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The Power of Liberal Arts in the Classroom, a conference hosted by SED's Center for School Improvement, on May 2

Week of 25 April 2003· Vol. VI, No. 30

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ENG senior capstone presentations build real-world confidence

By Tim Stoddard

At last year’s senior project conference, Dawn Janssen (ENG’02) presents her research in biomedical engineering. Photo by Vernon Doucette

At last year’s senior project conference, Dawn Janssen (ENG’02) presents her research in biomedical engineering. Photo by Vernon Doucette


It’s become a rite of passage for BU’s budding engineers: with two weeks to go before diploma day, every ENG senior takes a turn at the podium in the Photonics Center presenting his or her senior design project to several hundred scientists, engineers, and students. The conference, which takes place on May 2, is the culminating moment of a nine-month research project that is now a mandatory part of the ENG degree program. The event has the look and feel of a professional conference, attracting alumni and representatives from industry and academia, as well as scores of juniors anticipating the year ahead.

“ It’s pretty impressive what the students can do today,” says Solomon Eisenberg, an ENG associate professor of biomedical engineering (BME) and associate dean of undergraduate programs. “They can present a tremendous amount of information in a short amount of time. It’s polished and well rehearsed, and by-and-large the quality is on a par with professional national meetings — maybe even better.”

Since September, seniors in the four ENG departments have been working independently or in groups to design creative solutions to real-world problems that span the engineering spectrum. Some of the teams go to work for a local company, others conduct research in a BU laboratory, while others invent devices that do everything from scaring away pesky crows to sending tourists into space. While diverse in nature, all the projects are meant to hone communication skills with a dose of real-life experience.

“ If ever there was a time when engineers were relegated to a back room and didn’t have to write well or speak well, that time is long gone,” Eisenberg says. “Today’s engineers need to be entrepreneurs, technological innovators, and communicators. The ability to make coherent arguments about your ideas is the ability to get them funded.”

While some ENG departments have included independent research projects for nearly two decades, it is within only the past five years that all four branches incorporated the senior projects and conference presentations into the degree program. The move was prompted in part by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which in the 1990s began to require “capstone design experiences” in all undergraduate programs. “Oral communication skills have always been important for engineers,” says Eisenberg, “but only recently have they been recognized as tools for advancing an engineering career.”

The senior project is not a hurdle reserved just for the best ENG students, Eisenberg says, because “it is part and parcel of what people do in industry and graduate school. It is extremely important to be able to articulate your ideas, sum up your progress, and present to an audience that may not all be experts in your field.”

But after three years of rigorous course work that focuses on technical excellence, the shift to a design project, where students chart their own courses and set their own deadlines, is a sea change for some seniors. “We’ve had students with low GPAs, 2.2s and 2.3s, end up first in the class at the senior project conference,” says Kenneth Lutchen, a BME professor and chairman of the department. “Many of the students don’t like structured classes. Once they can be creative and pursue something they’re interested in, they just blossom.” On the other hand, he adds, many students with high GPAs struggle when they no longer have clearly defined assignments and exams.

It’s a daunting task for many seniors, who are also juggling other classes and planning for life after graduation. “It looms for the entire year, because you have all this other course work too,” says biomedical engineering student Justin Voigt (ENG’03). “You’re torn because you love the research, and you want to do it, but at the same time, you have obligations in other classes and you’re still a student. It’s the balance that makes it tough and fun at the same time.”

But the majority of ENG alumni who have been through the capstone process say that it is a valuable experience. “I can’t tell you the number of alumni who’ve come back to tell me, ‘After I graduated, I was never scared again of giving an oral presentation,’” says Lutchen. That boost of confidence marks a cross-over into the professional world. “There’s something transformative about taking an idea from concept, working on it, and formally presenting a year’s worth of work in 10 minutes,” says Eisenberg. “It really focuses the mind on how to get things presented efficiently and effectively.”

Confidence often is not the only result of the experience: many students also walk away from the conference with job prospects. “Throughout the day, you’ll have companies pulling students aside to line up interviews,” says Lutchen. “It’s not unusual for a student to get a job offer following this talk.” More than 60 companies attended the biomedical engineering talks last year, he says, and many of them are not there simply to recruit young talent. Often the representatives are taking notes from the students, engaging with them as colleagues rather than up-and-coming stars in the field.

Seeing that interaction can be transformative for parents in the audience as well. In many ways, the senior project shows them how far their sons and daughters have come at Boston University. “It’s one thing to go to graduation and watch your kid wear a nice gown and march with 5,000 other kids,” says Lutchen. “It’s another thing to watch him or her stand up in front of a lot of scientists and engineers and blow away the audience with what they did during their senior project. That to me would be one of the proudest moments as a parent.”

ENG designed: better -- and bolder -- living


25 April 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations