A two-semester capstone course provides ECE majors with real-life, real-time industry projects.
There are no grades in the real world,” comments one student halfway through ECE’s new two-semester capstone design class. The course, ECE 4806, provides teams of students with simulations of the post college world via projects specified and directed by industry partners. Students need to adjust to the new ways they will be evaluated in the workplace—effectiveness, timelines, and the ability to cooperate with professional colleagues.
Gino Manzo mentors 16 teams of students through design projects for industry partners.
“We know that Virginia Tech students come to the table with excellent technical skills, and that is going to open the door to their first jobs,” said Gino Manzo, a professor of practice who directs the program, drawing on his 37 years of experience at BAE Systems. He hopes to instill in his students the importance of business and professional skills to supplement their technical acumen.
“You have to know how to work on a team, and the best ideas come from the most diverse set of people you can put together,” he says. Advancement, according to Manzo, is based in part on being a good team player and leader.
He presented ECE 4806’s 16 projects, and had students identify their top three choices. “Many teams came together with students who did not know one another,” he says. Since then, he has worked to train the students in teamwork, through lecture, team building exercises, and reading assignments.
He has watched the groups gel. “I see them come back from lunch together and talking in the breakout rooms,” he says.
Each of the 16 projects is sponsored by a company or institution, and experienced engineers at those organizations keep in regular communication with their teams, serving as the “Customer.” The projects cover a range of areas, so each team also has an ECE subject matter expert to provide technical guidance.
In the first semester, Manzo gave lectures and met with teams individually to gauge their progress. This spring, as deadlines loom, more time is focused on completing the project. “I’m trying to be a coach and mentor," Manzo says.
Once the projects are assigned, it is up to the teams to decide how much time to devote to their project.
Manzo surveyed his students at the end of the first semester and found that they struggled with the freedom he gave them. "They love it because they can be creative and do what they think is right, but they hate the ambiguity," he says.
For the spring semester, he had his students dig through the 10-K reports available through the SEC. The mandated filings will give students an unfiltered perspective of the kinds of places they may work, according to Manzo.
In February, students presented their progress to their peers. Most groups took longer than they had expected to figure out what the project needed to be. Even with directions from industry partners, the teams rescaled projects, adjusted budgets, and devoted additional hours to research and planning.
The students are learning how to adjust their projects, develop workarounds, and even rescale projects and at the same time manage their customer expectations.
"It's okay to re-scope a project. That's not failure, that's learning," Manzo says. "In real life, their supervisors will be out of town and give an assignment due in two weeks. There won't be a grade, but maybe accolades and constructive criticism."
Students send their industry contacts a monthly status report, but Manzo encourages them to engage their customers—if an industry partner does not respond to an email, then give her a call, he suggests.
"When you start communicating, you build rapport, then comes trust and confidence, which is the foundation for a high-performing team." Manzo says. In the world of work, projects do go awry, people make mistakes, change directions, and change them again, he says. "If your customer has trust and confidence in you, he or she will accept what you say."
When ECE 4806 begins again in Fall 2015, Manzo will have 26 projects and over 100 students.
"I don't want them to take a job and be just a pair of hands," Manzo says.