COPING WITH COVID: 480 Capstone Design course does a 180

When the Covid crisis hit campus and closed labs, instructors Alan Taub and Max Shtein quickly revamped the course to give student teams the option to design Covid-related products.
COPING WITH COVID: 480 Capstone Design course does a 180

The Van Vlack Undergraduate Lab

Prior to March 16, the MSE 480 Capstone Design course was hands-on learning as usual. Eight student teams were following a system engineering approach with projects like converting the lower control arm of a Dodge Ram truck from aluminum to ADI (austempered ductile iron) that reduced both the weight and cost of the original component by 10 percent. Next up was building a physical prototype.

Then Covid hit.

“The teams had completed the steps of defining user needs, engineering requirements, down-selecting the best concept and producing a detailed design,” explained MSE 480 instructor Professor Alan Taub. “They were about to move on to producing and testing a physical prototype when the Covid crisis closed the laboratories.”

Taub and co-instructor Professor Max Shtein then reworked the syllabus to allow each team to make a choice between a) continuing on with their present project with more detailed design and modeling, or b) changing to a new project aimed at designing products that would support the battle against the coronavirus.

In the end, two teams stayed with their original projects and six teams opted to switch to a new, Covid-related project.

The teams who stayed with their original projects, “Incremental Sheet Forming of Titanium” for ME Professor Miheala Banu and “Improved Ocular Conformer for Anophthalmia Patients” for Dr. Nelson of the Kellogg Eye Center, were able to see the projects through with positive outcomes.

“Both teams who stayed with their original projects ended up delivering detailed design and simulations of their concepts to their sponsors, who were very pleased with the results,” said Taub.

Meanwhile, the other six teams chose between designing a decontamination unit for N95 respirators, designing a negative pressure room to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, and producing better respirator masks by improved sealing and adapting a snorkeling mask for isolated non-invasive ventilation during treatment of Covid-19.

Of course, with half of the semester gone, time presented one of the biggest obstacles to those changing mid-project.

“For our new project, we had to make as much progress in a month that had taken about three months to complete for our original project,” said Bethany DeMarco, who switched to designing a negative pressure room. “It was difficult to absorb and understand so much information about the virus in such a short amount of time, and then use it to develop an effective solution, especially since the information was changing daily. Another challenge was just adjusting to all of the struggles that come with working on a very collaborative project in a remote capacity. Fortunately, my team was quick to delegate project tasks and set up many meetings throughout each week to discuss ideas and monitor our progress. It also helped that we had gone through the design process before for our original project, so we were familiar with what deliverables needed to be completed.”

Group dynamics were also an issue as the teams had to work together – while apart. “Our group often had varying ideas on how the affordability vs effectiveness trade off should be broken, and it was extra challenging since we weren't able to meet face to face to discuss,” said David Allen, also a member of the negative pressure room team. “We overcame this challenge by taking votes as a team after weighing the pros and cons of each team member's stance over Bluejeans.”

Through it all, Taub said he was “very impressed” with how quickly the teams adapted to the unprecedented situation – an unintended but highly useful life skill in and of itself.

“While it seemed unfortunate to have to go through the Covid crisis, it did have one upside,” commented Taub. “The reality is that often in engineering careers there are times when there are interruptions and changes to the product-development processes, so this was actually a good thing to experience and learn from.” 

DeMarco agreed that the end result was worth the upheaval: “It was neat to be able to present a well thought out solution at the end of the semester that aimed to address such a pressing and globally dominant problem.”