Capstone Projects Prepare Students for Work World
By Emma Hopkins - Published June 1st, 2015
Senior students in Purdue University's Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering got a sense for the professional work they might encounter after graduation by completing semester-long projects that demonstrate the knowledge they have accumulated in pursuit of their bachelor's degree.
The Purdue ABE Senior Capstone Project course begins in the spring when students choose projects from a list, some proposed by companies in the agricultural industries, such as John Deere, farmers looking for a management solution and Purdue professors pursuing a project. Since the ABE department encompasses agricultural systems management, biological engineering and agricultural engineering, Capstone teams are often composed of representatives from each of those areas.
Robert Stwalley, an ABE professor who teaches the course with Bernard Engel, ABE department head, says the course is a comprehensive experience for students.
"It's the integration of all of their engineering technology and science," Stwalley said. "The Capstone sequence is designed to get them to organize a technical project and then put that into actuation, operating through their plan and making adjustments as they learn different things."
The students displayed their final products toward the end of the spring semester during a public showcase at the ADM Agricultural Innovation Center on Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Projects included a combine attachment that collects harvest-loss data, a new process developed to extract lipids from insects and a garlic planter designed specifically for organic farmers.
Whatever the project, students ended their senior year with practical insight into their industry. Joel Waterman, a senior from Noblesville, Indiana, majoring in agricultural systems management, designed a dynamometer that recycled two pieces of ABE-owned equipment to make a modified machine able to take power readings from tractor tires. He said the course was a new experience for him.
"It's definitely different from just sitting in class, hearing a lecture and taking down notes," Waterman said. "It takes less in the way of book smarts and more in the way of street smarts and being able to think on your feet and coming up with a solution."
There's nothing "mock" about the course. Many of the projects research product issues that can surface from use of new farm equipment. One group took on a project for John Deere, designing a mechanism that would allow farmers to transport the combine head without having to use a separate cart. If implemented, the design would save the time and fuel that otherwise would be needed to transport the head separately. The project was conceptual, but the design will be given to John Deere and perhaps be built as part of a Capstone project in the future. Heading the project were Garrett Meents of Monticello, Indiana, and Kyle Trabert, of Columbia City, Indiana, both ASM students.
"I thought it was interesting, the whole process involved with the design," Trabert said. "It wasn't what I expected—there's a decision for each step and a calculation. Most people don't realize all the steps involved."
Meents was impressed with the opportunities the course provided.
"You get to see how things work in the real industry," he said. "But at the same time, if something bad happens, we're still under the protection of our professors. I enjoyed it because it's ongoing, you get to do something new every week, and that was interesting."
Stwalley says the energy level among the students is always high when projects finish at the end of the semester.
"Students are always excited; this is the highlight of most of their undergraduate careers," Stwalley said. "We have a lot of people get pumped up about doing different things. We're excited now to actually have students come along and offer their own ideas for projects."