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Electrical Engineers Start Challenging Senior Design Projects, Sept. 18, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich

Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the senior design classes in the engineering programs at New Mexico Tech. Next up: Mechanical Engineering and Petroleum Engineering.

SOCORRO, N.M., Sept. 18, 2008 – New Mexico Tech senior engineering majors are starting their most significant projects – Senior Design Clinic. In each engineering discipline, Tech seniors much complete a major project to earn their diplomas.

In electrical engineering, three teams of seniors are working on different projects for industry, government and academia.

Dr. Rene Arechiga, the class instructor, said senior design prepares students for a career by giving them a comprehensive project and demanding that students work as a team to complete an exhaustive endeavor.

“We want them to figure out how to make something work on a real-world project,” he said. “This class gives them an experience that is similar to working in industry. These projects are research-oriented with an industry flavor.”

Senior design classes have been around for many years, but were only formalized as an integral part of the engineering curriculum over the past five years. ABET, the engineering accreditation organization strongly urged Tech – and all universities – to implement such classes.

“These senior design clinics – or capstone projects – are great programs,” said Dr. Peter Gerity, vice president of academic affairs. “It’s practical experience in a team environment. We train our students in the same mode of industry. They get the awareness they need to enter the workforce.”

To open the semester, the class of 13 budding electrical engineers was given seven projects from which to choose. That list was pared down to three preferred projects.

In each case, the teams will design and build an electrical sensing or computing device. The fall semester is devoted to exploring various ways to accomplish the task. In the spring semester, these engineers will start implementing their designs.

Dr. Anders Jorgensen of the Electrical Engineering Department is the sponsor of the project to build a sensor that can be flown via balloon to near space to measure atmospheric turbulence. Dr. Hector Erives is the faculty advisor for this project.

Team member Colton Dunlap said the biggest challenge will be to integrate the various systems.

“Each system is rather simple,” he said. “But adding them all together will be a challenge. Plus, we have to send it to 100,000 feet in a Styrofoam box.”

Saurav Bhattarai said the main key to success will be integrating the different systems, but incorporating a parachute, designing a controlled cut-down device and recovering the instrument will also present challenges.

The team must design a device that weighs no more than six pounds – including the balloon and 200 feet of copper wire. Their device must be battery powered and be able to withstand extreme cold. Dr. Jorgensen wants to collect, store and transmit data. He also wants to recover the device, so it must include a GPS device, as well.

Another team will design the next generation of a timing device that combines video signals from multiple cameras. This device already exists, but is bulky and requires two operators. The Tech team will design and build a device that is less than 40 pounds and can be deployed by one person. The sponsor of this project is Navair, and the faculty advisor is Dr. William Rison.

“Building a receiver is a challenge in itself,” Arechiga said. “We take for granted communication devices like a cell phone because you push buttons and it works. But it isn’t trivial. It’s really very complicated to be able to receive signals wirelessly, with precision and with no errors. This is a serious challenge. In addition, they have to do specialized timing to control high-speed cameras.”

Team member Dylan Merrigan said one big challenge will be testing their device. Kenneth Johnson said another challenge is working with high-tech specifications.

A third team will re-design a data acquisition system that measures a laser beam’s position and phase. Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with National Instruments asked Tech students to re-design the system using a new National Instruments device called FlexRIO. The faculty advisor is Dr. Aly El-Osery.

Arechiga said the students’ challenge is to take a prototype device and design a similar system that uses state of the art products from National Instruments.

“This is not an easy task,” Arechiga said.

Winston Benally said the task is difficult because the project involves integrating multiple devices, some of which they haven’t been exposed to yet, like the specialized transducers used.

Karl Nieman said very high frequency waves and particle accelerators make the job very challenging. Plus, the team has two sponsors and will have to travel to Los Alamos to test their device.

Through partnerships with industry and government, students get a big taste of the expectations they’ll face after graduation.

“If all their learning is theoretical, they will have problems in the workplace,” Gerity said. “The senior design clinics are a tremendous value to our graduates. We emphasize hands-on learning so much through our four-year programs, that our graduates have an advantage that is critical to getting an edge in the job market.”

– NMT –