Seattle University

NCEES Engineering Education Award $10,000 winner

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Project: Design of Shelter for Underprivileged Children in Colombia


Students: Per Anderson, Ryan Larsen, Nicholas Paduano, Shawn Schaub, and Lance Slichko

Faculty: Paul Smith, Ph.D. and Nirmala Gnanapragasam, Ph.D., P.E.

Professional Engineers: Sean Story, P.E. and Scott Stainer, P.E.

Additional participants: Brian Moe, Andres Felipe Ramirez Henao, and Clared Patrica Jaramillo

Paul Smith-Pardo Ph.D., P.E., S.E. and Nirmala Gnanapragasam Ph.D., P.E. are Associate Professors in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

What value does a real-world project bring to the students?

Engineering is not a science but a practice-based profession, so consulting experience is not only an option but a requirement for the education of engineering students. Our capstone projects bridge the gap between theory and practice for our students and prepare them to enter the workforce with the necessary technical and professional skills to be successful in their future career. Students learn to apply the knowledge gained in their courses to solve a real-world problem, learn to work as a team, interact with clients, and manage schedules and budgets.

How do you decide which projects to work on?

We decide on projects that are both challenging and realistic for completion in one academic year. We do this in partnership with a strong industry network we have developed during the last 35 years. These are industry folks who know our curriculum and our student skills, so they are fully aware of the quality of products they can expect. New sponsors are also brought to us through our alumni network. Equally important to the project, we also look for supportive sponsors who are willing to mentor our students and support the faculty advisor. We also survey our juniors to find out their areas of interests so that we could get a broad range of projects covering student interests.

How did this project prepare students for professional practice?

Students learned to translate the client’s vision into a functional design that met the operational requirements of the project. They were also exposed to the challenges of carrying out engineering work for a client outside the United States. They had to consider local construction materials, construction practices, and codes. The students learned how to interact with a client, work as a team, and manage their time and budget. They also completed the project in a completely remote environment due to the pandemic.

As we slowly ease out of the pandemic, employers prefer junior engineers with experience working in a hybrid environment. This project prepared the students well for the future work environment. In addition, this project made the students aware of an engineer’s ethical and social responsibility, and it provided a great opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills to improve the health, safety, and welfare of the less fortunate.

What advice do you have for other programs wanting to add similar collaborative projects to their curriculum?

  • We recommend to network with local and private agencies as the first step to establish a capstone program. Make sure to explain the benefits they could reap from sponsoring these projects and partner with them to brainstorm ideas.

Project ideas:

  • Sponsor’s “backburners” are always good perspectives because they don’t have the human power or time to do them, but the findings could benefit the sponsor in the long run.
  • There might be projects that with some legwork could get local/state/federal funding for actual implementation. For example, we worked on a project on bridge replacement for a county and eventually the client used the student product to obtain state funding.
  • Our biggest supporters are our alumni. Once they start working, they appreciate the benefits of the capstone experience and want to give back to the program by sponsoring a project, being mentors/technical resources to students, and serving as advisors to teams.

Benefits to sponsors

  • It is an opportunity for the sponsors to train the next generation of engineers.
  • Some sponsors are naturally inclined to be mentors and enjoy the opportunity to interact and teach students.
  • The project gives the sponsor an opportunity to observe the students over a period of time (as if they were interns) and potentially hire them once they graduate.
  • Junior engineers could develop their project management skills by serving as mentors to these student teams.

This former student is currently with Sellen Construction.

What did you like best about participating in this project?

The best part about participating in this project was that it gave me purpose and direction to go above and beyond what my regular coursework demanded. I was able to utilize Autodesk’s student licensing program to gain experience with 3D modelling software such as Revit. This has proven to be priceless experience as I use Revit weekly in my career. Although I wanted to gain experience with this software and others throughout my college experience, I would not have had the drive and confidence to do so without this project.

What did you learn?

I learned how to effectively communicate within a team and with relevant stakeholders. The project gave me experience presenting and collaborating with professionals. This has proven to be very beneficial in my career as I communicate with owners, stakeholders, architects, and engineers on a daily basis, and it is important that I am meaningful and concise with my communication. Although I had experience with this from internships throughout my schooling, practice makes perfect, and this project provided the repetition of presentations, meetings, and collaboration efforts that has made me an even more effective team member and collaborator in my career.

How did the participation of professional engineers improve the experience?

The participation of professional engineers helped us to better understand how to solve key project issues. As a student, I felt that a lot of times I understood the question being asked and the process of solving issues at hand, but I did not have the technical expertise to solve it or know where to start. KPFF was crucial on our project in giving us a path and providing specific resources to utilize to solve our complex project issues/constraints.

What do you think the engineers learned from working with students on this project?

I think the engineers engaged in our project learned that as students we can exceed expectations and deliver on key project requests despite having little experience with tools to be utilized. A big takeaway for them would be that in providing a safe and open space for students to learn, they allowed us to put forth the best product we could and meet key project deliverables.

Why did you get involved with the project?

Our project was for a very important cause, and it was incredibly rewarding to be able to participate. Additionally, mentorship is crucial to our profession. Working with the students and Seattle University provided an opportunity to be involved with both.

How did you assist the students in the project?

We met as a group on a weekly basis to review work done as well as outline future steps to progress the design. This provided an opportunity for students to ask questions and receive feedback frequently to keep the project on track.

What did you learn from working with the students?

I was impressed with the eagerness and enthusiasm the students had for the project, and the ownership they took over the design’s success. I was also able to learn a few software tricks/abilities I did not know existed!

What did you want students to learn from working with you?

As a structural-focused project, I strove to bridge the gap between what the students had been learning throughout college and the industry experience for a practicing structural engineer.