March 2014

Featured Article

Capstone Design for ECE Students at San Diego State University

By Lal Tummala

Each graduating student in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at San Diego State University is required to demonstrate their competence in completing both individual level projects and projects that involve teams with varied backgrounds. They should be able to demonstrate individual and group communication and presentation skills in both written and verbal forms. The students should understand the importance of lifelong learning and should be aware of the ethical dilemmas faced by engineers in their work environment. Even though some of these objectives are achieved throughout the curriculum, we require all the students to take a four unit semester (16 weeks) capstone design course before graduation to reinforce the following skills.

a) Demonstrate individual competence in designing and building a small system by completing an individual project.

b) Able to prepare an engineering proposal with clear statement of specifications, design criteria and deliverables;

c) Active participation as a member of the design team and made significant contributions to achieving the team’s goal and objectives;

d) Understand the benefits and problems of teaming;

e) Participate in several individual oral presentations;

f) Prepare well organized reports both for individual projects and team design project;

g) Understand the ethical and professional issues faced by the engineers;

h)  Exposure to contemporary issues.

The course is divided into four parts:  

  1. Individual project
  2. Team project
  3. Regularly scheduled Lecture class
  4. Mandatory IEEE seminar series

During the first eight weeks, the students form teams, formulate project plans, submit a proposal for the team project and complete the individual projects. The second half of the semester is devoted mainly to team design project. They are also required to attend regularly scheduled lectures twice a week. Furthermore, the students enrolled in this course are required to attend weekly IEEE seminars given by speakers from engineering companies and write a short summary of the presentations.

Individual Projects

The purpose of the individual project is to instill confidence and demonstrate individual competence in conceptualizing and designing a small project. This is important because many of the lab activities throughout the undergraduate curriculum are usually directed and usually involve more than one person. We found that this exercise helps the students to relearn lab skills necessary for conducting laboratory investigations necessary for the team project. These projects vary from semester to semester. Typical projects involve an embedded system with a microprocessor, sensor and a display and programming to achieve a goal (Example : temperature control system). Satisfactory completion of these projects involves the demonstration of the completed project to the instructor and submission of a written report.

Team Design Project

 During the first two weeks of the course, the students are given the descriptions of some of the design projects submitted by faculty and industrial participants. The students can select one of those projects or select one of their own.  Each selection is evaluated by the facilitator. Teams consist of 4-5 members and are chosen to provide enough diversity of skills and personalities. Once the project is selected, the team prepares a proposal and submits it to the “management team”. The so called management team consists of the faculty members in charge of the course, faculty member and /or an industrial participant that submitted the project.  The proposal includes problem definition, background research, conceptual system design, detailed task schedule, project management and budget. The proposal should also explain how the team takes into consideration various soft constraints such as: reuse and disposal, maintainability, serviceability and manufacturability. 

Other activities of the team include: meeting at least once a week with the management team at a scheduled time, preparation and maintenance of team’s website, prepare and present (power point presentations) their progress to the entire class and submit a final written project report. The semester culminates with a day specifically dedicated to showcase their designs called Design Day.  Design day activities include poster presentation, and demonstration of the projects to the public at large. This is open to everyone and well advertised in the College. Furthermore, invitations are usually sent to local companies, alumni, and other interested parties. The students really enjoy participating in this event. The students not only enjoy showing of their projects but also get valuable experience in explaining the technical aspects of their project to people with varied backgrounds.

Class Lectures

The class has two scheduled lecture times every week. They are used for providing information about writing proposals, technical topics relevant to the projects, and discussion about ethics.   Ethics is a difficult topic. This topic is handled through a series of lectures based on the material obtained from industry, professional journals and case studies.  This lecture time is also used for student presentations and guest speakers from various segments of the industry.  Student teams present the progress of their work using modern presentation tools and receive feedback from the entire class. Each team is required to do this three times before it is delivered to the public at an IEEE meeting. The students in the class act as audience in all these presentations and give their input on the quality and substance of presentation. It was amazing to see the progress made from one presentation to the other based on the feedback received from the students in the class.

IEEE Seminar series

Professional awareness and Lifelong learning are definitely important for the graduating student. We provide exposure to these topics by bringing in working engineers from local industry on a regular basis. The student branch of Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers arranges this meeting and is open to all the students and faculty. We require our senior design students to attend this seminar and report their findings. To make it possible for all the students to attend the seminar, the department does not schedule classes during that time.


The impact of this course on the student’s ability to achieve the overall objectives of the course (final grade) listed in the previous section is measured in the following ways:

a) Grading by the management team based on the proposals, written reports, web design, individual project and team project

b) Peer evaluation by the team members

c) Faculty evaluation of the final oral presentation, demonstration of the team design and poster presentation, and

d)  Student self evaluation

Peer evaluation by team members and student self evaluation is done at the end of the semester.

Self evaluation by the students revealed several insights into students learning.  The students felt that this class helped them to become more confident in their ability to work with others, improved their ability to evaluate, design and validate new systems.  They also understood the importance of oral and written communication and felt that this class provided the tools and the training needed in this area. Many companies were impressed by the preparation of these students and recruited them for internships and immediate employment. The students also said that this experience definitely helped them in their job interviews. 

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