learn how to apply the basic principles they learn about in their other courses to the creation of products, systems, services and organizations that address society’s needs,” said Chassapis.

This is important for not only more comprehensive and interdisciplinary learning, but also for better student engagement. Many universities concentrate design work only in the freshman and senior years – leaving a major gap in the sophomore and junior years. In fact, a recent New York Times article cited staggeringly low rates of engineering student retention at many universities because the traditional design gap in the sophomore and junior years takes the fun and creativity out of engineering study, causing students to drop out or change majors. Design Spine, in contrast, embeds design work into all four years of study. This ensures students gain practical, hands-on experience during every semester, ultimately leading to a major senior design project – often sponsored in collaboration with an industry partner – where knowledge from all four years is carefully applied to research and to solve a real-world challenge. This consistent project-based design work ensures that knowledge does not get stale and also keeps content fresh, new and exciting for students.

“Students often ask themselves, ‘Why do I need to know this?’ or ‘When will this help me later in life?’” said Lacey. “The Design Spine curriculum answers these questions by taking what you are learning in the classroom and applying it to real world projects. I had a better understanding of how the material would be applied, so it increased my desire to learn.”

“The students find these courses quite fun,” added Blicharz. “They are excited to see their spoils and labors come to life.”

That was certainly the case for senior Ryan McCormick, a Mechanical Engineering major with a concentration in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. McCormick’s favorite project was building the robotic vehicle in Engineering Design I, and he is equally excited about the much more complex Senior Design project he is currently working on – developing an interface between a robotic arm and an EEG
headset that reads electrical impulses on a person's scalp to gain information and respond to a person's thoughts, emotions and levels of concentration.

“The Freshman project was much simpler, but served as an excellent introduction to Stevens and to the Design Spine, and was a very fun experience because of the friendly competition involved,” McCormick said. “Although much more difficult and complicated, my Senior Design project is also very interesting and rewarding. I really enjoy seeing all of the different parts of the engineering design process come together to help our group realize our design goals.”

Learn more about the Design Spine at /ses/.