Stepping into industry

Seniors apply textbook, classroom knowledge to real-world applications

Student Jeffrey Ko provides a human scale for his senior design team's spacecraft airbag landing system.

Mechanical engineering student Jeffrey Ko provides a human scale for his senior design team’s spacecraft airbag landing system. (Photo courtesy of Jesus Yepiz.)

Industry Project Highlights

Inflatable structure for the Mars lander
Client: Boeing

Based on feedback from Boeing on last year’s system, students redesigned, fabricated and tested an inflatable structure that allows a Mars lander to safely deliver an instrument payload to the surface of Mars.

According to team member Jesus Yepiz, “The objective is to protect the instrument payload when the inflatable structure enters Mars’ atmosphere, allowing it flexibility to bounce and settle once it hits the ground. Once it lands safely, the system eventually deflates and an inner ring inflates to expose the instrumentation that will measure and determine the pressure, temperature, and amount of water vapor in Mars’ atmosphere.”

Stud detector for stucco walls
Client: DirectTV

Students designed a low-cost device that would allow a satellite dish installer to non-invasively locate the position of wooden studs through common residential stucco walls.

Thermal imaging system for the LANSCE 1L target
Client: Los Alamos National Laboratory

Working alongside a three-student team from Harvey Mudd College, students were tasked with building a thermal imaging system that would determine the location and power distribution of protons once they got to the end of a ½ mile accelerator.

High accuracy hydrogen dispensing system
Client: Sempra

The team developed a dispensing mechanism that will accurately dispense hydrogen fuel within a 1.5 percent margin of error to hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

Automated residential wind turbine
Client: Southern California Edison

Students created a prototype micro wind turbine generator for use in suburban residential areas. The goal was to have a prototype that was low-cost, quiet and aesthetically pleasing, and would generate enough renewable power for the average Southern California household to operate.

Chances are you don’t exactly remember what you worked on in your classes 20 years ago—even five years ago.

But, for more than 50 of this year’s graduating seniors in computer science, and electrical and mechanical engineering, it might be a different story. Why?

Because, they spent their last year in college devoted to such projects as designing a stucco wall stud detector for DirectTV; building a thermal imaging machine for a ½ mile long particle accelerator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory; and creating an inflatable structure to aid in landing a craft on Mars for Boeing.

In just the second year of the integrated industry capstone projects, three-member student teams worked on 18 different projects—a significant jump from the first year that featured seven projects.

“It’s such a great program,” said Trinh Pham, a professor of mechanical engineering, and the director of the program. “It compels students to apply classroom and textbook knowledge to these actual engineering projects that are also beneficial and relevant to the companies.”

Working in multidisciplinary teams—which Pham said regularly bring together students from mechanical and electrical engineering—students are exposed to several career fields and industries, including aerospace, telecommunications, biotechnology and energy. Some of the leading industry partners to sign up were Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Sempra, Southern California Edison, and the U.S. government.

“We actually saw our project go from the theoretical aspect to the practical side,” said electrical engineering graduate Eduardo Cabrera ’10, who was working on harmonic filters for Southern California Edison. “It felt as if our knowledge of engineering, and in our case electrical engineering, was not just a lot of book information.”

Pham said that the University has been fortunate to recruit not only big name business partners, but also in signing up a large number of projects. Businesses that decide to sponsor a senior design project cover the cost of the materials and pay a nominal fee that goes to administrative costs and a stipend for professors who advise students through the process.

“CSULA is a unique University, and the fact that we serve so many underserved students gives us a gold star,” Pham said. “In our case, the impact on students is so obvious it makes it easier for companies to make the argument to their bosses.”

Since College Dean Keith Moo-Young launched the program two years ago, Pham said she has received a lot of positive feedback from companies. Some, she said, would be willing to fund even more projects, but the University is limited by enrollment and faculty available to oversee the work.

In this upcoming year, they expect to have about 18 projects again.

“I always feel proud of the students,” Pham said. “At the beginning they are never sure of what they can accomplish, but by the end they have done it and are confident in their abilities.”

All seniors in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology are required to work on a “capstone” or senior design project in the final year of their degree program. In these three departments, however, students have the choice of doing an industry-related, a research, or a competition project. At the end of the year, all projects are displayed during a senior design expo.

“I had so much fun enjoying the fruits of my group’s labors on the drop test day,” said mechanical engineering graduate David Bogdanchik ’10, who worked on the prototype airbag lander for Boeing. “It was exciting to see what we built in action, and working. The task had been met, and the product engineered!”