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Taking the show on the road.

The Capstone design project in the Biological Systems Engineering program at the University of California, Davis, is conducted as a full academic-year course sequence in which students address an important engineering topic of concern. In the fall quarter, the course is primarily classroom and laboratory instruction where design principles, ethics, safety, teamwork, and communication are emphasized. In the laboratory sessions, all students fabricate a simple assembly of metal, plastic, and wood elements to gain experience in manufacturing, machine shop operations, communication and safety, reading drawings, and creating bills of materials and cost estimates.

The students also meet with project sponsors, typically including campus faculty, industry cooperators, and representatives from nonprofit organizations. These potential sponsors present their engineering problems and design needs. The students then form teams, select projects, and submit design proposals. During the winter and spring quarters, the students work with two or more faculty advisors and complete their design projects, including fabrication and testing. The experience concludes with a College of Engineering Design Showcase in which all projects are presented to industry judges and the public.

The 2016 cohort of 26 students engaged in seven team projects. The projects represented the spectrum of instruction and research in the department and ranged from mechanical designs of separation systems for removal of noxious weed seeds from certified crop seeds, to the development of processes for encapsulating nutraceuticals into algae to preserve their effectiveness, to the design of a production system for insect larvae as a poultry feed source.

A recent Capstone project was the design and deployment of a mobile irrigation system for farmers in Uganda. Through a collaboration with the UC Davis D-Lab, a design-focused program including students from all majors on campus, the Humphrey Fellows Program, and the Richard Blum Center for Developing Economies, a client in Uganda presented the need for a mobile irrigation system that could be locally produced and deployed by Ugandan farmers. A team of three students undertook the challenge of designing a motorcycle-based irrigation system in which the motorcycle both transported the system and powered the pump.


The project presented not only mechanical design challenges but also management and communication challenges, including time, language, and technology barriers and the uncertainties of translating and adapting a design developed in California to the local capabilities, resources, and customs of Uganda. Throughout the stateside design, fabrication, and testing processes, it was critical to anticipate the unanticipated challenges that would be present in Uganda. The project concluded with members of the team traveling to Uganda, along with tools, components, and fabrication instructions necessary to implement the design among local machine shops and farmers.

The team members reported that the experience challenged their technical design and fabrication skills and highlighted the importance of the human element in engineering, particularly in the communication of design goals and constraints and in the ability to adapt as the situation changes. Team member Noelle Patterson, who worked on-site in Uganda, provided an example of this need for adaptability and how opportunities can arise from perceived problems: "There was a week when the power was out almost every day, which meant we couldn't use the equipment in the shop. On those days, the only thing 1 could do was visit the local internet cafe and use power from their backup generator to edit the design manual on my computer. It ended up being very helpful to have the design manual completed while we were still in country, and that wouldn't have happened if the power had not gone out!"



Even without power, for these students clearly the light still shines. For UC Davis students, the scope of engineering opportunities, from specialty crop production in California to more basic needs in developing countries, provides challenges for the high-quality students in the Biological Systems Engineering program.

D. Ken Giles

University of California, Davis, Biological and Agricultural Engineering
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Author:Giles, D. Ken
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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