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Building the Total Engineer


This article originally appeared in ASABE Resource Magazine.

NC State’s motto is: “Think and Do.” Few things embody the spirit of this motto more than senior design.

“Senior design is a tradition that we take very seriously here,” said ASABE member Fellow Dr. Mike Boyette, P.E., professor in the department of biological and agricultural engineering (BAE) at NC State.

Floating wetlands

With nationally recognized teams, patents, and other successes in the program’s 50-year history, the emphasis on senior design is easy to understand. Projects have resulted in benefits to industry, local government, and communities across the state. But what might not be so evident are the life skills, in addition to the technical skills, that are emphasized in the course.

ASABE Member Dr. Mari Chinn put it this way: “It’s not just a project. The students are taught how to be engineers.” Guided by the canons of professional engineering, the topics covered in the course include engineering ethics, innovation, disruptive technology, and case studies of engineering disasters.

“In many ways,” add Chinn, “It’s one of the first times in their career that students are given a problem with an open-ended solution, or maybe no solution at all.” Boyette and Chinn co-teach the two-semester Capstone course, which is required for all seniors. Starting in the fall semester, students are free to choose their teams and their projects. Boyette and Chinn provide students with a list of projects submitted by faculty, industry, or even other students. Some students choose a topic within their area of concentration. Others choose projects outside their area to gain broader experience. Project topics run the gamut from floating wetlands to brewery wastewater treatment to pine straw bailing.

Senior design is a tradition that we take very seriously here.

Dr. Mike Boyette

While the course emphasizes the application of technical skills that the students have learned in the BAE degree program, the emphasis is also placed on soft skills. Boyette and Chinn aim to build “total engineering” graduates who have solid technical skills as well as the ability to express themselves and work with their teammates. “We teach engineering as a team sport,” said Boyette, “The team includes other engineers as well as the people who will build their design and the people who will use it.”

A recent change to the program reinforces this idea. Each team is assigned a member of BAE’s advisory board, in addition to their faculty sponsor. These advisors provide another perspective, and they’re another set of eyes on the project. Students receive yet another perspective from guest speakers who are brought in by Chinn and Boyette to provide insights on getting a job, keeping a job, and how to act professionally on the job.

It’s not just a project. The students are taught how to be engineers.

Dr. Mari Chinn
Senior design group photo

At the 2018 ASABE Annual International Meeting in Detroit, NC State’s BAE senior design teams came back with first-place awards in both the Gunlogson and AGCO student design competitions. The Gunlogson Award went to a team that designed a floating wetland to capture trash in a lake on a golf course in North Carolina. Their design had a built-in failsafe to release in the event of flooding or severe weather to prevent damage to the wetland.

The first-place AGCO Award went to an NC State team that tapped into the billion-dollar pine straw industry, designing and building a first-of-its-kind machine to clean pine straw. “We have to understand the system that we are designing and the systems that we are using as a solution,” explained Chinn. “We’re in a unique space to understand the science in addition to the engineering aspects of biological systems.”

Learn more about Senior Design