Designing their Futures: Mechanical Engineering Students Learn From Challenging Hands-On Projects

Designing Their Futures
Mechanical Engineering Students Learn From Challenging Hands-On Projects 

January 2, 2018

ME StudentsSOCORRO, N.M.  -- The undergraduate Mechanical Engineering program at New Mexico Tech is guided by the philosophy of educational excellence driven by groundbreaking research and design. The crown jewel of this rigorous degree program is a sequence of freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior design courses spanning six semesters.

Tech's Mechanical Engineering department emphasizes the value in freshmen and sophomore students participating in real-world design projects. These projects culminate during their junior and senior years, when they work together on teams devoted to undertaking hands-on engineering projects for external clients.These projects include industry-sponsored, faculty research-driven, and international competition projects. All of them require students to apply a multi-step design process that concludes with designs fulfilled in physical prototypes, many of which incorporate 3d printing.

In junior and senior design courses, students learn about each stage in the design process, beginning with brainstorming and conceptual design. this continues all the way through manufacturing, testing, and refining a prototype. Inherent to the project-based nature of the design clinic, students also gain experience implementing the soft skills of budgeting, time management, leadership, and communication.

While design requirements (often termed capstone design classes) are common in programs across the country, New Mexico Tech’s rigorous six-semester program is unique. During junior and senior years, this model affords students the opportunity to work on projects of greater complexity, should those students elect to stay on the same project for all four semesters. For students who instead elect to work on two different year-long projects, it provides exposure to multiple hands-on project experiences. Also unique to New Mexico Tech’s model is an intense communication focus. In addition to taking four semesters of design courses, students are required to take a technical writing course concurrently with junior design.

Not coincidentally, over the last 10 years, New Mexico Tech’s enrollments in the Mechanical Engineering major have dramatically increased. Currently, Mechanical Engineering is the largest undergraduate major on campus. Approximately 25 percent of Tech students major in Mechanical Engineering. The number of graduates per year has more than doubled since the program received its first Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation in 2005.

Multiple factors attest to the success of the design clinic program. Surveys from exiting seniors, as well as program alumni, consistently cite the design clinic as the “best aspect” of the department and “amount of time spent on design” as the most valuable component of the degree. Externally, the department receives feedback from employers that students’ design exposure, experience working in teams, and communication preparation makes them stand out as candidates. This past fall, when the department underwent a review and reaccreditation from ABET, evaluators noted the design clinic and communication emphasis as two of the strongest components of New Mexico Tech’s undergraduate program in Mechanical Engineering.