The big build

Seniors in Neil Rothman’s capstone mechanical engineering class experience the ups and downs of designing for real-life clients.

By Megan Hanks

In the real world, the more projects and problems an engineer works on, the better they get at coming up with solutions that actually work. That’s why, during the final year of UMBC’s mechanical engineering curriculum, students spend a semester working through the “hard knock design experiences” they need to succeed as engineers.

Olusola Jegede ’17, mechanical engineering, makes modifications to the tricycle that his capstone group designed and built for Calvin, a young boy with curvature of the joints and mobility challenges.

The projects are presented to the class at the beginning of each semester by Neil Rothman, professor of practice of mechanical engineering, and come from a variety of places, including private companies, local nonprofit organizations, and some UMBC-affiliated teams and groups. Throughout the semester, students work in groups of three or four to design, create, test and deliver nearly a dozen high quality products – everything from a calming swing for a boy with disabilities, to a GPS-guided robot, to a machine that automatically shuffles and deals a deck of cards.

Rothman hopes the course helps students recognize how little they know, and encourages them to seek guidance from experienced engineers. “The more times you design engineer something, the better you get,” he says.

Several projects, including a swing for a boy named Brennon’s happened through a collaboration with V-LINC, a Baltimore-based organization that creates customized technological solutions for people with disabilities. Brennon, a young boy who has Type 1 lissencephaly, which causes developmental delays, seizures, and abnormal muscle tone, is calmed by the swinging motion. Swinging also helps reduce the frequency of the seizures that he experiences.

Many students face challenges and setbacks throughout the semester, including some groups who simply run out of time to complete the project. Brennon’s swing, for instance, is still in progress as of press time, so the group continues to put the final touches on the swing so that it will meet the needs of their client. Rothman says that “the design engineer’s best friend is experience.”

Ciara Davis ’17, mechanical engineering, who worked on Brennon’s swing, knew that she wanted to work on a V-LINC project. “I liked that the project we would be doing would be going to someone to help them in some way,” she says.

For Danny Joh ’17, mechanical engineering, who worked with Davis, meeting Brennon was a pivotal moment. “Every single thing I did, I had to think about Brennon. A single thing I did wrong could affect his life,” he says.

Another group developed a GPS-guided robot for the Aberdeen Test Center. The project was proposed to Jay Gordon ’17, mechanical engineering, who interned at the Aberdeen Test Center, and combined mechanical engineering with software engineering skills. The goal of the project is for the robot to be able to follow a soldier in a field and maneuver itself around obstacles, and stop and start at specific points in the field. One requirement was that the robot needs be waterproof so that it can be used outside.

Emily Casto ’17, mechanical engineering, one of the group members, explains that the project allowed her to participate in experiences that helped her grow as an engineer. “I think from this project specifically, I think the biggest takeaway is that being pushed out of your comfort zone is really scary, but it really pushes you to learn and to understand something new,” she says. “This is what engineering is. It’s never the same thing over and over again.”

Mechanical engineering students troubleshoot with GPS robotNotebook with different equationsPerson with UMBC hat poses with boy riding in an accessible bikeGroup pose with GPS guided robotClose up of wires and toolsFour people pose with swing capstone posterChecklist on white boardoverhead view of students presenting their capstone projectclose up of wheel
Jay Gordon ’17, mechanical engineering, says that getting his team’s GPS robot to move in a straight line was a major challenge during the design process. “The robot likes to lean to the left and lean to the right. It just can’t stay straight,” he explains. “It doesn’t go straight no matter how many tests I do with it.”
Students display sketches of the swing they developed for an eight year old named Brennon. The final project was based loosely on these plans, but they modified and updated the designs as they worked through challenges.
This tricycle features a handle and hand brake in the back for easy steering, and pedals that support Calvin’s feet and legs.
The GPS-guided robot group poses with their robot, nicknamed “Army Amy.” Their challenge was to create a robot that would be able to test multi-utility tactical transports, a job that currently requires a soldier to walk through a field posing potential risks if the soldier encounters dangerous devices.
Starting with a project idea proposed by a student, the Aerwell group developed a system that extracts water from the air and reuses energy to power the device. The system was able to collect about one cup of water over 24 hours.
Each capstone group demonstrated their project during the last week of classes, providing an overview of the project and processes during the capstone poster session. Students who worked on Brennon’s swing stand in front of their poster.
The final to-do list for Brennon’s swing project is outlined in the capstone lab in UMBC’s engineering building.
The capstone poster session attracts many people who are interested in learning about the design processes and seeing the final projects.
Brennon’s swing was not completed by the end of the semester, but the group continued to adjust the design after the class ended. During the summer, the group developed a more effective way to move the swing, while keeping the drive system on the bottom so the structure would not become too top heavy.

Use the arrow buttons to the right to scroll through the slide show.
Photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 and Dusten Wolff ’13

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