Capstone cultivates creativity in solving real-world problems

A young man and woman in business attire give a powerpoint presentation.

Mizzou Engineering puts a twist on its capstone courses, frequently partnering with outside clients to give students the opportunity to tackle real-world problems. One group worked with the City of Columbia on its sustainability efforts.

University of Missouri capstone courses are the culmination of years of undergraduate education, a chance for graduating seniors to bring the fruits of their labor to bear in one final course. Mizzou Engineering puts a twist on its capstone courses, frequently partnering with outside clients to give students the opportunity to tackle real-world problems.

Take this semester’s Senior Design course in Civil and Environmental Engineering for example. Students were divided into five teams to work as de facto consultants for the following partners: MU ROTC and Campus Facilities (Project: ROTC Obstacle Course and Mizzou Venture Out); Columbia Airport Board (Columbia Airport Terminal); Campus Facilities and City of Columbia Parks and Recreation (two teams — MU Recreation Trail and Pedestrian Bridge); and the City of Columbia Office of Sustainability (EARTH — Environmental Authority on Rehabilitation, Treatment and Health).

Civil Engineering Professor John Bowders led this semester’s class, and he said he works with organizations to try and find a broad scope of civil and environmental engineering challenges that they could use assistance with.

“The point to me is that this is a transition course,” Bowders said. “They’re moving from academic work to practice, and I think it’s very important for them to get these somewhat unconstrained problems … and then answering to someone else other than a professor or a textbook. They’re answering to clients who pose the same kinds of questions that they’ll get two months from now when they’re working on a project.”

The goal is to work as a team to create actual feasible suggestions that the clients can potentially implement. Bowders said that clients frequently take bits and pieces of student proposals and work them into these ongoing projects.

“I think it’s really invigorating. When you work with consultants, they tell you that it’ll cost this much money and cut and paste things that worked in other communities,” City of Columbia Sustainability Manager Barbara Buffaloe said. “Working with the university and the students, they have so much more energy, and they’re not against the idea of saving the world yet. When we have these projects, I’m not going to necessarily come here and ask them to help me with a project I can do myself. I need somebody to think outside the box and challenge me to think outside the box.”

Once the students are separated into teams, they work closely with their clients to gather information and come up with workable solutions to the issues at hand. They present their preliminary ideas, then take feedback from their client and work to create one final presentation.

By the time they reach the end of their undergraduate experience, most Mizzou Engineering students will have worked on a variety of projects and done an internship or a co-op. The Capstone course gives them the chance to work as project managers and one final opportunity to hone necessary leadership and interpersonal skills alongside their engineering expertise.

“Projects like this are very beneficial,” said Katy Harlan, a member of the team working with the Columbia Office of Sustainability. “You present, get feedback and definitely learn from that as you go out to be professional in the real world.”

Meanwhile, the clients benefit by getting cost-effective ideas that can help dramatically shape these projects going forward.

“Since it’s a university town, I view it as my duty to work with students to see what it’s like to work with a real-world client,” Buffaloe said.

“They’re designing solutions for the future, so I want to be sure to provide all the data you need, because there are problems down the pike for us that you could create the solution for.”

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