The Complete Engineering® Podcast

Senior Design Showcase

That's one of the great things about this capstone project opportunity for our industry sponsors is the access that it gives them to our students and it's a win-win because we also get to advertise for the university along the same time.

Dr. Carl Nelson
Professor, Mechanical & Materials Engineering

In this episode of the Complete Engineering podcast, hear from Nebraska Engineering faculty and a group of dedicated seniors as they talk about valuable and challenging senior design capstone experiences undertaken this year.

These students’ projects, plus many more, will be on display at the Senior Design Showcase, the signature undergraduate design event for the College of Engineering. The showcase is Friday, April 26, 2019 (1-3:30 p.m.) in Memorial Stadium’s East Stadium Club Level and is open to the public.

Senior Design Showcase - Memorial Stadium
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(Cornhusker Fight Song)

Narrator: Welcome to the Complete Engineering podcast brought to you by the College of Engineering. We are in Nebraska where we develop complete engineers with the technical and non-technical skills to do big things. Visit us at

Matt Honke: Welcome to another episode of the Complete Engineering podcast brought to you by the University of Nebraska College of Engineering. I'm Matt Honke.

Karl Vogel: And I'm Karl Vogel.

Matt Honke: And today we're with Michael Sealy and Carl Nelson. Welcome to the show.

Michael Sealy and Carl Nelson: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Matt Honke: Michael is an assistant professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. His research includes manufacturing, medical devices and sustainability.

Karl Vogel: And Carl is also a professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering. His research is dedicated to projects blending mechanical design, robotics, medicine and rehabilitation.

Matt Honke: Michael and Carl are also experienced faculty advisors for the department's senior design projects. On April 26th, at iconic Memorial Stadium, their students will be among the 50 plus teams presenting their projects at the annual Senior Design Showcase, the College of Engineering's signature event for undergraduate engineers. They join us today to discuss their senior design capstone experience. So I'll start with you, Michael. What is the senior design capstone and why is it important for engineering students? 

Michael Sealy: So senior design capstone is the culminating project of their entire undergraduate curriculum that's focused on taking the skillsets that they've learned throughout their entire program and applying them to a real world problem.

Carl Nelson: One thing that's great about our capstone projects at the senior level is that not only do they get to practice all of the different skills, or at least many of the different skills, that they've developed over the course of four years but really it's a breaking down of the artificial barriers that we place mentally around those bits of knowledge and skills that we get and for example, the mechanics of materials class for me and for a lot of people, if you're in a class and you're learning material at a relatively fast pace, put that material in a certain spot in your brain and then at the end of the semester, the common thing that you hear is you do a brain dump and you just purge everything and you move on to the next class and this is an opportunity for us to kind of dissolve, melt away those boundaries in the very best case that information has been stuck somewhere or back in the cobwebs for a while, we drag it out and not only do we drag it out of the back of the brain but we then mix it around with some other stuff and ensure that it's not gonna, that you can't throw it back in the compartment and throw it away ever again.

Karl Vogel: How are the senior design projects determined?

Carl Nelson: Well some of our projects are actually proposed by students, others are proposed by faculty, others are coming to us from industry and those are our favorite ones because they give the most realistic sense of what a real life engineering project will be after students leave the university so we bring all those project ideas together in one big session and those projects get pitched to our students at which point the students have a chance to opt in to these projects. They essentially bid like in an auction on their favorite projects to work on for the coming semester and based on that, we run a little optimization to make sure that everybody gets assigned to a project that they are going to be engaged in. It turns out pretty well, I would say.

Michael Sealy: Yeah, usually most of the time, the students get one of their top three choices for a project.

Matt Honke: Is this something that you guys do specific in mechanical engineering or is this how it's done across the entire college?

Carl Nelson: You'll see variations of this but this is how we do it in mechanical engineering. There are some particularly different approaches for example in civil engineering where all students, as far as I understand, work on their common project but most programs, you'll see some variation of this where there will be a pool of ideas and either through the faculty instructor assigning the projects to the students or through the students somehow opting in or bidding on these projects, they get matched up into teams.

Karl Vogel: So this year, what are some of the interesting projects we have going on in the mechanical and materials engineering for the capstone?

