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COVID causes issues for capstone projects

by Olivia Murray

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected students’ abilities to conduct engineering capstone projects at West Virginia University, according to their professors. 

Yu Gu, associate professor, and Andrew Nix, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering as well as the EcoCAR lead faculty advisor at West Virginia University, agreed that the pandemic has presented challenges for  students and instructors.

Statler College of Engineering has 18 capstone courses with a total of 510 students enrolled. Of those 510, 301 students are completing their capstones through online instruction while the remaining 209  are conducting their capstones on campus.

A capstone project allows a student to incorporate what he or she has learned in a real-world experience. They can include internships or study abroad and a thesis.

Gu said that while instructors are trying to maintain normalcy in their capstone classes, there have been noticeable negative and positive changes in the way the classes have progressed.

“Lack of in-person discussions, team collaboration and time spent in the lab all have negative impacts on the project,” Gu said. “On the positive side, students can be more flexible with their work and meeting schedules.” 

Gu pointed to the progress of different sub teams in his robotics courses to evidence the impact on student capstone progress.  Gu’s students are developing a software simulator, which can initially be done through simulations. Designs for student projects are  being created through computer-aided design.

“At some point soon, everything needs to become physical, software needs to be tested on the robot. That would become more challenging,” Gu said.

The University Rover Challenge is being conducted in a similar manner. 

“We are trying to do everything remotely as much as possible, finding innovative ways along the way,” Gu said.

Nix said his capstone is being held in-person with limited lab capacity in addition to a virtual component. During in-person meetings, students adhere to safety guidelines as strictly as possible, with masks being worn constantly.

“We try to determine who needs to be in class on a given day and have the rest work with my graduate students through virtual meetings on Zoom,” Nix said.

In his experience, Nix said, work being done in capstone courses has been dramatically hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. With a competition, in-person workshop and vehicle testing event at the GM Milford Proving Grounds all canceled during the last several months, students have faced considerable changes in the structure of their course. 

Nix, too, is trying to bring as much normalcy to his students as possible. When the vehicle-testing event was canceled, Nix and his students performed a virtual inspection on their hybrid Chevy Blazer, and exchanged images and video of their vehicle integration and system functionality. 

“All of the in-person events keep getting pushed further into the future, but we hope to be able to have a final competition in person with our vehicle next spring. Who knows?”  Nix said.

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