Rensselaer Alumni Magazine - Fall 2017 - 28
The Design Lab capstone course was introduced in 2000
to assure that Rensselaer engineering students have real-world
experience. With major support for the facility from honorary
trustee Robert Swanson '58 and his wife, Cynthia Shevlin, the
Design Lab was named in honor of Swanson's father. Each
semester approximately 200 seniors from across engineering
disciplines-60 percent of all engineering students-take the
required three-credit class.
As a result, several thousand graduates have assisted industry
leaders such as General Electric, Boeing, Corning, and Raytheon,
nonprofits such as the Albany Guardian Society and The Arc of
Rensselaer, an entrepreneur floating an idea, or a person in need.
They have helped companies reduce costs, improved an existing
technology, and enhanced the lives of individuals with disabilities.
To do this, students need to apply the engineering principles
they have learned in the classroom. They also have to work as a
team and document their findings. Also crucial: Students in the
Design Lab have to manage their time; at least five hours a week
is generally needed on top of the two two-hour lab classes.
"This is the first class for many of them that involves working
with an outside sponsor," notes Design Lab Director and Professor
of Practice Kathryn Dannemann '80. "It requires communication
and follow-up with the sponsor, and teaches them project and time
management skills. They can't cram the night before the exam."
"Rensselaer is unique in its multidisciplinary capstone approach
and the use of full-time project engineers to coach the project
teams," she says.
A sprawling space that feels more like a meeting room than
science lab, the Design Lab is surprisingly quiet given all that
happens on a given day.
One afternoon last spring as a team completed the gripper,
another was hard at work adapting a commercial pill dispenser for
people with physical and cognitive disabilities.
Previous teams had developed a pivot allowing the dispenser
to tip so a pill could drop out. The collaborator, The Arc of
Rensselaer County, which hopes to implement the design, found
the pivot required too much precision for an individual with
arthritis or Parkinson's. Last semester's team modified the design
for ease of use.
"It works well, but still doesn't quite look like something
someone would want to use," says Erik Baktis '17, a mechanical
engineering major who smoothed edges of a smaller version now
made from plastic in place of wood.
Another team, also assisting The Arc of Rensselaer County,
was improving a hoist used to move a disabled person from bed
to chair. Students had modified it so an aide could work without
assistance, but the thing swung too much. To reduce its pendulum
effect, students added a damper to the arm. They tested it using
project engineer Scott Miller '75 as their patient.
"Before adding the damper we did some physical modeling
28 RensselaeR/ Fall 2017
" IT'S BEEN REALLY
W O RTH W H ILE TO S E E THE
P ERS O N W H O S E P ROB L EM WE
ARE TRYING TO S O LVE. . . YOU
D EFINITELY W O RK H A R DER . . .
IT M EANS M O RE."
BRENDAN CONNOLLY '17, A MECHANICAL ENGINEERING
STUDENT WHO WITH HIS TEAM HAD VISITED WHALEN AT
HOME HALF A DOZEN TIMES.
to calculate the damping coefficient. And, I did an animation,"
explained Jiaying Yu '17, as Miller swung more or less depending
on the damper's setting. "By adding the damper, the motion is
The team working on David Whalen's gripper, meanwhile,
was confident it would now work better and be easier to use.
"The biggest hurdle now is getting ready to do the presentation
and write-up," says Connolly. "If this is a product you want to see
used commercially, you have to be able to present it."
JEFFREY MOSS '07 FELT GOOD ABOUT HIS
FIRST REPORT FOR THE DESIGN LAB PROJECT,
A CHALLENGE FROM GE. HE WAS SURPRISED,
THEN, BY THE FEEDBACK.
"Things were crossed out all over the place, and Scott tore
it apart," recalls Moss, referring to Miller. "I was frustrated and
defensive. But that made me a lot more careful."
Moss, who studied mechanical engineering, hadn't always
been clear on how he would use the theory and equations he
had learned in other engineering classes. But that changed his
senior year in the Design Lab. GE asked his team to improve how
it calibrates a steam flow velocity probe. The group worked on
a simulated steam turbine setup in the Design Lab. He was hooked.
"It's always the case that some people in a group work harder
than others," recalls Moss, now 31. "But I didn't care because I was
so excited by the work that I was happy to do more."
The experience helped convince him to remain at Rensselaer
for a graduate degree and pursue manufacturing. Today, he
owns Empire Dynamics Machinery, LLC, a manufacturing and
engineering firm that works with aerospace, rail, and automotive
manufacturers in the United States and overseas. Moss says that
it was both the hands-on challenge and his shortcomings, including
that first report, that had made his Design Lab experience come
"I remember we got pretty distracted by all the alternative
methods for doing the calibrations," he notes. "In the real world,