Michael Sealy: There's a couple industry projects, one of them is looking at a dog wheelchair, being able to improve upon what's currently available on the market, it's something that's not really recommended by a lot of vets and so it's something where one of the clients came to us saying here's the problem we're having with the current dog wheelchair and we'd like an alternative solution and so that was something that we had a student team that was eager to jump on, so that's one we're excited to see about. Another one is for industry project looking at, essentially, how to move widgets, these particular parts pertaining to this company, how to move them from point A to point B and the problem or the challenges associated with that is that they're very, very thin. They're essentially like small metal plates or gears that they're trying to move from one location to the other, and that produces its own unique challenges in terms of how do you grab these devices, how do you move them and set them in a timely way, so this year we also have one geared at patients with Parkinson's disease and so it's something where we have a team looking at trying to develop a pin that stabilizes a person's hand when they write so essentially it enables someone with Parkinson's disease where their hand will normally shake a couple of millimeters, it would help stabilize that motion so that they can continue some of the normal activities that they were used to before the onset of the disease in terms of just being able to write your name or being able to write whatever it may be. Carl, you have one on a self-balancing training platform, if you could tell us a little bit about that one?

Carl Nelson: Yeah we have an interesting problem with rehabilitation equipment and therapeutic equipment. This is usually very expensive and sometimes prohibitively so for small clinics who would like to have these resources for their patients but either through lack of floor space or lack of money to buy these expensive pieces of equipment are limited in their ability of what they can acquire and how they can lay out their therapy gym, for example. One of our projects is partnership with Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and it tasks the students with coming up with an inexpensive balance training platform, something that patients would use as they recover from conditions such as stroke or brain injury were they're being challenged balance-wise to maintain an upright position without reaching and supporting themselves against any other object so our team, our student team, is developing a basically just a tipping platform, an unstable platform for a person, they can stand on safely and be perturbed in their balance, they're doing some programming to drive motors to control prohibitions to the person's balance system and some safety railings and they're basically doing some value engineering to make sure that all this comes about at a reasonable cost.

Karl Vogel: Now for quite a while now, Madonna has worked with mechanical and materials engineering on capstone projects, how valuable is it to have them as a resource for this?

Carl Nelson: Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals has been a wonderful partner for us for a number of years, both in the research space and in this senior design space. They have a wonderful clinical insight that we cannot replicate here in an academic institution to help to convey product needs that students will need in developing their products. There's nothing that can hold a candle to what we get from Madonna in terms of their support proposing interesting and valuable projects for the students and providing a little bit of relevance and real world experience and exposure for our student teams. We go over there sometimes and just talk with their clinicians and researchers about understanding what it is that Madonna's clients or patients need and that's what we really are trying to translate into the products.

Michael Sealy: We also get a lot of non-local industry projects which we're pretty excited about. One of those is with NASA this year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, and so they're looking at essentially taking something like fishing line and turning in that into a linear actuator so something that can move in an X and Y distance just by basically applying a voltage to it and so it's a matter of how can we effectively mass produce these linear actuators out of something like a polymer, something like fishing line essentially, and then how much linear actuation can we get out of these particular devices and so is it something where we can get it to pick up five pounds and displace that one inch just by twisting this particular wire over on itself multiple, multiple, multiple times until you form relatively large super knots essentially and so that's a pretty exciting project that we're proud of that is actually from outside the region that Nebraskan students are having an impact on even in places like NASA with the Jet Propulsion Lab.

Karl Vogel: How does a project like one with NASA come about? I mean it's gotta be through years and years of relationships that have build up.

Michael Sealy: Yeah this particular one is one that is from a relationship, I think actually the primary sponsor was a former graduate in Nebraska. He's trying to give more Nebraskan students involved and associated with NASA and so I think that's a great example of Nebraska's outreach and being able to extend to those particular places like NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab and that coming back long-term having impact on our next generation of undergrad students, that's exactly what we would love to see. Lot of times it's just built through industry collaborations the projects that have been in the works for however many years, that inorganic relationship evolved where we can actually get some capstone projects out of it so that's what we love to see whether it's Nebraskan students, former grads of ours, that are coming back and helping out with our capstone projects or it's something where our faculty members have a relationship they've built over so many years with some of these companies.

Carl Nelson: Actually quite validating to hear back from our alumni and have them express a desire to be involved in our new generation of students and their development and their design projects because it shows how our alumni feel about Nebraska, about the university, about the college and about the education that they got here.

Matt Honke: I mean these are some amazing projects that you guys are talking about. They're solving real world problems and you had me at dog wheelchair. Have you seen, in previous years, have you seen projects that have gone beyond just the competition, have you seen them get implemented into the real world, into an industry that they've taken it to the next level from just the competition itself?

Carl Nelson: That's what we're hoping with projects such as the balance device that eventually these kinds of developments can be translated outside the university into viable products that could benefit real people in and out of Nebraska. We've had cases in the past where we had academic products published, research papers that spun out of these senior capstone projects so there's really all different directions that these can take. Sometimes they're a little bit more theoretical development that goes into them or sometimes it's really just something that could be sold. Other times, it's a little mix of both and sometimes there's a clear impact on people.

