Senior Design: More Than A Class

By: Kirsi

Kirsi holding the field operator's sensor.
Me holding the field operator’s sensor.
Pointing a stealth camera at a circuit.

I didn’t want to take senior design (SD). I tried to get out of it two times. I have completed plenty of technical paid internships since high school. Why do I have to take SD? What do I possibly have left to learn?

Image: programming code on a computer screen
Text: Skills learned in senior design

With a closed mind opened, I was ecstatic to find SD was exactly what I hoped college would be when I applied six years ago. Our SD team competed in the Air Force Research Lab Design Challenge. We built a two user system that helps first responders navigate Amber Alerts, rubble searches, and active threats. Our system can identify objects of interest through cinder block, drywall, multiple rooms, and car trunks. You can watch a demo video of the system, all built at UMD by students! SD has been a huge opportunity for me to grow my soft and technical skills.

Display screen of the system showing data from four sensors
Display of the system showing data from our four sensors.

What You Will Learn In Senior Design:
A major experience missed by only interning in the professional world is being challenged improve communication techniques. In an internship you learn the ropes of reporting achievements, asking questions, and forming a consistent path of communication. This is more procedure than an art. Management, mentors, and peers who you interface with at internships are usually seasoned leaders and communicators. Student peers? Sometimes, not so much. To no fault of their own. Raw inexperience. This required compensation I did not expect and revealed major communication flaws I have.

Leading
Being a leader means self-drive, delegating tasks to others, and people wrangling. Part of leadership on a SD team simply comes from being there for many hours, being there when things happened, something that couldn’t be scheduled. Because of my time commitment, people asked me details about the project and next steps. Ultimately, I started delegating and prioritizing tasks due to this informal leadership promotion.

Mediating
It was a bit challenging to look past how someone was communicating, shed emotional charge, and focus on what the concern or question was. I had to learn to look past communication styles, meet peers where they were, and come up with a way to move forward. This required me to make sure my concerns or points did not come with any baggage.

Team giving a presenation
Our team presenting at the competition.

Reviewing
What is the point of making something cool if its importance can’t be described? I had to learn how to communicate our accomplishments to operators who may use our equipment in the future. I looked over and presented materials and made sure we were using understandable language.

Designing
The system we were building was for first responders, therefore, we met with law enforcement from the community for design and usability feedback. We met with police officers to attend SWAT training to understand how they would be responding to threats and what their priorities were. Throughout development, we invited first responders to our labs, put our devices in their hands to use, and asked for feedback on how to make things more user friendly. Additionally, I met with a graphic design major to make sure that data was clearly presented to operators.

I am excited to report to that our SD team won the competition bringing the gold home to UMD! I am honored to be a part of this team and thankful to have such a positive experience! I highly recommend making the most of your senior design!

Of Possible Interest:
Building Your Resume – all our blog posts on the topic
Boost Your Career in College – our Pinterest board filled with articles & resources

Read Kirsi’s other posts

Photo Source: Kirsi & Unsplash | Markus Spiske