NSF Study To Examine Impact of Capstone Projects

NSF Study To Examine Impact of Capstone Projects

Mech. Eng. Prof Will Track Two Years Of Tech Grads

SOCORRO, N.M. – The National Science Foundation has funded approximately $450,000 for a multi-institutional study that will address the impact of capstone design projects and investigate how engineering students transfer and apply knowledge from the classroom to their careers.

Dr. Julie Ford, a communications professor working in the Mechanical Engineering Department, is NMT’s P.I., collaborating with colleagues at Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Smith College (Mass.). NMT’s portion of the grant is $125,000.


Dr. Julie Ford


“Throughout my career, one of the main themes driving my research has been knowledge transfer,” Ford said. “I’m interested to know if the skills and practices students are taught in classrooms are ones they can readily remember and apply in other environments, including the workplace.”

The study will take a critical look at the capstone design experience and seek to understand the impact of this intensive curriculum on students’ professional formation as engineers as they transition from school to work.

Ford will be tracking 20 Tech seniors through the Senior Design Clinic, then continue to survey them through their first year of employment. She will then track another 20 students who will be in Senior Design during the 2017-2018 school year. Virginia Tech and UC-Boulder will also each track two cohorts of 20 students. Smith College, an all-women’s college with a smaller engineering program, will track two cohorts of 10 students.

She hopes to have a wide range of students in each cohort, representing different employment situations, industries, and demographics, and a range of experiences. Once Ford and her collaborators identify the pool of 20 students, they will survey them periodically as they complete their capstone design project at Tech. Once those students start their first jobs, the research team will survey them multiple times throughout their first three months on the job as well as conduct qualitative interviews at 3, 6, and 12 month intervals.

Once the study is completed, the results will be published and disseminated to enable engineering educators across academia to make thoughtful decisions about resources and curricula.

Ford said she hopes to identify – or “unpack” – the specific aspects of capstone design curricula taught at Tech that are the most useful to engineers on the job. She hopes the outcome of the study will give Mechanical Engineering programs as well as other engineering disciplines information they can apply towards shaping curricula that is relevant and closely linked with the demands of engineering workplaces.

Ford said, “We want to discover information about how appropriate our curriculum is and learn more about the ways in which our students are relying on the skills we are teaching them in our courses. I think that’s valuable not only for the Mechanical Engineering department, but for Tech as a whole.”

– NMT –