Mechanical engineering professors awarded for innovative strides in Capstone

Professors Carl Sorensen and Christopher Mattson of BYU’s Mechanical Engineering Department are the 2015 recipients of the American Society for Mechanical Engineers Ben C. Sparks Medal for their innovative work with the BYU Capstone program.

The Ben C. Sparks Medal was established in 1990 and annually recognizes one person or team for “eminent service to mechanical engineering or engineering technology education through outstanding contributions that bring innovative, authentic, practice-based, engineering design/build experiences to undergraduate students.” Candidates for this medal must have an extended career in the field of mechanical engineering and need to have played a major role in the implementation of new approaches and applications of teaching.

Sorensen explained that receiving this award is an honor that not only reflects his and Mattson’s work, but also BYU’s quality of education and their excellent student body.

“Receiving the award was very personally rewarding, but I also recognize that it happened to be for me and Dr. Mattson because we have great things going on at BYU,” explained Sorensen. “We couldn’t do great things here if we didn’t have great students.”

The BYU mechanical engineering capstone program was first implemented 25 years ago, and with it came a new learning environment for engineering students. BYU Capstone allowed for outside companies, or sponsors, to contribute to student learning by providing them with real-life projects. Students are given two semesters to work and create a product or design for an actual paying client.

Over the past five years, Professors Sorensen and Mattson have been working to improve certain elements of the mechanical engineering capstone program. While the program has been considered efficient and effective education, Sorensen and Mattson’s efforts have helped widen the scope of the capstone projects.

“We’ve made some changes to try and emphasize that building is not the only thing, building is important, but building is just a means to see if your design works,” said Sorensen.  “What we’re really producing are designs, which we give to the sponsor, because if we just build a piece of hardware and then they can’t make another one or fix it when it breaks down, then it’s useless.”

These changes in the capstone program teach students that they’re not simply working for a grade, but working for a client in an effort to simulate real-world engineering situations. According to Sorensen, before the capstone program was implemented, the variety and validity of the projects completed by senior undergrads were adjusted and made easier, leaving students less prepared for the real world.

“When you have a sponsor the teachers can’t adjust the difficulty of the project, and having sponsors provide these projects is really vital to their learning,” said Sorensen. “It’s not a standard class activity, where you do X, Y and Z and you get an A.”

Going forward, these two professors are attempting to implement design and professional practice methods into the curriculum before students even reach their capstone courses. This new implementation will also be coming on the heels of introducing a brand-new mechanical engineering curriculum in the 2015 fall semester. 

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