Mechanical engineering senior projects: Design-thinking, design-doing - The University of Tulsa
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Mechanical engineering senior projects: Design-thinking, design-doing

Every year in the Department of Mechanical Engineering there is a flurry of activity as students enrolled in the Senior Project course finalize and present their designs for new technologies and improvements on existing ones. This course gives the students design, fabrication, project management, communication and teamwork experience of a kind they will experience – and require – for success in the workplace after graduation.

“I am very proud of our senior design approach here at The University of Tulsa,” said Frank W. Murphy Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering Steven Tipton. “I attribute a lot of its success to John Henshaw, our department’s current chairperson, with whom I’ve co-taught this course for the last several decades. John and I have turned it into a program that has been copied by other departments and even other universities. This capstone design program is the top of the mountain for our students on their journeys toward becoming mechanical engineers. Failure is not an option and our students make sure that never happens!”

In addition to the experience students gain working through the design and manufacturing stages, they also develop their skills at making oral technical presentations and documenting their designs with written reports. Learning how to work as part of a team and to undergo and benefit from peer reviews are also essential course outcomes.

Senior design projects: Key elements

  • Teams of 5-6 (or more) students, with a leader for each
  • Real customers or end-users for the teams’ designs
  • Design, build and deliver real, functional hardware
  • Real dollars spent
  • Budgeting pseudo-dollars for salaries
  • Four distinct design review involving formal presentations and concrete milestones

As one student, Emily Tran, noted, “working on this senior project really provided us an opportunity to apply so much of the knowledge that we’ve gained while here at TU to a real-life engineering problem. As we explored the realms of materials, safety calculations and manufacturing (to mention just a few) we had to pull a lot from our past courses and experiences. This project also allowed us to develop our teamwork and communication skills as we learned to work as a team and reached out to professors and other professionals for assistance in our design and fabrication.”

This year, nine teams undertook an array of projects, from developing a better way to test thermomechanical fatigue to designing and manufacturing a “nano” brewing system. Here is an in-depth look at three of the innovative projects.

3D-printed aquaponics

Led by Henry Williams, the team of Muhammad Alanazi, Noah Blucher, Chris Montgomery, Danny Tapp and Sierra Thorne focused their efforts on designing small aquaponics growing beds made from 3D-printed parts for classroom teaching purposes. This project came about through a design request from Symbiotic Aquaponic, a firm in Talihina, Oklahoma.

According to Williams, the aim of 3D-printing aquaponics systems is “to develop a solution for the growing world population’s inevitable hunger issues caused by insufficient food.” The team’s design employs the waste generated by fish to fertilize plants. The water containing the fish feces is filtered and returned to the tank in a continuous loop. “It’s an all-in-one integrated system powered by a pump,” Williams explained.

3D Printed Aquaponics


Williams and his teammates employed a design-thinking process that entails three steps:

  1. Need-finding
  2. Brainstorming
  3. Prototyping

The first step required reaching out to Symbiotic Aquaponic to determine what the client wanted. The team learned that the desired deliverable was a small-scale – 1-5 gallons – aquaponics system people could use in their own homes. Following that, brainstorming saw the team generating ideas about what the system would comprise and what features might optimize it. Finally, at the prototyping stage, Williams and his fellow students built a number of prototype systems, tested them and then landed on the one that became their solution. “This was definitely the most fun part of the project,” Williams noted.

Small group of students wearing face masks and standing in a school gymnasium
Presenting their design to students at Anderson Elementary School

The product that Williams and his colleagues designed will now enter into Symbiotic Aquaponic’s commercial lineup. This system will likely be either injection molded or made by a large 3D-printing manufacturer. Looking beyond the existing model, Williams observes that the team would like someday to be able to add a solar power component to run the pump, thereby making the invention “a sustainable integrated system.”

“TU’s mechanical engineering students have played a vital role in making aquaponics accessible to anyone with this project, and Henry and his team have greatly exceeded our hopes and dreams for this project,” said Reese Hundley, a technical professional and education specialist with Symbiotic. “The TU students have proven to be resilient and adaptable as the project needs continued to change in a particularly challenging time, which will be a key life skill for them all. These students clearly are the cream of the crop and I am excited to see the difference they will make in the future!”

