Published: April 29, 2020
Two students present senior design project to panel

The unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 sparked an impressive and resilient response from seniors in their capstone projects

Nikki Edwards | Photos Courtesy of Madi Heath

Being able to problem solve is at the forefront of any engineering field, but conducting crisis management for a global health pandemic was not originally part of the blueprint for seniors in their design projects. 

On March 11, Chancellor Philip DiStefano notified CU students and faculty that due to COVID-19, several campus actions were going to be implemented to mitigate the spread of the extraordinary virus. The message delineated actions regarding travel, events and the transition to remote teaching and learning. All collegiate operations had been altered and the fates of engineering seniors’ capstone projects were uncertain. 

“As the restrictions get worse, and the pandemic spreads further, they’re going to tighten the rules further and further. [Our] director is out right now. We’re kind of on hold. There’s not much we can do,” Mechanical Engineering Senior Ryan Weatherbee, said. Weatherbee is working in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja design challenge, a hands-on project to construct an off-road racing vehicle. 

Within a two-week timespan, difficult changes were made to the Mechanical Engineering Senior Design program that caused many challenges to arise in the completion of the projects. 

Program Assistant (PA) Gabe Rodriguez, the ME Senior Design professors and the other PAs met with all 33 teams for contingency planning. “We had teams tell us how many more hours of machining they needed, how many more hours of testing, what equipment they needed on campus that they could take home, what equipment they couldn’t bring home and where the teams could take projects off campus,” he said. “We urged teams to get done with all their machining as quickly as possible, which affected some teams more than others. Later this day, we also announced the machine shop was closed Friday [March 13] because of additional info the professors had received.” 

The expedition and modification of the projects gave seniors limited time to reevaluate their projects and find a new workspace to conduct machining and run test trials with their prototype.   

Sam Brown built a new lab in his basement to accommodate for the remote learning requirements. He and his team worked on an autonomous robot that moves up and down a wind turbine blade as the turbine technician scans for cracks. If any damages were found, the technician would tell the robot where to grind. Then the bot would use suction cups and its saw to precisely grind and smooth that portion of the wind blade.

“Some of the stuff that we needed to manufacture, I was able to do in my basement. We moved the entire device, got a whole bunch of tools, drill presses, the best setup we can possibly have to  mimic the resources that we’re losing. Definitely [not ideal], but we’re getting it done”, Brown said. 

As CU took more cautionary actions to limit the spread, so did Senior Design instructors. On March 17, the students were urged to minimize their group sizes. Rodriguez said, “But after receiving some additional info, we sent a follow-up email mandating all projects be worked on remotely, which we knew was going to require changes in project scopes.” 

“We were lucky that our team got most of our machining done before the COVID restrictions,” Jamie Frankel, a Mechanical Engineering senior said. Her team is developing electrically-activated grippers to assist in the assembly of automotive vehicles. “However, at this point based on school guidelines, only one person is allowed to work on and interact with the project at one time. One of my team members, Jackson Hootman, has taken all of the supplies we had stored to his home. He's doing hundreds of hours of testing completely by himself."

Jackson Hootman, Mechanical Engineering senior, said, “It was definitely a very hectic transition in just the span of a few days. Luckily we were able to check out a bunch of resources from the ITL.”

Versatility is something that is greatly emphasized in the College, and Hootman has utilized his impressive set of skills to complete his project for Mikron Automation. “Even though I’m a Mechanical Engineer, I do like to mess with electronics. I have lots of prototyping materials which has been really helpful,” Hootman said. “I also paint as a hobby. I was able to airbrush all our 3D print parts and I also do photography. It has come in handy since we’re now transitioning to a website-based expo so we’re able to document all our progress with nice photos to present on the website.”

One of the many cautionary actions taken by the university was to suspend, “multi-day university-sponsored gatherings or those with more than 150 attendees.” This news resulted in the cancellation of Senior Design Expo, where the teams present their finalized prototypes to their sponsors and the public. 

“The suspension of Expo is incredibly disheartening and brutal considering it’s the showcase of our four-year education,” Frankel said. 

Weatherbee and his team members were going to travel to Kentucky in May to race their vehicle against other teams around the world. However, that event was called off due to COVID-19. 

“With the Design Expo and the competition being canceled, our team doesn't really have any deadlines anymore, but our group is very invested in the project just as a project. We are all very passionate about trying to finish it if we can," Weatherbee said.

Instead of having Design Expo, the directors created an alternative course of action to present the projects, “CU ME Project Showcase.” 

“We're basically having teams work on magazine-style reports that show off the projects they've worked on all year,” Rodriguez said. “It's meant to help students’ portfolios so they have a reference for networkers to see what they did for their capstone projects, while also still allowing interested family and friends to look at their projects.” 

Hootman said, “We’re looking forward to creating the website centered around it. I think it’ll be a great way [to present] the functionality, because we can include videos and other media. These reports are a great resource for portfolios and for everyone to have for future job opportunities.” 

For graduating seniors, many job opportunities have been compromised due to COVID-19. Some students are struggling to secure positions. “I think it’s a good thing that school went to pass/fail; a lot of us have more important things to deal with that extend beyond academics,” Frankel said. 

According to the Guardian from March 23 to April 2, "Some 3.3 million have filed for unemployment, bringing total claims to 9.95 million for the two weeks." The coronavirus induced recession looms over the 2020 graduating class.

Brown said, "I'm trying to get a job currently. I did have a job opportunity lined up, but recently I was told they’re no longer hiring and I’m wondering if it’s due to COVID.” Frankel, Weatherbee and Hootman, however, are continuing their education to pursue a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. 

Due to COVID-19, a tidal wave of unfortunate events have drowned arguably one of the most momentous times in a student’s academic career. Seniors in design projects and the entire graduating class of 2020 have been stripped of the occasion for making memories and bringing emotional closure to their education. They cannot offer a proper goodbye to their favorite professors or their best friends who are working a thousand miles away from them. 

As seniors look back on their experience at CU, there are countless projects, relationships and memories that they will take with them into the daunting place known as, “The real world.” 

“I am incredibly proud of myself, and I think this is the point of Senior Design—you take on challenges and larger tasks; you prove to yourself and others that you’re able to do it and you learn how to overcome the greatest adversities,” Frankel said.