Course Profile

Goals of the Course

This course is designed to be the culmination of the Purdue degree experience for all undergraduate students in Agricultural and Biological Engineering. The class consists of practical, faculty-supervised team experiences with projects having contemporary relevance and economic importance to issues in Agricultural & Biological Engineering and Agricultural Systems Management. Course assignments draw upon the full range of student’s background studies and employ the creative design process. Prototype and pre-production models are constructed in many cases. Significant emphasis is placed upon project management, the application of technical skills and technical creativity to specific projects, informal communication skills, formal written report production, and formal oral presentation production and delivery. The course is designed to provide students with practice completing relevant, professional-quality projects in a safe environment, by performing the types of tasks that they will initially encounter in industry.

Who is it designed for?

Participation in this experience is required to fulfill the degree objectives for all students across the five degree options within the Purdue University Agricultural & Biological Engineering Department: Agricultural Systems Management, Biological Engineering, Environmental & Natural Resources Engineering, Food Process Engineering, and Machine Systems Engineering. Students in the capstone design experience get the opportunity to draw upon the full range of their talents and engage all of their skills in the creative design process. This class sits at the pinnacle of Purdue ABE curriculum and provides students with a chance to tackle a real world problem using their creative engineering and technology training. It seeks to begin transitioning students from the discovery and exploration of scientific and technical principles found in the academic world to the creative use and advanced application of those principles that will be the primary feature of their professional careers. The overall capstone design experience emphasizes the use of acquired technical skills and creative thought, along with the ‘soft’ skills necessary for the administration and management of technical projects.

Learning Objectives

• Identify strategic project objectives and key tasks associated with specific objective completion;

• Design a biological, an environmental and natural resources, a food process, or a machine system to solve a specific human need;

• Plan the timeline and details of an intermediate term project;

• Provide informal progress updates to mentors and instructors regarding project progress;

• Interface with and seek guidance from project sponsors;

• Model, prototype, and test project designs within a team environment;

• Learn how to accomplish specific tactical goals for a project within a larger operational environment (ie University Machine Shop & Business Office; Corporate Sponsor’s Organization);

• Understand the compromises and load sharing necessary for effective team harmony;

• Understand the concepts of professionalism, ethical responsibility, and integrity when applied to technical projects;

• Enhance written communication skills through the production of a comprehensive final report;

• Enhance oral communication skills through the production of a summary technical presentations;

• Learn how to respond to questions and criticism; and

• Understand the concepts of deadline, closure, and delivery.

Maker skills it develops

The Purdue ABE capstone experience provides students with the opportunity to develop whatever skills are necessary to get the job completed. ABE defines a ‘Maker’ as an individual that accomplishes a positive outcome for humanity through the creation of a unique something that did not exist before. We believe professionally that the application of the skills that a ‘Maker’ should have can be measured through specific outcomes, and we base our academic accreditation upon our success in conveying those principles. We work on ‘Maker’ skills throughout the entire time that we are given with these students and only begin to see the fruits of our work at this upperclassman level. The capstone experience provides an outstanding opportunity for the seniors to apply their specific technical skills and demonstrate that they can navigate the multifaceted technical space that modern organizational projects use to ‘Make’ things.

By the completion of the capstone experience, we hope to see a developing confidence and ability to apply math and science to specific problems of interest. Our students must be able to gather data and analyze it independently. If the data they need does not exist, they need to be able to design a quality experiment and go get it. Likewise, we want them to understand that they will never know enough about their newest assignments and that continuous study is always required of a professional. Students have to be able to identify specific problems and plan solutions. Students must be able to identify viable alternatives and select among choices through quantifiable criteria. They have to be able to work in a professional and ethical manner on teams that are multi-disciplinary. Students must be able to creatively design within a constrained environment, and they must fully appreciate the impact of their designs within broader global, economic, environmental, and societal perspectives. They have to be able to strategize, prioritize, and follow-though on the details involved in modern technical projects, and they have to be able to effectively communicate the results of their work through a variety of means. Students in the ABE capstone course are pushed to work on aspects of their projects that most strongly improve these elements through weekly progress meetings with the course instructors and project technical mentors assigned to the teams.


The ABE capstone experience is designed to span the senior year and be taken with other design, synthesis, or advanced engineering science, technology, or management courses. The bulk of the activity occurs during the spring term, at the end of the undergraduate career. Therefore, it is entirely fair to consider the complete curricular sequence to be a prerequisite for the course. All engineering students at Purdue complete a common core of courses covering Chemistry, Physics, Math, Computer Programing, and Communication. Our ABE engineering students add a concentration in Biology. The students coming to the capstone course through Agricultural Systems Management degree move through the same series of freshman subjects in courses specifically designed for Agriculture majors. The sophomore and junior years for engineering students are heavily oriented toward engineering sciences, both within ABE and across the broader spectrum of engineering. ASM students receive technology courses primarily from within the ABE department, plus a broad spectrum of management, science, and agriculture classes from across the campus. Both groups of students complete a significant amount of humanities and general collegiate credit as is befitting of a modern university Bachelorette experience. The capstone process seeks to get the students to draw upon all portions of this undergraduate education in an effort to produce their best work.

