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Capstone instructor’s class focuses on rounded design process

Electrical and computer engineering Resident Instructor Jim Fischer answers a question relating to a part purchased for ECE senior William Wills (seated) capstone project. Looking on are fellow ECE seniors Kimberly Oetting and Peter Sakari.

Each semester, University of Missouri electrical and computer engineering instructor Jim Fischer is responsible for both ECE 3110 and ECE 4970 courses, the department’s Projects and Senior Capstone Design classes. Both require students to utilize classroom concepts to conceptualize and build hands-on projects of their own devising — under Fischer’s watchful eye.

“Basically, I serve as project manager,” he said.

He explained that ECE 3110 is a precursor to the capstone class, and it provides students with experience working in interdisciplinary groups. It additionally gives them a chance to gain experience in some procedure that might be crucial to their capstone project.

“Students are assigned to groups that are comprised, whenever possible, of both electrical engineering and computer engineering students. Group assignments are made in an effort to embrace the diversity of our students to ensure they gain experience working in diverse groups before entering the workforce,” Fischer said. “These groups cooperate to come up with their own project ideas and students continue working within the same group through both classes.”

Fisher noted that each project must incorporate both circuit design and software design aspects, requiring electrical engineering students and computer engineering students to work together to design and build the project. Typically, electrical engineering students are responsible for the electronic circuit design aspects of the project, while the computer engineering students are responsible for the software programming aspects.

The ECE Projects class requires each group to master a six-step project management process similar to what they might encounter in a work situation. Groups work together and meet with Fischer on a weekly basis to discuss progress and ask questions. Each group member is responsible for writing about his or her contributions.

The first step is a project proposal and the second requires them to provide specifications to define the project.

“Then they come up with a design and, whenever possible, perform simulations to validate the design and make sure everything seems correct. They also put together a list of necessary materials and costs for the build,” Fischer said.

The build is the fourth step in the process, and the fifth is the creation of a test plan that students will use to evaluate the completed project to ensure it meets or exceeds the project’s specifications.

“The final step, a demonstration, is semi-formal as though they are presenting the project to a customer,” Fischer said.

The Senior Capstone Design course follows a similar process, but includes additional aspects to ensure the capstone project experience meets or exceeds the requirements of the college’s accreditation by Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET).

“ABET requires realistic design constraints, things like environmental impact and sustainability. There are eight considerations when designing,” Fischer said. “Each project group must incorporate at least four of these realistic design constraints into their capstone project.”

Each capstone has a faculty sponsors who meets regularly with the student group to assess progress and offer assistance when needed.

Projects classes cover a lot of electrical and computer engineering ground. To illustrate their varied nature, Fischer touched on a few completed last fall: a digital logic trainer, a wireless remote-controlled vehicle, light sensors and an alarm system for garage access, and a project that included analyzing and recording trajectories with a three-axis accelerometer. The latter, Fischer said, was an example of a group incorporating a problem into their projects class to solve it so they could “hit the ground running,” when they started their capstone project.

Fischer’s background has uniquely qualified him to work with wide-ranging topics, having served in the U.S. Air Force for nine years in the field of metrology — the science of measurement.

“The lab I worked in covered nine different measurement areas. We were responsible for testing all types of equipment associated with the day-to-day operations of the air base, including calibration and repair of electronic and physical dimensional test measurements, and diagnostic equipment. It provided me with a broad background, primarily in electronics,” Fischer said.

He left the military in 1992, and went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s in electrical engineering from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo.

“Cal Poly has a reputation for students that produce strong engineering projects for the tech market, but I’ve seen ECE capstone projects here at Mizzou that rival them,” Fisher said.

After graduating, Fischer went to work for Nexsi Systems, a Silicon Valley start-up. The networking applications box with security functions he and the other engineers at Nexsi were working on had been doing well — it garnered a “best in show” award for the categories of application data routing and increasing connection speed at the 2001 Networld/Interop conference. However, when the tech bubble burst shortly after Sept. 11, the company folded when investors “pulled the plug” on further funding.

That’s when he decided to return to his Midwest roots. Rather than going back to his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., Fischer landed in Columbia and went to work for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering providing technical support for the department’s undergraduate laboratories. He transitioned to teaching in 2007,when the former instructors for the ECE projects and capstone courses retired.

“I enjoy teaching and I enjoy working with the students,” Fischer said. “The courses I work with are not courses dealing with theory only. They’re very hands-on and so our students feel they’re more fun. I never cease to be amazed by the concepts the students come up with. Some of them are really ingenious.”

“When you graduate with a degree in engineering, you are really graduating with a degree in problem analysis and problem solving,” he said. “A degree in ‘problem-solving’ applies everywhere. I’ve had students who went on to work in fashion, music, and art, and have no doubt that no matter what field of endeavor our students pursue after they graduate, the problem-solving skills they acquired while pursuing their engineering degrees will serve them well throughout their lives.”