Last week, I once again got the opportunity to be a judge for the UCSB ECE189 Capstone project presentations. It’s the fifth year that I’ve been a judge, and it never gets old. The projects are different every year, and the complexity and quality of the projects improves every year. The improvements do not happen by accident or chance. Professor Dr. John Johnson does a great job taking lessons learned from the previous year(s) and incorporating them into the current crop of projects. Bottom line, the quality of this year’s projects is a direct reflection of the effort put into the Capstone projects by Dr. Johnson and his students over the last five years.
This year, six projects were presented. Three were multi-disciplinary projects where multiple departments within the UCSB College of Engineering collaborated. The remaining three projects were contained within the ECE Department and followed the more traditional Capstone project approach.
Here is this year’s synopsis of the projects, the best project winners, and my general thoughts on the class.
Below is a brief overview of each project. You can view a more complete description of each project by clicking on the project name. The projects are listed by type (multi-disciplinary model first, then traditional model), and then in the order they were presented.
The Sonos COM was a project sponsored by Santa Barbara-based Sonos. The COM identifies all of the SONOS speakers on your home network and allows you to control them from a central hub. It can also be used to record voice and transmit it to all of the SONOS devices on your network. The COM was a joint project by the ECE and Mechanical Engineering departments at UCSB. The mechanical engineering group designed the enclosure to meet physical and thermal requirements while the ECE students designed the all of the electronics and control interfaces.
The FLIR Helios was sponsored by FLIR and was a joint effort between the ECE and Mechanical Engineering departments. Similar to the Sonos COM project, the mechanical engineers designed the enclosure while the ECE students designed the electronics. The goal of the Helios project was to design a wireless security camera at a lower price point than products currently on the market.
UCSB Hyperloop was an extension of last year’s Hyperloop project. The ECE component of the project was part of a larger effort across the UCSB College of Engineering to develop a pod for the SpaceX Hyperloop competition. As such, the goal for the Hyperloop team was to design the control electronics to support the UCSB entry into the next round of Hyperloop testing that will take place in Hawthorne, CA at the end of August.
IR Hub was a traditional ECE Capstone project where the students formed a team, came up with a project idea, and built it. The goal of IR Hub was to consolidate all of your remotes into a mobile app interface. Using the IR Hub and the mobile app, you’re able to learn your remote control codes and then use the mobile app to control your devices using the Hub as a relay.
Gestur was the second of the traditional ECE Capstone projects. Gestur is a glove that is used to allow one to interact with the environment and objects in a virtual reality space. They key to Gestur is that it uses haptic feedback so the user is aware when they have made contact with objects. For example, when attempting to pick up a ball, the glove provides pressure feedback so the user knows that they have made contact and are holding the object.
Ostracam was the last of the traditional ECE projects. It was also a continuation of the Ostracam project from the previous year. The project is funded by the Marine Biology Department at UCSB, which is studying the bioluminescence of Ostracods to understand how nature innovates. While the project presentation was great, Dr. Todd Oakley provided outstanding overview of his department’s Ostracod research and the importance of the Ostracam project in his research.
The Benefits of the Senior Capstone Project
Each year, I discover additional benefits that the students get from the class. Here are my observations from this year.
Capstone projects are not lab projects
One of the things that makes the Capstone project special is that it is a real project and not a lab project. When you do things in a lab, the projects are setup to work. Students build what they are told and then observe the results.
A Capstone project is a discovery project. Students have to build, refine, and experiment to find out how things work. They have to read specification sheets, understand how parts work, and apply things they’ve learned from their classes. There is no guarantee that a Capstone project will work at the end of the year. Even this year, there were features of the projects that students wanted to implement but either ran out of time or couldn’t get them to work. It was no different that what can happen in industry when you are up against a deadline imposed by a demo date or a tradeshow exhibition.
Capstone is a great name for the class because it does bring together everything that the students have learned while in college, and teaches them even more.
“I wish we did…” moments
One of my favorite sayings from one of the groups was “I wish we did”. They were referring to all of the lessons they learned during the course of the project and what they would do differently if they had a second chance. It was great to see because that is exactly how things work in industry. The first implementation of a project is always a bit clunky, and then you refine it over time with your learnings. Fortunately, we (the consumer) don’t see the first iteration of many products. We get to see and use them after they passed an iteration or two (or more) and have been refined for customer use.
I’m certain every project team had many “I wish we did…” moments that will serve the students well in their future endeavors, making them better engineers.
Possibly the most valuable item the students receive during their projects is the mentorship of Dr. Johnson, Dr. Isukapalli and the teaching assistants. It almost serves as an apprenticeship for the students. Individuals with many years of industry experience and knowledge guide the students. They not only teach them how to effectively build their project but also how to manage them to a deadline. It is experience that is invaluable, especially coming from Dr. Johnson and Dr. Isukapalli.
While the students may have brushed off some (or most) of their guidance throughout the year, I am certain that many of these teaching will be way more appreciated in the future.
The 2017 Best Projects
Yes, the best projects was plural this year. Since the multi-disciplinary projects and traditional ECE Capstone projects have significant differences in scope and resources, we were able to award a best project award for each.
As it has been the previous four years, choosing a best project is a tough decision. Thankfully, there were two other judges, Shelly Villata and Ali Yousefi. All the projects were outstanding this year. I always come away impressed by how much the students are able to accomplish in a short amount of time. A winning case could easily be made for all of the projects. Unfortunately, we couldn’t offer awards to every project. We had to make the tough decision of awarding one winner in each category. After comparing notes, Shelly, Ali and I made chose the following winners.
In the multi-disciplinary category, which included Sonos COM, FLIR Helios and UCSB Hyperloop, we chose the Hyperloop project.
In the ECE “traditional” project model, which included IR Hub, Gestur, and Ostracam, we selected Gestur.
I’d like to congratulate the winners, as well as everyone in the class. At the end of the day, all of the students walked away with valuable experience that will serve them well in whatever they choose to do in the future.
I am once again grateful that Dr. Johnson invited me to participate in the judging process. Regrettably, Dr. Johnson has decided to retire effective the end of the current school year. Fortunately for future ECE189 classes, Dr. Johnson had help throughout the second half of the year from Dr. Yoga Isukapalli. I’m confident that the program will be left in good hands and will continue to grow and thrive in the coming years under his direction and stewardship.
Dr. Johnson’s decision to retire is bittersweet for me. I am saddened that Dr. Johnson will be leaving his teaching position because he has done an impressive job working with the students at UCSB. I look forward and have enjoyed seeing his student’s projects over the last five years. His expertise, work ethic, and passion will be sorely missed. On the other hand, it is wonderful to see my close friend move on to the next stage in his life. I wish him all the best.