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The only way to learn to be an engineer is to be an engineer

Think like an engineer

Barnett (left) and King

Simply put, the only way to learn to be an engineer is to be an engineer. For more than 25 years, the Vanderbilt School of Engineering has worked strategically to draw students into the actual practice of engineering early and often. The goal? Cultivate a passion for scientific inquiry and an appetite for solving big problems right from the start. These skills are honed in bachelor of engineering seniors via the school's yearlong senior design experience, usually incorporating a multidisciplinary seminar, design courses and teamwork and culminating in a one-time showcase, Design Day.

Incorporating design at the undergraduate level was new territory when it was introduced in the early 1990s, says Paul King, professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, emeritus. King is credited with bringing senior design to the school's curriculum, having taught biomedical design to more than 1,280 learners and more than 526 teams over 21 years. In 2011, he was honored during the BMES conference with a lifetime achievement award for his outstanding achievements in BME design instruction.

King and mechanical engineering's Joel Barnett were the longtime leaders of the school's innovative, multidisciplinary senior design seminar that continues today. While Vanderbilt's curricular structure fosters discipline-specific learning, the seminar brings together students from different majors in integrated instruction.

Whether through departmental courses or the seminar, the core of the student design process  is a focus on students working with real clients on real engineering problems, producing practical solutions and then presenting their ideas at Design Day. King says senior design and Design Day jump-start careers by enabling seniors to gain hands-on experience in the working world.

Real clients, real work

The projects also promote teamwork that simulates the workplace. Vanderbilt was ahead of many other engineering schools in its implementation of senior design. The consistent success of senior design projects attracts companies and individuals who ask student teams to turn problems into solutions.

The multidisciplinary Senior Design Seminar occurs in the fall. It explores ethics; budgeting; patents, trademarks and licensure; job hunting; career development; contracting; discrimination and liability; and risk assessment and reduction. The seminar also features speakers on professional subjects essential to the practicing engineer.

Also during the fall semester, students and Design Day projects are matched. Interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged, with teams of three to six students working on each project. For example, a biomedical engineering student might work on an electrical or mechanical engineering project. Some students also elect to complete an engineering management capstone project in their own discipline.

Turn off the vacuum

Then research and innovation begin. Faculty meet with students throughout the process to assess team ideas, advise and make recommendations. Even so, each team is responsible for its own dynamics, research, design development and solutions. It all culminates in a spring event known as Design Day.

Engineers don't work in a vacuum in the professional world. Knowing how to assemble a team of collaborators who can pull together in a highstakes setting, communicate with bosses, work with clients and get the job done is what matters.

Senior Chelsea Stowell demonstrates the Kid Sense smart car seat her team developed and for which the team filed a U.S. provisional patent application.

"Industry doesn't work in silos of specialization, so why should our students?" asks Chris Rowe, associate professor of the practice of engineering management. Rowe is director of the Division of General Engineering and oversees engineering communications. "Our students learn early that cohesion, collaboration and healthy conflict are where creativity and problem solving are found."

Faculty members from appropriate disciplines serve as design advisers and teach courses. They bring approaches tailored to the skills and projects relevant to their areas.

Joel Barnett, associate professor of the practice of mechanical engineering, establishes his mechanical engineering design course not as a class, but as a workplace. Students sign employment contracts and take on the vocabulary of the working engineer. "In the classroom, students work alone and can look up answers," Barnett says. "In senior design, solutions come from teamwork and finding the best answer within customer constraints."

Vanderbilt's engineering management program contributes business plan development, commercialization and product development strategies. Its advisers emphasize budgeting, deadlines and managerial basics such as costeffective purchasing. Many employers favor Vanderbilt engineers because of the management fundamentals they learn in developing their design projects and through the school's engineering management minor.

By graduation, Vanderbilt engineering seniors are prepared to hit the ground running. "They have the skills and they also have the experience," says Rowe. "It's the human factor and the practical experience that set our students apart."