Singapore Institute of Technology

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Key success factors in multi-disciplinary capstone projects

conference contribution
posted on 2022-03-25, 08:58 authored by Charlie Purdum, Gary Neal, Matt Parkinson
Now in its 27th year, the Learning Factory ( at Penn State University runs one of the largest multi-disciplinary client-sponsored capstone programs in the world. Each year over 1400 students work on ~250 projects. Approximately 2/3 of the clients are from industry and the others come from non-profit organizations and healthcare providers. An archive of past projects can be viewed here: Depending on the semester we have students from 8-11 departments and 2-3 Colleges participating. The projects are truly multi-disciplinary with >95% of projects involving students from at least two disciplines and >60% of projects involving students from at least three. We have identified several factors that are critical to Multi-disciplinary Capstone success. Note that we only report those that are unique or particularly important to multi-disciplinary capstone. For example, we have found that having participants that are excited about the project is critical whether the project is multi-disciplinary or not, so that is not included here. Nor is the list comprehensive: we chose the most important factors for each of the stakeholder groups.** Structure: team size/assignment and early prototypes We identify the "primary discipline" and ensure that there are at least two students from that discipline on the team. With teams of 5-6 students that often means that other relevant disciplines only have a single student, leaving them vulnerable if that student struggles in some way. Nevertheless, we are not usually successful with larger teams. We require our teams to create rudimentary prototypes very early in the process (e.g., by the second week). This helps them to get a sense of the scope of the project and to identify knowledge gaps they will face. ** Project clients or sponsors: Training and context Although our project sponsors typically have extensive industry and/or project management experience, that does not necessarily prepare them well for being a sponsor in our program. Training our sponsors on how to interact with the teams in a manner that leads to success is essential. Part of this is calibrating their expectations for what can be accomplished in the 16 week timeframe of the course. Context is especially important for multi-disciplinary projects. A site visit, particularly in-person (virtual is better than nothing) can help those with less experience in the project domain to gain a tactile understanding of the work. ** Student teams: communication within and across teams Both intra-team (inside the team) and inter-team (between teams) communication is essential. The different disciplines within the team can have distinct technical languages which is a further hurdle to effective communication. Because teams typically go through some of the same systematic issues, they can learn from each other's successes and failures. Since many students are the only representative from their discipline on the team, peer design reviews can provide assistance or backup to individuals that need support from within their discipline. Because students don't know what they don't know, those reviewing from outside of their discipline will too often give it a cursory look and say "Ya, that looks good". ** Faculty: Invested in outcomes and expertise in design process Faculty that are invested in successful outcomes nearly always outperform those that are not. The motivations for the faculty can be quite different, however. Our best mentors fall into one of two categories: 1) those that enjoy the teaching/coaching/mentoring and 2) those that are motivated by the project topic or scope. Recognizing this helps us to direct our project assignments. Since faculty usually don't have expertise in all of the disciplines required for the project, having expertise in the design process itself can mitigate that limitation.


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Applied Learning Conference 2022, 20-21 January 2022, Online

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