A multidisciplinary capstone project experience in a small liberal arts college setting: The hybrid solar tracker
Over the past two decades, the overall scope and expectations for capstone projects in undergraduate engineering project has evolved. There has been an increased focus on multidisciplinary work and hands-on learning.1 The topics of student interest have evolved as well. Studies show that an increasing percentage of students are drawn towards topics related to sustainability.2 Regardless of these changes, one thing that remains true is that small engineering departments, particularly departments housed in small liberal arts colleges, are faced with additional challenges. These challenges include working with limited resources (budget, laboratory space, equipment) and the necessity for the instructor to supervise projects outside of his or her area of expertise. Thus, it can be difficult to develop capstone project ideas that are realizable in this setting. We believe the Hybrid Solar Tracker project was an example that featured many key ingredients conducive to achieving a successful experience despite these limitations. The project team was multidisciplinary in nature. The instructor was a professor in electrical engineering. Two of the students were seniors in computer engineering, and one was a senior in mechanical engineering. The students were originally given a budget of $300 by the department, but were encouraged to seek external sources of additional funding. To this effect, the students participated in the Xplore Contest, sponsored by the Phoenix Contact (a multinational engineering firm), and received over $4,000 dollars in this funding from this company. In the process of this contest, the students documented their work by recording videos throughout various stages of the process and uploading them to the Internet. The contest also served as a means of external validation for their work. The students surveyed the existing literature in solar trackers and developed their own design, with the objective of increasing tracking efficiency. Their design was a hybrid concept, combining active tracking and chronological tracking. This paper includes a detailed explanation of the design, adapted from the students' senior project report. The Hybrid Solar Tracker ranked among the top 100 projects worldwide for the Phoenix Contact Xplore Contest and won the award for Best Senior Project in the department. While there were factors to be improved on, both in terms of planning and execution, this project was a positive example of how to achieve a successful capstone project experience in a small liberal arts college setting. © American Society for Engineering Education, 2013.