Karl Vogel: As far as the student experience goes in this, do these projects sometimes lead to other opportunities, jobs, internships, networking connections?

Carl Nelson: Sure, and that's one of the draws that brings sponsors to us is that sponsors are organizations that need to hire engineers and what's the best way to find engineers is to come to the university right before they're graduating and get to know a few of them and particularly in the way that we form our teams, they're getting a team of students assigned to their project who have opted in, they're already engaged and interested in the project topic that the sponsor might be proposing so yeah that's one of the great things about this capstone project opportunity for our industry sponsors is the access that it gives them to our students and it's a win-win because we also get to advertise for the university along the same time. We love to see all sorts of people from all over Nebraska and the region coming out to see our projects, we've had lots of participation from companies in the past but the BDs and the Union Pacifics, Kawasaki, Lincoln industries, all these companies that are close by that hire our engineers, we love to see them come out and get a feel for what we're producing these days in terms of the educational output of College of Engineering.

Matt Honke: So this year, Michael and Carl, you have an unusual pair of projects for two of the student teams that are involved and well friendly competition between the two of you. What are those projects and how did this competition come about?

Michael Sealy: I'm originally from Alabama. In Alabama, nobody owns a snow shovel, okay? And it's one of those things where the first time I shoveled snow, there was a massive snow storm that hit the north east and there was a news article saying how 20 people died from heart attacks from shoveling snow and all of a sudden, I had to go outside that day and started shoveling snow. I started feeling my heart pound through my chest. Now it's been a few years, I'm burned out on shoveling snow, I didn't grow up doing this, I'm trying to find a solution where I never have to shovel snow again and it's actually turns out to be an excellent capstone project and so this year we're actually taking it and turning it into a competition format where we're taking multiple approaches and seeing how we can figure out how Dr. Sealy never has to shovel snow again. The two approaches we're taking, one is think of like a heated blanket approach, essentially something that could deploy over my driveway, melt the snow away and then all of a sudden I unplug that device and it just naturally folds itself back up, gets put on my shelf in my garage, I'm a little biased towards this project because I think this is the one that's gonna beat Nelson's project. The other approach is the robot approach, think of like a Roomba for your driveway to get rid of snow so like a Roomba's the thing that vacuums up, goes inside your house like a robot automatically, think of the same type of approach but using that to get rid of snow off your driveway so that's how it came about, to make sure I never shovel snow again.

Carl Nelson: Yeah we were having this friendly conversation about snow removal and it turned into me witlessly stumbling into agreeing to help with a capstone project (laughs) which I love doing so it wasn't that big of a stretch.

Matt Honke: If this is a friendly competition, is there a wager on this?

Carl Nelson: It's just pride.

Michael Sealy: Yeah I guess it is just pride, I don't know. Are you gonna grade for me or something or-- Never. (laugh) 

Karl Vogel: I've got a broken snow shovel you can use as a trophy if you like-- Yeah. (laughs) That would be cool.

Michael Sealy: That actually would be very cool. (laughs)

Karl Vogel: So how do you determine in the end who's the winner of the competition?

Michael Sealy: So that's something we're trying to decide right now. We have a connection to one of the local ice rinks where we're looking at using the Zamboni into produce a significant amount of ice chips that would mimic snowfall.

Carl Nelson: At the beginning of the project as we were pitching it to students, this was one of the questions that occurred to us is how do we know who wins and so in the problem statement, we did actually specify a one square meter area of snow removal so that's our objective requirement.

Michael Sealy: Turns out to be a pretty timely project, right? With all the snow we've had, it's been kind of a miserable year for shoveling snow. I would love to see it turn into one of these as seen on TV products hopefully by next year so fingers crossed.

Matt Honke: This is the Complete Engineering podcast and that's in reference to our Complete Engineer Initiative that we have at the University of Nebraska. We have six competencies of intercultural appreciation, leadership, teamwork, self-management, service and civic responsibility and engineering epics and I think one of 'em that just jumps off the page at me is teamwork. Obviously you are working with teams of other engineering students, some of this is cross-discipline, in other cases you're working with other engineering students from the same discipline. How important is that teamwork to have the successful project at the end?

Carl Nelson: Oh I've seen teams totally crash and burn because they couldn't communicate well even though they had perfectly satisfactory technical ability. Project management is something that students don't learn very early on. Really, it's relegated to this opportunity where they get to practice being in teams so this for us is a chance to plug in that skill that otherwise would go, if not untouched, very lightly glossed over and throughout most of their academic career.

