Senior engineering capstone projects foster a unique collaboration between UVM and the Vermont community

Winter’s snow has long receded from Burlington on April 21; a scant few patches remain in the Green Mountains and mud season is in full swing. At Burton Snowboards, however, the team is as elated as you would find them on a powder day, when they might be playing sanctioned hooky to plunge through the white stuff.

“It’s amazing,” marvels engineer Dave Connery. “So quiet!” adds another engineer.

Their subject of awe and scrutiny? A machine nicknamed “Tipsy,” designed not by their in-house wizards, but by a team of UVM students from the Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering programs as their senior capstone project. Resembling a cross between a medieval catapult-launching machine, a Star Wars sidekick to C3PO and a one-legged boarder wearing a black boot, it clicks in a repetitive motion, as the team looks on proudly, and Burton’s staff scrutinizes. 

“Tipsy has been our baby for the past year,” says Noah Mostow ’17 to a visitor, later explaining how the collaboration came to be. “Burton needed a testing device for its’ step-on binding system. The first half of our project was very design based, creating multiple prototype ideas every week.” Another member of the team, Rob Sasena, came up with the original concept: a main tipping tower that recreates human-like motion of the boot, running off a single motor. “Tipsy,” says Mostow, “was what we needed to show Burton we could build their new testing device.”

And show Burton they did, impressing the global snowboarding giant enough to land Tipsy a coveted place in the Craig Kelly Prototype Facility, producing critical data for binding development and having undergone more than 70,000 cycles by early July. “This project we gave them had some trickiness to it, so the fact that they could build something that has become a very useful device for testing and evaluating is impressive,” says Chris Doyle, who has worked in R & D for Burton for more than 20 years. “They had a lot of drive, were very dedicated and it was fun to watch them grow and learn as they were able to put their hands on the technologies at Burton.”

Doyle’s comments speak to the unique collaboration between UVM and surrounding communities created by the senior engineering capstone projects. From working with Gordon Windows to develop a remote quick-release cellular window shade to coming up with a Haiti water filtration design for the Vermont Haiti Project, these are not so much the end of a college career but the beginning of learning how to leverage local enthusiasm, innovation and relationships to make a better world. 

Spring fever is at a peak on Friday, April 28, when the top floor of the Davis Center hosts the 2017 Engineering Design Night, an evening of poster presentations and engineering honors awards. Outside, it’s 81 degrees, sending rivulets of perspiration down the shirts of Catamounts crossing Main Street. Inside the Davis Center, however, none of the 40 teams presenting their student project posters seems to be breaking a sweat. Not even Anna Svagzdys, who’s straddling a flying motorcycle simulator, designed for Beta Technologies, that refuses to budge. “It’s frustrating; everything worked this morning,” says Svagzdys, who keeps her cool as she makes minor adjustments to the simulator. Soon enough it’s working again.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then consider this assemblage the maternity ward. After months (not hours) of labor, the proud parents are the groups of four to five students pacing near their posters, ready to answer questions from the clients, community partners and other visitors strolling up and down the makeshift aisles. Sky-blue shirts, ties, sport coats, dresses and heels are in abundance; the attire is as smart as the crew. Andrew Carter ’18 from Team 35 explains the graphics showing historic flooding and road damage to Richville Road in Manchester. “This is the hydraulics analysis of the largest culvert,” he says.

Team 24, meanwhile, is showing off “Optimization of Surface Watercraft Construction Using Dampening Materials to Mitigate Forces and Vibration.” In other words, the student-proposed project aims for a more stable surfboard; in other sporty realms, there is an Innovative Golf Shaft—Light Weight & Uniflex and an Improved Golf-Driver 2.0 – Aerodynamics for client BombTech, plus Suspension Telemetry for Mountain Bikes and, drawing oohs and ah’s from many onlookers, an Adjustable Wall Mounted Bike Mount for Amtrak, for client VT Bike Solutions. 

The Capstone projects solve problems, for sure, but also may save lives; projects such as the Smart Esophageal Balloon Dialator, Bio-Printing Breast Tissue for PostMastectomy Reconstructive Surgery and Altering Medical Device Surfaces to Impact Fluid Dynamics are good examples of this. Overseeing many of these endeavors is “Professor of the Practice” Dustin Rand, who serves as the faculty mentor for the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Electrical Engineering; “Professor of the Practice” John Lens holds the same role for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, whose projects involve bridge rehabilitation, a U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Design Competition and the Georgia Public Library ADA Improvements Design, among others.

What’s easily perceptible about the event is the cool, collected energy that seems to have come from great minds thinking alike—and thinking differently. The graphics and the gimmicks give way to the students and their community partners telling the story, which has come to an end, but also a new beginning.

“Tonight is the final show for us,” says Mastow, before leaving his post to accept the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Award, given “for meritorious work” in the student ASME chapter; he fistbumps teammate Pete Hoops as he steps aside. “Tipsy goes back to Burton, so it’s a bit of a goodbye.”

One week later student teams are presenting to faculty and partners for final grading. Summer’s promise of jobs and other endeavors is palpable in Kalkin 003 and 004, which has seen a full day of Capstone Final Presentations for UVM's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. 

Carter ’18 is here, as are others from the Manchester Richville Road Flood Hazard Mitigation Design team, which worked closely with the town of Manchester to bring the mother of invention to Mother Nature. “Vermonters have a long history of trying to get rivers to do what we what them to do,” explains Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe. “Rivers are not very good listeners, and during Irene, we found that water is such a powerful force that it does whatever it wants to do—floods, smashes trees.”

O’Keefe refers to the famous damage wrought by the remains of Hurricane Irene in the Green Mountain State in late August 2011. Six years later, southern Vermont is still seeking a way to let rivers run their course without ruining lives, and as Lens explains, Capstone was key. “The project was brought to us by Michael Batcher of the Bennington Regional Planning Commission,” he says, “who connected the need to resolve a flooding problem with our students’ Capstone opportunity.”

Vermont Stream Alterations Engineer Joshua Carvajal worked closely with Team 35, meeting every few months to discuss the progress of tasks pertaining to recommendations on Richville Road. “After the initial meeting with the students, both Michael and I expected lots of follow-up questions and handholding to work through each of the tasks,” he says. “But the students were very independent. It was very satisfying to watch the students learn about real-world issues and work toward providing potential solutions to problems.”

The group dynamics were interesting, adds Carvajal, explaining that teammates Carter and Carli Shroyer, Yifan Li and Xuguang Shen shared responsibilities and played different roles. “Too many leaders on a project often complicates the end goal, so everything worked out fine,” says Carvajal. “The days spent surveying Richville Road was the entertaining part, since people’s personalities really come out during field work. They were long and often cold days but the group kept up their spirits with a bit of good-natured ribbing.” 

And that good nature, in the end, did help appease Mother Nature, or at least the officials doing their best to calm her down with rational designs. “Everybody here was really impressed with the focus of the students and the caliber and their engineering skills,” says O’Keefe. “Any town thinking about doing a Capstone project with UVM I would definitely recommend.”

Momentum is already underway for such projects. Burton’s Doyle says with a laugh that as soon as Tipsy was under his wing, Professor Rand was in touch about Capstone ideas for 2017-2018. Doyle says, “I look forward to working with some rock stars again.” 


Sarah Tuff Dunn