Fifth-grader Isabella Nicola  tentatively pulled the bow across the strings of her violin, and applause filled the room at Mason’s Long and Kimmy Nguyen Engineering Building.
It was the first time the girl, born without a left hand and with only partial bone from her left elbow to her wrist, played using the hot pink prosthesis created for her by a senior design team of five Mason bioengineering majors.
It took Nicola a few tries to get the hang of placing the bow on the strings, but once comfortable, she played simple scales, then wowed her audience with a version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
In the audience that day were Nicola’s mother, her music teacher, the design team—and the media. In the days following the impromptu concert on the Fairfax Campus, Nicola and her pink prosthetic arm were featured in the Washington Post and on WUSA 9, BBC, and a host of other media outlets.
Doing Big Things
This isn’t the first time Mason Engineering  students were propelled into the limelight by their creations. In 2015, electrical engineering majors Seth Robertson, BS ’15, and Viet Tran, BS ’15, took the media by storm with their sound wave fire extinguisher, which successfully suppressed flames using low-frequency sound waves.
After their story and video went viral, The Tonight Show came calling with host Jimmy Fallon himself demonstrating their prototype on national television. For months, administrators in the Volgenau School of Engineering fielded inquiries from around the world for the two as they worked to complete their Mason coursework and graduate. The university also helped the duo acquire a provisional patent for their invention.
While the glory of a successful project is sweet, it is also hard won. All design teams struggle. That’s a part of the process. For many students, this is their first time actually building a prototype. Even the VioArm: A Customized Prosthetic Arm team’s first prototype failed. It crumbled after coming out of the 3-D printer because of a miscalculation with the plastic’s thickness.
Setting the Bar High Enough
The senior capstone project for Mason Engineering majors lasts 30 weeks—the entire senior year. Ambitious projects are good, but the goal is for the students to be challenged and succeed. This is where the faculty mentors come in.
“We are sensitive to the issue of failure because we challenge students to approach difficult projects,” says Mason Engineering professor Peter Pachowicz . Do students fail? “Very rarely, but it happens.”
Pachowicz has been teaching the capstone courses in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering since 2002. The department has always had a capstone—it is required for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc.—but Pachowicz says it was originally just another project tacked on top of the other coursework. Over time, it grew significantly.
As Pachowicz comes from systems engineering background and had worked with Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) startups, he introduced a business perspective and teaches the course with a top-down design approach. In recent years, some of the Volgenau departments have added industry sponsors and advisors.
This fall Pachowicz has 65 students in his ECE 492 Senior Advanced Design Project I. During this semester, the students are expected to organize into teams, find a faculty mentor, and work their way through the series of design milestones starting with an RFP (request for proposal), which spells out what they plan to do, through proposal writing and a proposal defense to a detailed design document with schematics. During the next semester in ECE 493, they focus on implementation of their design.
Pachowicz emphasizes that the process is student-centric. “There is no spoon feeding. We are just advisors.”
As the teams move through the academic year, Pachowicz wears a lot of different hats—teacher, advisor, coach. There are a lot of factors to juggle. He says two of the biggest challenges for students are working in teams and finding enough space.
“We have to be sure everyone contributes,” he says. With the pressure of other classes and competing responsibilities, scheduling can become a problem.
The department has also allocated workspaces in the Engineering Building for the teams so they have a place to gather and work near where they are all taking classes. Teams also have an access to a dedicated fabrication lab where more complicated electronic work can be done.
Evaluating the scope of the project is another place were faculty input is invaluable. Advising is easy when a project is too simple. “I am just the person to complicate it,” says Pachowicz with laugh.
It is the other end of the spectrum where Pachowicz is careful to guide students. Some factors that could keep a project from getting a greenlight include the expense of the needed technology, if it is prohibited in some way, or if there are safety issues.
For projects that are too advanced or too complicated, Pachowicz and faculty mentors will encourage the team to backtrack, define the core of the project, and focus on that. If they can complete the core in the allotted time, they are welcome to pursue their other ideas. Pachowicz calls these “options.”
Add Sponsors and Stir
In May 2017 Mason graduated its first class of mechanical engineers. For their capstone projects, student teams worked with sponsors and technical advisors from industry, the military, and higher education. The projects focused on renewable energy, corrosion detection, vehicle safety, and helmet design.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Corrosion Policy and Oversight tasked one mechanical engineering team  with designing an unmanned system capable of maneuvering into hard-to-reach spaces that could report on corrosion found in those spaces. Mechanical engineering majors Sonoell Clark, Daniel Howe, Andrew Schneider, and Pisal Yim, and biology major Jeha Park built a tracked vehicle with an articulating arm.
Designing the vehicle presented challenges in the areas of stability, maneuverability, sensing, and data transmission. Because the vehicle needed to move independently through confined metal structures, similar to what would be found aboard ships and storage tanks, and then communicate its findings to an operator some distance away, the students incorporated sensors, a computer, and a camera system into the design.
“This was about designing a mechanical system to a customer’s set of requirements,” says Mason professor of practice Robert Gallo. “We wanted them to get their hands dirty. We wanted them to physically design, build, test, break, and report on a meaningful project.”
By all reports, the Department of Defense was impressed with the team’s accomplishments, and the team finished third at the University Student Design and Applied Solutions Competition in Houston, Texas, organized by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers.
Looking to the Future
Pachowicz says he is continually surprised by the ideas coming from students each year. Ideas for many of the top capstone projects, such as the sound wave fire extinguisher, have come from the students. These projects and their creators have done well at national and regional competitions, which enhances Mason reputation.
TB Assured , a portable, noninvasive, inexpensive tuberculosis test, was the brainchild of bioengineering major Marissa Howard. Earlier this year Howard took first place for her oral presentation on the project at the National Science Foundation-sponsored Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.
The team, which includes Sameen Yusuf, Rohit Madhu, and Sara Sharif, also took third place at the Rice 360° 2017 Global Health Technologies Design Competition and captured the $15,000 DEBUT Venture Prize at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and VentureWell’s Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge.
As its reputation grows so does the school. This year, Volgenau’s nearly 7,500 students account for roughly one-fifth of Mason’s entire student enrollment. Mechanical engineering, Volgenau’s newest undergraduate degree program, already enrolls 350 students and has embarked on special dual admissions program with Northern Virginia Community College. Best yet, 90 percent of Mason Engineering undergraduates find careers in their chosen fields, and 10 percent go to graduate school.
Dean Kenneth Ball believes the school draws its strength from Mason’s interdisciplinary approach to education and research. Not only does Volgenau offer degrees in traditional fields such as civil engineering, but it has embraced emerging degrees such as cyber security engineering.
“Engineers don’t just design bridges anymore,” says Ball. “They are building exoskeletons for people with spinal cord injuries and developing secure systems to protect critical infrastructure from hacking. The old boundaries between disciplines are starting to become irrelevant.”
Martha Bushong, Damian Cristodero, John Hollis, Buzz McClain, BA ’77, and Colleen Kearney Rich, MFA’ 95, contributed to this story.