Michael Sealy: Another thing I want to add is another excellent source, kind of what I call legacy projects, a source of projects for our capstone program is coming from projects related to Formula and Baja, they do an excellent job in terms of being able to come up with a component that they can use and actually improve the performance of their vehicle.

Matt Honke: I think our listeners would be very interested in hearing a little more about that. What is Baja and Formula?

Michael Sealy: Baja and Formula is two automotive events organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and so every year there are multiple competitions that happen throughout the country and Lincoln's lucky because we have one of the Formula competitions that happens in the U.S. right here in Lincoln, Nebraska in the summertime and so it's essentially where students design and build from the ground up, a complete vehicle. Baja is a competition where you do a more of an all-terrain type vehicle so think of like the dune buggy type activity and then Formula is more aligned with your Formula 1 race cars series that you see and it's high speed, high performance type of vehicle where they're going pretty fast.

Carl Nelson: This ties into the competency under the Complete Engineer Initiative of leadership that have these legacy projects coming from student groups where there's a leadership structure and those senior students are passing along knowledge to the underclassmen and really giving them a foundation for their future in working in either the automotive field as this example showed or some other fields.

Michael Sealy: We have a Formula project from last year from one of our students that went on to Neapco and she was designing a knuckle joint essentially for the Baja vehicle. Now that she's employed in Neapco, she's looking for a way to test the fatigue life of these particular joints. This year, she's sponsoring a project to build a fatigue tester on a U-joint essentially for an all-terrain vehicle. That's something we'd love to see.

(Cornhusker Fight Song)

Karl Vogel: And now we're joined by three students who are in the competition teams with Dr. Sealy and Dr. Nelson, they're all senior students in mechanical and materials engineering, all expecting to graduate in May. We are joined from Team Sealy, Alex Rutijer, Cole Dempsey and Ethan Blamey from Team Nelson, welcome to the podcast.

Teams: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

Karl Vogel: Which project are each of you working on and how do you see this having an impact on the world?

Team Sealy: So I'm on Dr. Seele's team working on the heated blanket, the self and self-attracting and I think it'll help with the world because especially in the Midwest, especially with how the weather's been recently and the climate change, being able to pull the blanket out, set it, forget it, without a sweat, snow's gone.

Matt Honke: So is this something you deploy prior to the snow coming or do you deploy after the snow is down and it melts it after the fact?

Team Sealy: That's actually something we've had to think about quite a bit this semester. It'll work actually both ways, the heating coil, there's not much on either side of the blanket so you can put it up beforehand, so you prevent any snow from falling down or if there's already a snow that came down, you can do that afterwards so it works both ways.

Matt Honke: So that's Alex working on Team Seele's. Now Cole and Ethan with Dr. Nelson's, how is your project coming along and what are your roles on the team?

Team Nelson: We have the snow bot, we're gonna have a snow blower that is just going to be autonomously driven so it's just going to carve out a path on your driveway and just blow the snow off out of side and clear it that way. I don't think we have specific roles kind of designated for us, we've all kind of just been tackling individual projects that come along with the overall project and we just fill in the puzzle pieces as we go.

Karl Vogel: Cole, what are some of the challenges your team has faced and how have you worked to overcome?

Team Nelson: We're trying to autonomously navigate through an unstructured environment so when you think of a driveway we're designing this robot for, there's not really any physical barriers or structures or walls for the sensors of the robot so you detect and know if it's gonna run into the grass or drive off into the street or something obviously we want to avoid. We've had to get creative with how we're going to navigate this robot throughout the driveway. One approach that we came up with is using something called AprilTags and they resemble something like a QR code. The robot uses computer vision to detect these AprilTags that we've placed throughout the environment so essentially we're adding structure to the environment.

Karl Vogel: Same one for Alex, what kind of challenges has your team faced and what have you done to work on it?

Team Sealy: So one of the big problems that we came across was just design process with making it how we wanted it to unfold whether it should be fully automated, semi-automated, really trying to enhance these experience there and that was something that was a big debate in my group for a while was how exactly we should go about it.

Matt Honke: Does the robot have a name?

Team Nelson: It's unofficially just coined the snow bot at the moment. Yeah that's been our working title for a while.

Matt Honke: To be fair, does the blanket have a name?

Team Sealy: I've been trying to pitch something, kinda go with Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone, Lake Snowbegone, something like that. (laughs) Hasn't gone well yet, maybe 'cause I haven't pushed it super hard but we will get there.

Karl Vogel: Did either of your teams get to test this outdoors?

