March 2014

Featured Article

ECE Capstone Projects at the University of Waterloo

By Daniel Davison, William Bishop, and Manoj Sachdev

The University of Waterloo ECE Capstone Project is based around two courses (ECE498A and ECE498B) in the final year of study.   Projects, which can be software-based, hardware-based, or a mixture of the two, are done by groups of four or five students.  There are two guiding principles for the project:

  • the project must involve engineering design (i.e., a creative, iterative, and open-ended process), and
  • it must be at an advanced level (i.e., require upper-year engineering knowledge and be sufficiently complex to require, over the two terms, about 960 hours of work for groups of four students, or 1200 hours of work for groups of five students).

The course milestones are summarized in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1. Milestones in the ECE capstone project courses.

One of the strengths of the capstone experience is that students are required to construct a working prototype to demonstrate the feasibility of their design.  The prototype is evaluated by a project consultant at the end of ECE498A (to monitor progress) and near the end of ECE498B (to formally assess the design).   As part of the demonstration process, students and consultants also participate in a formal assessment of safety risks associated with the capstone project.  Project consultants are usually professors in the department, but we allow students to choose as their consultant any faculty member, lab instructor, or a professional engineer outside of the university.

Throughout the project, students submit several technical reports, culminating in the production of a 60 page final report in ECE498B.  The reports are graded by a single instructor, rather than the consultant, to ensure consistency.  Prompt and meaningful feedback is provided to students to help steer them towards a successful design experience. Detailed rubrics and marking schemes are provided to the students.   Marks are divided into three parts with roughly equal weight.  One part relates to the engineering design process, where students need to explicitly show the iterative open-ended process that they followed, with convincing justifications for all design decisions.  The second part relates to the sophistication of the analysis used in the design process: students need to explicitly show where upper-year knowledge is used.  The final part relates to communication skills.   

One of the most exciting aspects of the University of Waterloo ECE Capstone Project is the design symposium, held near the end of ECE498B.  The symposium is an all-day event in which students set up their prototypes and present posters at booths in a public atrium.  Every year, hundreds of visitors attend the symposium, examine the projects, and interact with our future graduates.  Students are also assigned a grade on the quality of their poster presentation and demonstration booth.  These grades are typically assigned by ECE lab staff and faculty.  The grades contribute to the ECE498B course grade, and are also used to help determine award recipients.  Industry sponsors provide awards for the Best Overall Project, the Best Presented Project, and the Most Innovative Project.

The capstone projects continue to evolve.   For example, as of this year we have a mechanism in place to allow ECE students to form groups with students from other engineering disciplines; students in such mixed groups enroll in special “general engineering” capstone project courses, and the instructor for those courses ensures that the each project meets the standards of all of the programs represented in the group. 

An even more significant initiative involves one of the University of Waterloo’s strengths, namely entrepreneurship.  Our Faculty of Engineering has recently taken a bold initiative to establish a fund to promote entrepreneurship among our students.  Through the Engineer of the Future Trust, funds have been set aside to sponsor projects during the development stage.  To receive funding, students complete a simple application process by providing a short description of the project and the funding requirements of the project.  Students receive funding to purchase equipment based on the quality of their project proposal and their financial need.

Funding is also provided to capstone project groups by industry partners that wish to sponsor projects of particular interest to their company.  The sponsorship program is unique at the University of Waterloo in the sense that students retain the intellectual property for the project.  At the end of the project, students have the option to sell a portion of the rights back to the industry sponsor, to choose to work for the industry sponsor, or to retain the intellectual property.  This mechanism empowers students to work on state-of-the-art design problems that might be too risky for a company to pursue directly.

 A more substantial entrepreneurship program has recently been established where students participate in an optional course sequence on entrepreneurship.  As part of this program, students enroll in a three course sequence that prepares them to start an early stage venture.  The course sequence begins with BET320: Introduction to Commercialization Management.  This is followed by courses entitled BET300: Foundations of Venture Creation and BET400: Early Stage Ventures.  These courses are designed to be taken in parallel with the capstone project courses.  During the second course in the sequence, students compete for funding to start a company based on their capstone projects.  The funding is substantial.  Two student groups are guaranteed funding of $40,000 that they may use on a combination of salaries and expenses.  The groups are provided with space on campus to work on their projects and they devote an additional four months of full-time effort working on their projects in between school terms.  Best of all, the program is integrated with our co-operative education program so students receive academic credit for their entrepreneurship efforts.

Capstone projects have been quite successful at the University of Waterloo.  Most recently, an ECE group founded a company named Athos based on their capstone project design.  This company has already received two rounds of venture funding and their product has received critical acclaim.  The company has developed exercise clothing that allows you to analyze the activation of your muscles during a workout.  The company is well on the way towards developing a significant brand name in the emerging fitness technology market.

Of course, not all capstone projects lead to independent commercial ventures.  In some cases, capstone projects have helped to solve design challenges proposed by government agencies or existing businesses.  One capstone project developed a new foghorn design for the City of Oakville; another capstone project developed a solid-state relay replacement for a mechanical part used by the Toronto Transit Commission on their subway lines.

Based on the success of the ECE model for capstone projects at the University of Waterloo, other departments on campus have developed similarly successful programs.  For example, the Mechatronics program, in which the ECE Department is a significant partner, has had several successful ventures including BufferBox, Clearpath Robotics, and Thalmic Labs founded based on capstone projects. 

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