Arm support for The Center

Another group of mechanical engineering students spent their time designing an orthotic arm support intended to allow people who have had a stroke and others who suffer from hemiparesis – a weakness or inability to move on one side of the body – to gain independence while participating in recreational activities at Tulsa’s Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

mechanical arm support made primarily of silver-colored metal and clamped to the edge of a grey table
Orthotic arm support

Emily Tran, the team’s leader, explained that “affected individuals at The Center may need assistance from instructors or therapists when participating in art, horticultural or fitness activities. The device we developed gives them support to move their arm more freely. The end goal is to give them some of their autonomy back.” Working on this project with Tran were Mohammed Alsubaie, Bryce Day, Luis Ponson, Josh Randall, Maria Lucia Trazona and Ben Truong.

The idea for this device arose from the team’s consultation with Paige McCune, transition services coordinator at The Center. McCune explained the issue her clients were facing, and then Tran and her colleagues set to work brainstorming and prototyping.

“We eventually decided on a 4-bar mechanism in combination with a lateral arm to allow for the user to move their arm both in the vertical and horizontal planes,” said Tran. “Inside of the 4-bar, we also have a spring-cable system that provides support to the device by creating a variable resistance mechanism so that the device is adjustable depending on the support needed by the specific user.” To create the support seat in which a user’s arm sits, the team turned to 3D printing, which also enabled them to create a variety of sizes to accommodate The Center’s diverse population.

Designing and engineering support


The team’s early prototypes used PVC and acrylic. Based off those promising results, Tran and her teammates continued with a more elaborate and sophisticated aluminum design, followed by a testing phase, “so we could be sure everything is functioning as safely as possible.”

Once the device was completed, the team gave it to The Center along with an instruction and safety manual and video. “We are excited for them to begin using it in their classrooms and gyms for the benefit of their members,” said Tran.

JPL-Optical instrument design

Illustration of a metal device with four arms and legs
Star tracker mounting structure

As part of a NASA competition, a team led by Nathan Rendon designed and prototyped a mounting structure for a star tracker to be flown on a satellite by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The project’s criteria were strict loading and alignment specifications and the ability to withstand severe temperature gradients.

Joining Rendon are Eric Murcek, Andres Tovar, Hazel Upton and Mishael Ward. “Our invention solves the problem of keeping a star watcher pointed always at the same extremely precise angle when it is subjected to static and thermal loads,” Rendon explained. “That way, the star watcher can always view the stars that the observers at JPL NASA want to see.”

The team made their device out of grade-5 titanium. It is designed to be mounted onto a spacecraft to support a star watcher. “Our technology can flex, bend and otherwise move around when subjected to static loads, it just can’t break,” said Rendon. In addition, the team was concerned to ensure that their design not only held up under pressure but that it was aesthetically pleasing.

Now that they have a fully functioning model, Rendon and his colleagues intend to continue to optimize their invention. The main thrusts will be to reduce the mass further and improve its performance under each of its loading conditions.

Young man smiling with beard and glasses
Nathan Rendon

“Working on this project has both helped us to develop teamwork skills as well as gain experience with the software we need to perform simulations,” noted Rendon. Because their project was very simulation intensive and did not require the construction of physical prototypes, the team was able to collaborate virtually. Each team member was able to work from home on their own computer. But to keep in touch and ensure successful collaboration, Rendon explained, they held frequent meetings “to keep each other posted and to work together with the various simulations we needed to ensure progress.”

Even though the NASA competition only requires teams to perform sophisticated simulations to verify their design, Rendon noted that his professors also required a physical prototype to be fabricated, in this case — not unlike the aquaponics invention — using 3D printing technology.

TU’s bachelor of science in mechanical engineering offers hands-on classroom experiences and interactive research opportunities that will get you ready to compete in a global marketplace. Learn more!