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Home sweet home, Morken

March 19, 2009

Senior capstone: ‘the toughest class they will ever take’

If Tosh Kakar has his way, James Crosetto, Jeremy Ellison and Seth Schwiethale will have spent most of their senior year trapped in a project room just off Morken 212.It is a state-of-the-art room adjacent to the electronics lab. This room is theirs for the year, where they will study and experiment – as well as nap on a beat-up couch, and work into the wee hours of the night, fueled on carbonated caffeine drinks and delivered pizza. And they’ll be doing it for a mere four credits. Four.

“This is the toughest class they will ever take,” says Kakar. “It is equal to 20 credits, easily.”

Kakar, an assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering, is advising the trio of students in their senior-year capstone. He will guide and mentor the students for a whole year as they embark on the ambitious project of designing – from scratch – a remote-control car that is operable over the Internet. If the capstone project works as planned, Crosetto, Ellison and Schwiethale will be able to control a remote-control vehicle from any laptop, so long as it can receive a wireless Internet signal. David Wolff, chair of the Computer Science and Computer Engineering program, calls it “something like the Mars Rover – the principles are similar, but on a smaller scale.”

Everyone else, students and Wolff included, call it ambitious.

Such is the life of PLU seniors – the capstone project will be one of the most difficult, challenging and rewarding things they will do at the university. It will combine just about everything they have learned over their time at PLU – and then some.

“Actually, a lot of the stuff we are encountering we never even learned in class,” said Ellison, a computer science and computer engineering major from Gig Harbor, Wash.

That is no reflection of the classes Ellison took. Instead, it shows that the students are building upon their class lessons as they embark on their capstone.

George Hauser, associate professor of computer science and computer engineering and the professor who oversees all the capstone projects in the CSCE department, sees it the same way. “The stuff we are teaching in class are the building blocks for what they will do in their capstone, and what they do after they leave PLU,” he said.

Crosetto, Ellison and Schwiethale are up against a tight deadline: the Natural Science Division’s Academic Festival set for May 1 and 2, 2009, in the Morken Center for Learning and Technology. There, all seniors in the natural sciences will present the findings of their capstone research, or the results of their projects. A large number of alumni also attend the festival, some of whom discuss the work they are doing in the industry. Kakar referred to it as “bringing the whole family together.”

“Festival” is the operative word here – the event bubbles with excitement, according to Hauser. “Interview,” might be another apt descriptor – the event is known to draw employers who are looking for promising students who, even as undergraduates are exploring promising scientific topics.

Back to the project at hand – the “Mars Rover.”

When Crosetto, Ellison and Schwiethale envisioned their project, they hoped to work on something they’d be interested in – exactly the type of thing that makes a good capstone.

Ellison suggested something he had been interested in for years: remote control cars. They developed a project abstract that embraced the discipline of computer engineering (building an microprocessor controlled car that has a camera mounted on it) with computer science (developing software that makes the car and camera operable in real time). Then, they moved into design analysis.

Then, they figured out how to scale back their plans for something more manageable.

It is part of the process, Hauser notes – nothing wrong with that. Part of any design process is discovering what is manageable and what isn’t – and then figuring out what can actually be created.

“Even the things we thought would be the simplest tasks, like working on the basic interface with the robot’s camera, have posed unexpected problems,” said Seth Schwiethale, a computer science major from Port Angeles, Wash.

As he said this, all three professors – Wolff, Hauser and Kakar – nod knowingly. They’ve been there before. These are valuable lessons learned.

“I’m not going to step in all the time,” said Hauser, “[the students] won’t learn anything that way.”

By all indications, the students are learning – a lot. They’ve been able to adjust the scope of their project, and as the second semester begins, they’ve started prototyping their robot and the implementation phase.

This is where Kakar comes in. He likes to talk about “cracking the whip” – he even likes to pantomime the motion. He does it with a smile, but everyone gets the picture. This opportunity to work so closely with their professor is so valuable – Kakar is just as passionate about guiding the students through the capstone as the students are in completing it.

Kakar talks about “milestones” – setting up enough successes early in the year, so that they are able to reach their project goal. All CSCE capstone projects take place over the entire academic year – professors like to get the students thinking about it during their junior year. Any project is going to need many milestones – and a mentor like Kakar to offer support, insight and an occasional whip crack.

Even so, there will be enough all-nighters in the project room before the trio is all done. But given the experience they are getting, their ability to work so closely with their professor – not to mention the opportunities it might provide after graduation – they all say it is worth the time and effort. Frequently, students are even hired based on their capstone accomplishments.

“It has been great,” says Crosetto, a computer science and computer engineering major from Ashford, Wash. “But you realize how much work it really takes.”

Just like real life.