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MSE capstone project delivers results and a few important lessons

Written By: Ascedia -

When a group of five University of Wisconsin-Madison materials science and engineering seniors gathered in a lab on campus early in the spring 2021 semester, they were excited for many reasons. First, after a semester of collaborating via Zoom, they were glad to finally work together in person. Second, they were eager to put months of research and planning into action by conducting their first four-point bend test for their client, Seattle-based Collins Aerospace.

But there was a problem. The dog-bone-shaped honeycomb aluminum panel they were testing was too large for the machine they had reserved. It was a disappointment and could have put the whole project in jeopardy.

Instead of giving up, however, they searched the engineering campus and found a larger four-point bend test machine in an adjacent building.

Solving that problem, and dozens of other hiccups, was more or less the point of the capstone project, which gives materials science and engineering students a taste of the project planning, teamwork and creative problem solving required in the engineering industry.

All MS&E seniors are required to take part in a two-semester capstone project that pulls together the material from their coursework. The students work on a project for a client—either an outside company or UW-Madison researcher—and must integrate the knowledge and skills they’ve gained through their college career to creatively solve a real problem. The year-long capstone is an exercise in true engineering practice and requires teams to work independently, from planning and research to delivering their results to the client.

“I think that being able to be totally hands-on and have a lot of control over what we were doing was kind of a first for all of us, without anyone giving us guidelines,” says Baily Syring, who coordinated the capstone project after finishing an internship at Collins Aerospace. “It was nice to have that before graduating, because that’s just what life becomes after school—being responsible for your own projects.”

The team of seniors, including Syring, Hannah McGraw, Alex Warzyn, Kelsey Riley and Jennifer Hamilton, was tasked with testing the material. Their ultimate aim was to create a full-field strain map of the surface of the aluminum composite sandwich panels as an alternative to more costly imaging analysis methods available on the market. Collins Aerospace Senior Materials & Process Engineering Supervisor Keith Anderson served as their sponsor, offering advice and guidance when needed.

“The task was seemingly very high-level when we first got it,” says Hamilton. “They wanted us to replicate something that is commercially very expensive to do, because it’s hard to do. Originally, we thought we would try our best, but we weren’t sure if we would be able to come up with something because it was very challenging.”

McGraw says the project pushed the team members’ skillsets. “The problem had a lot to do with coding and computer science, and none of us are computer scientists,” she says. “We don’t know how to code at all.”

To fill that knowledge gap, team members found open-source software they could use in place of coding. During their first semester of work, they dug into digital image correlation and four-point bend testing to design their testing regimen. In the second semester, after finding a new lab for their work, they conducted tests every Friday, refining their methods after each session.

Along the way their mentor Anderson offered support, but he didn’t do too much hand holding. “He told us that he wanted us to learn and work through the process on our own and to grow from it, which was the perfect thing for him to do,” says Warzyn. “But he was very, very helpful with answering questions and offering support.”

In the end, the team delivered a 40-page technical report and gave an online presentation to its clients. Anderson, who has mentored capstone groups at other universities, says these types of programs are beneficial for developing networks and introducing students to the engineering workforce. But, given that such projects can and do come with a steep learning curve for the students, client expectations for research results are often low. “I think anything we get in terms of results is a net positive,” he says. “It’s not the driving force why we invest in mentorship and experiences.”

However, Anderson thinks the UW-Madison team excelled in its task. “This group was really one of the best and most successful in technically achieving the goals we set out. They really showed ingenuity,” he says. “In the first whole half of the capstone they couldn’t touch the material or test it. It forced them to do a lot of planning, so when they got into the lab, they spent their time efficiently. As engineers, we get excited to go in and break or burn things to test them, but the most important thing is to sit down and plan.”

Syring graduated in spring 2021 and has taken a job as a materials engineer with Tesla in Austin, Texas. The other team members all have one more semester to go before completing their degrees. But the capstone has made them excited to explore their futures. “We appreciate being able to work with Collins Aerospace and work together as group. Overall, it was kind of fun,” says Riley. “It was a good way to build on and close out the materials science and engineering experience.”