ISE's capstone Senior Engineering Program

Charlotte Collins
1/24/2018 11:02:03 AM

ISE students, like any other engineering students, take tests. They conduct labs, they record data and they find solutions to textbook problems. But the very capstone of an ISE education at Illinois is the Senior Engineering Program, and it’s unlike any of the traditional classroom or lab settings most students have been exposed to up until their senior year. The semester-long course puts students in small groups carefully tailored to their field interests and challenges them to complete a project for real businesses, which range from health tech-related entities like Jump Simulation to beverage equipment manufacturers, such as Bunn.

Jerry Dobrovolny, former department head and founder of ISE's Senior Engineering Program.
Jerry Dobrovolny, former department head and founder of ISE's Senior Engineering Program.

The program was launched in 1961 by Jerry Dobrovolny, former department head and pioneering force in ISE. At the time of its implementation, Illinois’ program served as a model to other institutions, many of which went on to develop senior engineering programs of their own. ISE’s program was one of the very earliest, if not the first, of those programs.

Senior Engineering Project Coordinator Harry Wildblood likens the course to a “semester-long job interview.” He approximates “between 12 and 15 percent” of students are hired by the companies they’ve worked with on their senior engineering projects. 

Senior Engineering Program awards line the wall beside the entrance to the Senior Design Lab.
Senior Engineering Program awards line the wall beside the entrance to the Senior Design Lab.

“When a company is going to hire an entry-level engineer, they want them to be able to work successfully in projects at their company,” says Wildblood. “What better way to test them out than to have them work on a project in their company?”

The different projects are all organized into a list that is sent to students approximately a week before the semester begins so that the seniors can get a feel for the projects. Students then select their preferences and Wildblood uses that information, as well as the backgrounds of the students’ studies, to form the groups, which also include a faculty member to guide the projects.

Students meet with their partnered businesses and usually tour the facilities, have weekly conference calls with liaisons at their companies, write four reports, prepare four presentations, and finally present a solution to the problem including an economic analysis (typically with a two-year payback), showing that their solution will provide a 50 percent internal rate of return on the company’s investment toward solving the problem.

Austin Freeberg, who finished his project at the end of last semester, describes the program as “like having a co-op or internship during the semester,” because of the rigorous workload.

Freeberg's group worked on a design for a shoe sole cleaner.
Freeberg's group worked on a design for a shoe sole cleaner.

Wildblood feels the intensive hands-on approach required of students in the course is the ultimate preparation for a career in engineering.

“If you have a nice GPA, we know you know how to take tests,” says Wildblood. “Now, we want you to actually become an engineer, and use those engineering insights to solve problems, which have, perhaps some things that you don’t understand, so you’ll have to go through a learning curve.”

Clients donate $9,500 to participate in the program, but Wildblood calculated an average of $150,000 in annual savings for the companies after they’ve instituted the solution proposed by the students.

“It’s a good deal,” says Wildblood. “Everybody wins.”

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