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Collaborative capstone course moves online

May 26, 2020

Students embrace twice the problem-solving

For a highly collaborative capstone project that entails developing a remote-controlled sensing vehicle, moving the course online due to COVID-19 means twice the opportunity to utilize problem-solving skills.

“The pandemic is a great opportunity to do things differently – challenge conventional approaches, use technology more and be more connected even during an era of physical distancing,” says professor Faisal Hossain, who is teaching CEE 444 Environmental Engineering this spring.

A prototype of a remote-controlled sensing vehicle

Built by ECE students Sherman White and Jina Yoo, the team's first prototype (right) and more recent prototype (left), which features a track mounted design for better traction in wet soil.

In addition to navigating an online classroom setting, students in civil and environmental engineering are working with electrical and computer engineering (ECE) students enrolled in the ENGINE program to complete a capstone design project in partnership with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

The project entails prototyping a remote-controlled sensing vehicle that will be used to monitor confined spaces, such as culverts, bridges and sewers, which are difficult for humans to access for inspection. The prototype may eventually replace the current sensing vehicle employed by WSDOT, which suffers from issues such as unstable Internet connectivity, limited camera range and lack of speed control.

“Basically, ECE students are building this and CEE students are providing some high-level feedback on what it takes to make it relevant for real-world field conditions for a client working in civil engineering,” says Hossain. “It’s a great marriage of two branches of engineering.”

Prior to the start of spring quarter, Hossain outlined a contingency plan for the course, to create an online learning environment. The students, who are in separate online classes in each department, meet online to exchange ideas and feedback about the prototype. Students from both departments also attend online meetings with WSDOT officials, who are helping to mentor the students.

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting

Students deliver an online mid-term presentation to WSDOT officials.

Rather than complete several prototypes by the end of the quarter, as originally planned, the students are working to finalize a smaller number of designs for their “Hydro-CUB (Compact Utility Bot).” Despite shipping delays for necessary parts, such as precision cameras and Arduino boards, the students have completed the design of the first prototype, which continues to evolve.

“They are working to make Hydro-CUB as relevant for real-world conditions as possible,” Hossain says. “Right now with the pandemic, we are not sure we will get all the way to the finish line as students are working from home and ordering parts is taking time, but it will get very close.”