Skills, Tools and Technologies Used

Different projects require different skill sets, and we train our students to recognize that no single individual can possibly have all necessary skills sets to accomplish all possible jobs. To overcome this issue, capstone students are taught to improve the skills that they already have, acquire new skills, and seek help in locating specialized skills outside their expertise or immediate resources to acquire. The students quickly begin to utilize all three means to meet their goals. All students are required to be technically proficient in their area and to have advanced computer skills upon entrance to the course. They must be able to prepare business and technical documents, numerically model physical and financial processes, make presentations, internally communicate regarding day-to-day issues, and create accurate and usable technical drawings. All students will have significant academic and professional strengths beyond these general skills, but these will vary from student to student, according their unique, individual path toward graduation. Students are expected to find, partner, and acquire the skills needed to complete their assignment. Many projects will require advanced chemical, hydraulic, electrical, mechanical, or thermal engineering computer codes. Occasionally, students have to write their own codes. Other students will need to machine metal parts, fabricate plastic components, or develop electrical circuits. Some will need to design and execute intricate experiments, while others will prototype formulas or products. One group this year conducted a study to determine the most appropriate means to fasten a heat transfer bracket to a production plate, while another investigated various sound deadening structures for small mobile equipment. As in real professional career situations, the students in the capstone projects are faced with novel circumstances that require the marshalling of existing resources, plus the development of new ones. Students are taught to acquire new skills and cultivate professional relationships with those that can provide them access to other needed skills and resources.

Key Examples and Prior Work

The entire Purdue ABE capstone experience is an application of the ‘Maker’ principle of learning-by-doing. We are teaching students to confront real world problems and create innovative, unique solutions to specific problems. The iterative design process that we teach students encourages them to explore novel uses and applications of existing technology. The unique position of our specialization in the technological world means that we attract individuals who are at heart conservationists, concerned with the issues of sustainability, appropriate development, healthy foodstuffs, and environmental stewardship. Our students are therefore aptly suited for success in the modern, ‘Maker’ world, for these are the values that consumers are demanding be incorporated within the supply chain that provides them with their daily needs. The ABE field is also filled with inspiring commercial artifacts, and many of our projects contain industrial components, allowing the students to interact with an industrial team working on a larger and more complex piece of equipment, like a modern combine or tractor. These capstone projects solidly demonstrate how professional activity provides the opportunity to leverage an individual’s creative activities and still retain the pride of ‘ownership’ in one’s contribution to a larger project, both hallmarks of ‘Maker’ activity.

Key Resources

The faculty and staff of the Purdue Agricultural & Biological Engineering department are the key resource in conducting our successful ‘Maker’ program. It requires everyone within the program working to make this experience meaningful and useful to our students. The department obviously supplies work space and the overhead needed to support creative activities, but the crucial element is the willingness of the faculty and staff to mentor and advise students along their path as growing professionals. The Purdue ABE capstone experience is designed to show students the necessity of working within an existing organization and bringing the strengths of that organization to bear upon a specific problem. Student design teams meet with course instructors and technical mentors on a regular basis throughout the academic year. These advisors attempt to encourage innovation and steer the teams down paths with likely successful outcomes. The students also interact with shop personnel and communications specialists, as well as lab, IT, clerical, and business office staff. The department considers that it is vital for students to understand that all members of an organization play a vital role in the aggregate success, and this enforced integration of the working undergraduate students into the university apparatus provides significant training in that professional concept.

Example Assignment

Capstone project topics are solicited by the instructors from various faculty and industrial sponsors. Students select preferences based upon project abstracts, and the instructors assign teams. The PUP Clutch team won this year’s capstone Machine Systems division competition. The PUP is a custom-made, bare-bones utility vehicle design for developing countries. It is manufactured from stock materials and recycled components. The overall design has been evolving for seven or eight years and is nearing a final design freeze. One of the last troublesome components has been the vehicle’s clutching mechanism. Previous mechanisms have failed in the field under hard use. One of this year’s teams tackled the problem head-on by proposing, building, and testing three styles of clutch mechanism. They collected field data and recommended a final design which should eventually prove economical, robust, and durable in the field. This project had significant societal impact, since it solved a major design flaw in a larger device with proven significant demand. The students were innovative in their repurposed use of an existing artifact, and they backed their recommendation with field collected data. This team truly demonstrated the best in Purdue ABE engineering skills and overall ‘Maker’ spirit.

Lessons Learned

The management and operation of experiential ‘Maker’ courses like the ABE capstone experience are heavily time-intensive on the part of the course instructors and departmental staff. These mentors have to be generous with their time for the experience to be effective. Purdue ABE student teams typically visit with two faculty members each week to continually justify decisions and progress regarding their project. Students vitally need their ideas critiqued to grow professionally, and these meetings provide a safe environment for that criticism. Students must learn how to function in larger organizations. The staff in ABE also understands that their contribution to our students’ education and professional growth is vital. Faculty could not successfully oversee the vast range of this larger experience by themselves and keep it running smoothly. The staffs’ acceptance of this invaluable training role in our students’ collegiate careers helps us make the Purdue ABE capstone projects the ultimate culmination of our degree experience. For students to successfully become ‘Makers’, they must have plenty of guidance and training. For it to be meaningful and memorable in the student’s mind, that help must be offered freely and with a collaborative spirit. The local ‘people’ culture must support the desired ‘Maker’ outcomes. An old proverb states that it takes a village to raise a child. In Agricultural & Biological Engineering at Purdue University, we feel that it takes an entire department to train a professional.