Team Nelson: Well, I'll call it research, I was performing by actually clearing my driveway with the snow blower and so, it just kinda gives you insights about how it should move and what the best path for actual clearing would be most efficient so things like that but as far as actually testing our product, no we haven't, we weren't that far along fortunately or unfortunately how you're looking at it, the snow is kind of gone.

Team Sealy: And we had to face something similar where when the snow was still on the ground, we bought a small heating pad from a Walmart and just wanted to test to see how well it would do with the coil pattern that it had inside of it and what kind of power it would draw.

Karl Vogel: The college has instituted in the last few years the Complete Engineer Initiative to help teach non-technical skills to engineers, something that our industry partners have given us feedback over the years that they were looking for from the incoming engineers, how has your experience in this capstone project and throughout your college career helped you to develop those skills?

Team Nelson: Teamwork is obviously a big part of it but the self-management aspect has been pretty interesting because think kind of the, I'll call I handholding, is gone, no one's going to push you along, you can sit back and do nothing for quite a while and you paid a price for it so you have to make sure you're putting in the work and you're crunching the numbers and you're actually making a product that you think is going to work.

Karl Vogel: How is the senior design capstone experience if you were to just kind of reflect on what you've gone through, how's it comparing to what your idea of the professional world is gonna be like?

Team Nelson: One thing that Dr. Nelson kinda highlighted on earlier was breaking down those mental barriers of knowledge been quarantined in those classes and then kind of forgotten later, is when you do research or internships or things like that, you kind of start to see how everything begins to piece together and gain deeper insights for how everything is gonna be used in the real world and how this information is valuable, how you really need a diverse set of skills and information from a variety of classes to be a successful engineer in a variety of projects and internships.

Matt Honke: Have you noticed that at times when a problem arises that you're pulling something from this one class or this one instructor two years ago but you're just pulling little nuggets of information over the years and did you notice that kind throughout the process?

Team Nelson: Absolutely. Yeah, several times, I would be working on a problem and then just I couldn't quite remember what I was doing so I would just crack open a textbook that I had from a year ago, two years ago and turn right to the chapter and then I just remember it and teach myself it again and make it work.

Team Sealy: Sure, yeah, the amount of textbooks that I've just flipped pages through just to remember certain, just even one small equation, has definitely helped, kinda goes to show how comprehensive the curriculum for undergrad here is.

Karl Vogel: So more importantly as we get close to winding down here, probably the most important question of all, who's gonna win?

Team Nelson: I think it's kinda apples and oranges honestly. I don't know if you're gonna have a full driveway sized blanket, are you planning on having a driveway sized blanket?

Team Sealy: Yeah, we have some secrets.

Team Nelson: Oh trade secrets, okay. Well, I think that our advantages were, I think, equipped to do a bigger driveway more quickly is why I think our advantages are-- Ours couldn't have been more complex, it's hard to say just so it might require more pieces which could be good or bad but it also might be able to complete the task faster and not worry about the refreezing of snow melt. But it is kind of apples and oranges, they both have their strengths in every area and that's kind of an interesting part of this design project.

(bell rings)

Question: Okay so lightning round, we have 15 questions, and this works out great, there's five of you so three for each. Dog or cat?

Answer: Dog.

Question: Who's your favorite superhero?

Answer: Mermaid Man.

Question: Favorite tailgating food?

Answer: Ribs.

Question: Have you ever used a slide rule?

Answer: Been a long time, I've tried using a slide rule.

Question: First video game you owned?

Answer: Probably Mario 64.

Question: Favorite musical genre?

Answer: Hipster music. Wrong answer, Jazz. (laughs)

Question: What was your favorite toy growing up?

Answer: Rubik's Cube.

Question: If you could time travel, to when would you go?

Answer: Dinosaurs.

Question: On a scale of one to 10, how strict are your parents?

Answer: Nine.

Question: Do you know how to run a VCR?

Answer: (laughs) Yes, it's been a while but I do.

Question: Chocolate or vanilla?

Answer: Chocolate.

Question: Saturday or Sunday?

Answer: Saturday.

Question: What's your pet peeve?

Answer: Dinosaurs.

Question: Pancakes or waffles?

Answer: Pancakes.

Question: Herbie Husker or Lil' Red?

Answer: Little Red.

Karl Vogel: If any of you would like to see the snow bot or the snowbegon blanket, you can see it at the 2019 Senior Design Showcase on April 26th at Memorial Stadium, begins at one o'clock in the east campus suite. Thank you for coming and being part of the podcast.

Teams: Pleasure. Thank you.

(Cornhusker fight song - piano version)

Voiceover: Thank you for listening to the Complete Engineering podcast, for more information visit us at (gentle music)