Make It Work: Students Tackle Initial Weeks of the Capstone Design Program

October 6, 2015 | LSU Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering

Editor’s note: This story is the first installment in a series following a competitive senior design team throughout both semesters of their Capstone Design project. Also refer to our blog, The Engineered Tiger, for supplemental posts, stories and more information regarding the team.

“Life is not a well posed problem,” students heard Capt. Dave Giurintano say as they trickled into room 1502 of Patrick F. Taylor Hall. 

On Sept. 3, dozens of senior engineering students of various majors piled into that room for the first team building exercise of the semester for ME 4243, the first course of the LSU Capstone Design Program. This was also the first time many of them met the fellow classmates with whom they will spend a bulk of their final semesters at LSU.

“Students have done teamwork in the past, but not quite like this,” said graduate assistant Sean King. “Not a year long project, with the same group, that literally determines whether or not you graduate.”

Sitting across the table from the people the final grades of their educational career will depend on, each of the students were charged with the challenge to not only work well together, but to get to know each other first 

“Spending that time out for dinner or just together period, in the beginning just really humanizes people,” King said. “This isn’t just John Doe who doesn’t do any work—he has two jobs that he balances with school, too.”

This part of the process wasn’t much of a hurdle for mechanical engineering seniors Cade Hoerner and Daniel Fouquet, of the SAE Aero Design Micro team, who attended the same high school in New Orleans.

“They really kept us in the dark about how the selection process goes, and then we get an email that says ‘Congratulations you’re on this team!’” Hoerner explained.

“Yeah,” Fouquet interjected. “And I think they sent the email at 3 a.m., too. So, no one was even awake before the class. You met your group members the morning of.”

During the first week of the semester, weeks prior to the team-building program, each of the students attended the Capstone Fair. There, companies and clients were present to request what sort of product or project they sought. Students submitted the top five projects they were interested in, along with a standard personality test, and teams were formed from there.

This year, the Capstone’s overall focus is project management. By requiring more reporting on project management throughout the year, instructors hope that students will avoid knowing that the product works only one day before presenting at the end of the spring semester, King said.

The class meets each Tuesday and Thursday, with lab time provided each Friday for teams to meet, review notes, plans and ideas with one another. Professors and graduate assistants also take time to review their notes and gauge progress each Friday.

“They love to tell us the horror stories on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Hoerner joked. “They always go into detail about how some group had that one person that didn’t do any work, and they all voted him off the island.”

“Or another horror story about how people forget to sign up for competitions,” Fouquet added. “They’ve made the product but can’t compete, so that’s something else we have to stay on top of also.”

Each team has to balance the class and project along with other courses throughout their final two semesters. On the SAE Aero Design Micro team alone, team members are juggling jobs, organizations, athletics, new marriages and living in an entirely new country.

“This is an interesting class because up until this point in their education, they’re given questions and looking for very specific answers,” King said. “But with Capstone, there are infinite answers. You have to factor in cost, factor in time. You have to factor in your manufacturing skills, because you’re manufacturing these things yourself.”

The Micro team is divided into subgroups, each defined by their role on the team. For example, mechanical engineering senior Tommy LeBeau serves as team leader and handles most of the administrative duties. Meanwhile, mechanical engineering seniors Michael Basham, Ahmed Shawers and Jack Sim will work on the structure: the material the plane is made from, stress analysis and general manufacturing. Electrical engineering seniors Ryan Cenac and Stephen Capella will work on electrical: the controls, the design and operation of the propulsion system, which is comprised of the power supply and motor. Mechanical engineering seniors Fouquet and Hoerner, who each took an aerodynamics course, are tasked with the aerodynamics of the plane. 

“We’re basically making sure that the plane is as light as possible, because you’re graded on how light the plane is,” Basham said. “You’re making sure that the plane is light as possible, but making sure it holds together. Aero comes up with the way to make the shape of the wing, and we make sure the wing is strong enough.”

Each role is integral, and there are parts of the planning and design that can’t be nailed down until a different team member in a separate subgroup has nailed down his research. Cenac explained that his research for a server motor is contingent on what the aerodynamics subgroup needs for power and support.

The main focus of the team in these initial stages has been what material they will use for the fuselage—the main body of an aircraft—where weights will be placed during the competition.

“We’re just sort of coming up with ideas, and we’re sort of narrowing it down,” Basham explained. “That’s actually kind of been the hardest part. There are options. It’s hard to say what’s definitely going to be the best, because you really just don’t know until you build it.”

The Micro team does have one last challenge working against them: time.

The Capstone Design Program is structured as yearlong project, with final presentations and projects due in May. However, the 2016 SAE Collegiate Design Series Competition is in March, effectively cutting the team’s time by two full months.

“The last few weeks have been pretty intense, because we’re obviously trying to have this thing finished as fast as possible,” Capella said. “So ideally, come Christmas time, we want to start manufacturing this plane. Because if we wait until after Christmas, when the semester starts, we then have a month’s timeframe to manufacture it, fly it, crash it, manufacture another one and fly it out again.”

Capella explained there’s not only pressure to complete the plane by March, but they must also finish everything necessary for the class presentation. There’s no need to change anything in those two months before the presentation, because the team will have already competed in the national competition.

They intend to test and have as many iterations of the plane as possible. By the time they compete, they’ll have a series of planes with them, but they said, they will be sure to use the best one during competition.

“Everything I’m thinking is, ‘What’s best for the competition? Is this going to help or hurt us?’ Because at the end of the day, you can make an awesome airplane that loses,” Basham said. “It’s not about making the best airplane, it’s about making the best airplane for the competition. And those are two very different things.”

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For more information, please contact communications assistant M.B. Humphrey at 225-578-5660 or View more information on LSU's Capstone Design Program.