Managing an Engineering Capstone Project

This spring semester I am teaching a section of my program’s capstone project course and I’ve been thinking about how best to structure the course.

ABET (the organization that accredits engineering programs) defines a capstone project as a culminating major engineering design experience that 1) incorporates appropriate engineering standards and multiple constraints, and 2) is based on the knowledge and skills acquired in earlier coursework. The earlier coursework should include knowledge and skills related to the various civil engineering disciplines (e.g., structural engineering or geotechnical engineering) as well as knowledge and skills related to project management.

Two challenges for a faculty member teaching a capstone project are 1) identifying a project that is at an appropriate level of challenge for the students and that can be successfully completed in the allotted time and 2) structuring the course so that the students take responsibility for project management and, under their management, the students have a high probability of successfully completing the project.

For this coming semester, I have identified a project that I believe will provide an appropriate level of challenge and that the students should be able to complete in the allotted time. However, I have been thinking about ways I might structure the course so that the students will have responsibility for managing and completing the project. Because this is a one-semester course, the students will need to quickly engage with the project and avoid the problem of time scallop. (Time scallop is “the tendency to increase effort exponentially as the final deadline approaches” – p. 389, Moor and Drake 2001.)

I looked for papers on best practices for structuring a project of this type and I found a paper by Moor and Drake (2001). It is the most recent article I could find that addressed the issue and I decided that their approach—perhaps with some updates to include greater use of digital communication and documentation—is something I could adopt.

Moor’s and Drake’s approach has three major components — a milestone schedule, weekly project meetings, and the documentation of student work through design memos.  Paraphrasing heavily from their paper, the three components are described below.

Milestone Schedule

During the first week of the project, the students are given a list of the requirements for the final products that they are expected to produce by the end of the semester. Using sticky notes, the students examine the list of requirements and determine what tasks they will complete to meet these requirements and they write each task on a separate sticky note.

The students then arrange the sticky notes on a board to create a rough Gantt chart for the project (Gantt chart – Wikipedia) to illustrate the dependence of some tasks on others as well as tasks that can be conducted in parallel. (During this phase it is also likely that the students will identify additional tasks that will need to be completed and those can be written on additional sticky notes and added to the board.) Once the students have ordered the tasks that need to be completed, the students then align these tasks with the dates for the semester.

Using this detailed schedule of tasks, the students identify project milestones where each milestone is defined as the completion of a significant aspect of the project and typically represents the completion of multiple tasks. The collection of all the milestones covers all the required aspects of the project. The students then create a simplified milestone schedule for the semester.

Weekly Project Meetings

Starting the second week of the semester, the students participate in and run weekly project meetings. These meetings are focused on project tasks — identified pieces of work that need to be completed to meet the milestones for the project. Each project task is designed to result in some concrete deliverable (e.g., a drawing, a set of calculations, a draft of text, etc.) and each project task will have one student who has been identified as the “primary person responsible” (PPR). The PPR insures the completion of the task whether that task is something they complete themselves or whether the task is completed by a group of students under the PPR’s supervision.

The students take turns being the project manager and at each meeting, the project managers lead the group through the activities listed below. Activities one through three are led by the current project manager (who has served in the role since the previous project meeting) and activity four is led by the next project manager (who will continue in the role of project manager until the next project meeting.) The project manager changes each week so that all students have at least one opportunity to be project manager. The four activities during the project meeting are described below.

  1. Project manager selection: The project manager for the next week is selected. The current project manager continues to lead the meeting through steps two and three but the new manager is chosen during this first step so that the new manager can use the early parts of the meeting to prepare to take over as project manager.
  2. Project tasks review: The group reviews the project tasks that were to be completed during the time since the last project meeting. If a task was completed, the PPR provides a quick review of the major results of the work completed. If the task has not been completed, the PPR explains what caused the delay. This is not a time for excuses but a time to note and address any roadblocks that may affect the project as a whole.
  3. Milestone schedule review: The milestone schedule is reviewed, noting all completed and delayed milestones and updating the entire schedule as needed to reflect the impact of any delayed milestones.
  4. Project task planning: Based on the progress to date and the updated milestone schedule, the group determines what are the next tasks to complete along with the PPR and the due date for the task.

After the weekly project meeting, each project manager writes a memo to document their portion of the meeting. These are two separate memos. The previous project manager prepares a summary memo that reports on all tasks (completed and delayed) that were to be completed during the time they served as project manager. For each completed task, the previous project manager reports on the major results and references the memo where the details of the completed project task can be found. For any incomplete tasks, the previous project manager reports on the cause for the delay, the impact of the delay on the project as a whole, and any lessons that can be learned to avoid similar types of delays in the future. Finally, the previous project manager reviews the performance of the team in relation to the milestone schedule and provides an updated milestone schedule.

The project manager for the upcoming period is responsible for an objective memo. The objective memo is comprised of a simple list of the next tasks to be completed including any incomplete tasks from the previous period. For each task, the memo lists the expected deliverable, the PPR, and the due date.

The summary memos written by the previous project manager and the new project manager are then distributed to the project team (including the faculty advisor). To take advantage of technology and communication changes since Moor and Drake wrote their paper in 2001, in my course the project managers will submit their memos to a shared Google drive and will share the documents with the team by posting a link to the document using a Slack message to the team. (The team  will be using a shared Google drive for document storage and Slack for communications.)

Design memos

For every project task completed, the student who has been identified as the PPR for that task writes a design memo. The memo is a one-page summary (in standard memo format) that briefly describes the project task and summarizes the findings/result of that task. The one-page memo is followed by attachments that provide all supporting materials necessary to document the work completed. As with the summary memos created by the project managers, the design memos will be submitted to a shared Google drive.

At the end of the project, the design memos that each student submits will be used to document the student’s individual contributions to the project and, for my course, I will have the design memos count for 50% of the student’s final grade.

I’m excited to see how this course will turn out!


Moor, S. S., and B. D. Drake. 2001. “Addressing Common Problems in Engineering Design Projects: A Project Management Approach.” Journal of Engineering Education, 90 (3): 389–395.


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