Friday, February 17, 2012

The Guts and Glory of Senior Design

Senior Design, although different across departments, is a chance to take all of the knowledge you've amassed from three years in school and apply it to a year long project in basically anything you want. It's exciting in September imagining all the possibilities and down right daunting in February when you realize the task you've undertaken… 

My personal experience with senior design has been amazing so far. I am on a team with four other mechanical engineers and one electrical engineer. We are the third phase of an ongoing project to take an RC (Remote-Controlled) aircraft and make it autonomous, able to fly itself. We also want to make it be able to accurately deliver a payload when it has detected a radio signal. It has real world applications in disaster relief, delivering military supplies, and rescuing stranded hikers. 

The best part of senior design is the freedom you have and the chance to work so closely with a faculty member, at least in the case of MEAM. Our experience with our faculty advisor, Dr. Bruce Kothmann, has been amazing. We obviously can't fly model airplanes in an urban environment like Penn's campus, so once every few weeks Bruce picks us up in his mini-van early on a weekday or even on weekends, and takes us out to Fairmount Park to test whatever we've accomplished in the past two weeks. He has just as much, if not more, fun as we do flying the planes and he's an endless source of great advice which can take the form of encouragement or pointing out how flawed our plan was :) 

We've had to use a lot of mechanical design, aerodynamics, control system design, programming, electrical engineering, and even more project management skills, but it's been a blast because we are all excited about the project, and let's face it, getting up early once every few weeks to fly model airplanes is hardly something to complain about. It's a really great experience to be involved in such a large scale project while in school and it truly is OUR project. It's our job to update the professors with reports and presentations, our job to order our parts and track money, our job to budget our time, and never mind the kind of important task of, um, actually making this plane fly. We've worked through team issues, hardware issues, supplier issues, and whether or not this plane gets off the ground at the end of April, we will have learned more than any lecture class could have ever taught us. But…let's still hope we get to watch it fly in April!

Questions about senior design?  Contact Sarah at

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