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Mechanical engineering IAC reaches out to undergraduates

MU Engineering alumnus Lawson Hart devised an engineering design process to implement in the spring capstone design courses. Hart and the other members of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department’s Industry Advisory Council suggested creating a design process to give undergraduates in the department a chance to develop skills many will use in their careers.

Helping engineering seniors who are about to enter the workforce has become a primary goal for members of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department’s Industry Advisory Council (MAE IAC). The MAE IAC began work on the initiative after attending MAE senior capstone design presentations. Members concluded that capstone project students could benefit from having a roadmap for the overall design process before starting their design projects.

“The IAC members felt that some of the project groups didn’t adequately consider other design alternatives before selecting their design implementation,” said MAE IAC member Lawson Hart, who earned both his undergraduate and master’s engineering degrees at MU. “We also felt that while the vast majority of capstone groups produced quality designs in their senior projects, we wanted the students to have a design process that would enable them to repeat good design experiences in industry.

“When the IAC suggested that someone write an engineering design process, I volunteered.”

Hart devised an engineering design process, presented to students in seminars for the MAE spring capstone courses in February 2010 and 2012. IAC members were then invited to judge MAE capstone projects in April, along with other members of industry.

Hart’s model is a multi-step guide that engineers use when solving a problem or addressing a specific goal. It consists of an eight-step procedure bringing together elements from his own experiences, as well as those of other IAC members.

“It took me quite a few years in industry to learn this,” said Hart, who retired from Boeing as the director of naval missile launch systems. “I think as engineers, we tend to want to jump right into the design, and we see that in students. When looking at the capstone presentations, it’s in those areas that we found the most problems. Students would rush into their design.”

The process includes three phases — concept definition, design and verification — and emphasizes a variety of considerations in planning and design through the first six steps. Hart referred to this as the “fuzzy, front-end work,” but stressed that it is often the most important aspect of the engineering process, one that can save money in the long run.

“What we give them are the steps you would need to solve any problem,” he said. “Out of each step, there are some concrete accomplishments, you need to make before the you can take the next step.”

Students have responded positively, some even calling his process the “design wheel” because of the diagram used to illustrate the process.

“We’ve had some really positive comments from students,” Hart said. “They seem to be really happy with it.”