Student Success: The capstone as the culmination of academic progress and tips for success

Technology advisor, Alicia Randazzo

Technology advisor, Alicia Randazzo, interviews Dr. Shambhu Shastry, Faculty Program Director for Electrical Engineering Technology at Excelsior College.  Dr. Shastry talks about his background and the innovative ELEC 495 capstone for the Electrical Engineering Technology program and provides some insight for success with both the portfolio and the final project.  In addition, he provides some useful advice for students taking capstones generally.

Randazzo: Please take a moment and introduce yourself, your background, your position, and responsibilities within Excelsior College.

Shastry: I grew up in a village in southern India and went to the village school until till tenth grade (studied in my native tongue), and completed my plus 2 focusing on physics, chemistry, math, and statistics in a town college. I then completed my BS in electrical, communications, and computer engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The next step in 1978 was emotionally a big move for me to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York, for an MS and then a PhD in electrical engineering.

After graduation, my first job was at a semiconductor company in New Jersey, making semiconductor FET parts for satellite communications. Three years later I joined GTE Laboratories, Waltham, Massachusetts, to pursue research in high-speed devices and their materials. After presenting and publishing my work in a flagship fora, I got restless from the “show” and went back to product development at a startup company in Taunton, Massachusetts. All that I had learned until then came in useful in this role where I started with an empty floor and helped build a team and a manufacturing process for making a gallium arsenide based epitaxial processes for all kinds of devices. One of them became a market success and remains a healthy business (with about 70% of the global market space) for the company even today.

Faculty Program Director for Electrical Engineering Technology, Dr. Shambhu Shastry

Subsequently I spent about ten years as a consultant in this field and in 2005 I migrated to the teaching profession, starting with an engineering college in India. I taught freshman engineering class at Binghamton University for couple of years before joining Excelsior college as Faculty Program Director for the electrical engineering technology degree program. Currently my responsibilities revolve around the BSEET program and the math- and technology-centric courses in the School of Business and Technology’s AAT and AST programs. Concurrently, I also work at the engineering college in India directing Masters and PhD programs in nanotechnology. I live with my family in Troy, New York, a few blocks away from the RPI campus that pretty much shaped my profession.

Randazzo: How is the Capstone significant to the culmination of a student’s academic progress?

Shastry: The capstone course in an academic program is its end game. Specifically, in technology or engineering degree programs, it has the cumulative learning content of all the other courses in the program. Through such a capstone, using reflections as well as hands-on projects, students learn to integrate all that they learned until then and demonstrate their ability. Thus, integrating knowledge and skills (techniques) from a variety of sources is an important aspect of the capstone. This involves not only the fundamentals of science and mathematics, but also problem-solving and design (making-something-new) skills. Working as part of a team towards common goals and applying project management techniques is the second important aspect of a capstone. Lastly, demonstrating a habit of self-directed lifelong learning and continuous improvement is the third important aspect. Students demonstrating these capabilities will be able to contribute in their professional careers from day one. A successful capstone is a good measure of a student’s future success.

Randazzo: In describing the Capstone to a new student, how might you define the difference between the portfolio students must build and the final project?

Shastry: As you may know, this BSEET degree program has 13 outcomes that the students are required to master and demonstrate. The task of developing one’s capstone portfolio is a reflective activity with reference to these program outcomes. Here the student is encouraged to soul search through the courses he/she took under this program as well as life experiences anywhere else, such as on a job, and provide evidences that demonstrate the learning outcomes. This is an intellectual exercise of integrating student’s life learning and life experiences. In contrast, the capstone project is a hands-on hardware centered project that demonstrates all these learning outcomes, including the pertinent knowledge and skills that are necessary to become productive engineers in today’s industries.

Randazzo: Can you describe how a final project might achieve an A in your class?

Shastry: For securing an A grade in the capstone course, a student must do well in all the steps involved in the course. I sum these into three key steps:

  • The first step is selecting a project of interest whose solution has societal meaning/use. It should not be too easy or irrelevant. It should be a reasonably complex problem in electrical engineering technology but not so complex that it cannot be solved in the 15-week duration.
  • The second step is working well in a team, framing team goals, and collectively working towards those goals. Learning from other team members, respecting others, and helping others are the traits we want to see in any team work. Designing solutions to the chosen problems is carried out in such team arrangement, and each student should have a well-designed project at the end of this step. Your work will be graded for teamwork and design work.
  • The final step is building one of the designed solutions, testing the solution, and demonstrating it. Your class peers and your instructional faculty grade the innovations in your design work, implementing it, recording your work, and reporting/presenting through a quality online seminar where you defend your work.

Randazzo: Does the completion of the Capstone have any significance to a student who is pursuing a career in the Electrical Engineering Technology field?

Shastry: Certainly, it does. It is an ABET requirement of the BSEET degree and there is this US-wide stamp of high quality and rigor. It demonstrates to a prospective employer that the BSEET graduate has the necessary knowledge and skills to work individually and in teams in the field of electrical engineering technology at entry level engineering roles. It is also a gateway for Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering Technology as well as in Electrical Engineering.