Introduction and Ground Rules

This section describes what a capstone course is, discusses the purpose and scope of Senior Design Project and briefly specifies the course deliverables.

A Capstone Course

Senior Design will be different from previous courses in many ways. The aim of a capstone course is not to cover more material or impart more information, but rather to help you draw together and make sense of what you have been learning in the previous four years, or even longer!

This manual will give you both an overview of what's coming and suggestions to make your progress both continuous and as painless as possible. The latest draft of the handbook is based on the experience of the many Senior Classes in Bioengineering over the past decade. We expect to revise and improve the handbook for your successors. Please make any suggestions that you think will help. They will be much appreciated, reviewed carefully, and incorporated when possible.

What follows are suggestions for tackling the issues that you are going to face as you progress through Senior Design. We recommend that you read through the entire sequence before you start Senior Design to get a feeling for everything that you'll have to do during the year. This handbook covers an overview of the purpose and scope of Senior Design. It goes on to give suggestions about getting started and keeping going in your three-term project and finishes with a detailed discussion of the various components of your project reports, with a concluding section on useful resources.

Purpose of Senior Design

The intent of Senior Design is to require that you use in a coordinated, creative manner appropriate components of the knowledge you've acquired while you've been at Illinois. The main vehicle for this exercise is an open-ended design project structured to resemble as closely as possible the ones that you're likely to encounter after you graduate.

In the fall, you're asked first to define a problem, generate a range of solutions, evaluate those solutions using economic and engineering criteria, and develop the solution. The product is not just plans and specifications, but a detailed feasibility study and preliminary design, in which constraints have been accommodated, conflicts resolved, and costs and benefits reasonably well defined. Further, decisions will have been made about layout, size, shape, materials, processes, methods of construction, and so forth. This product should be completed to the stage at which a working prototype with preliminary testing is presented.  

Next you’re called upon to present your ideas in written, graphic, and oral form in as professional and convincing a manner as possible. To do so you will have to work in teams (which is typical of industry), set your own schedule (within that required by your instructor), decide which of the many resources and tools available to you are appropriate, and prepare a series of both oral and written presentations of your work.

What's different about Senior Design? Why shouldn't this be an opportunity to vacation for 25 weeks, then work hard for the final five? The answer lies in your freedom of choice. In prior projects we told you the requirements of the project--what to include and what not to include, as well as most of the detailed steps en route. Now you're in charge. Your first challenge is to decide on a project, or, more properly, a problem to be solved. It must be interesting enough to hold your attention for three terms, yet it must not be so complex that you never accomplish anything. Scoping accurately the work required, setting the end point where it belongs, writing a clear and plausible proposal, and estimating the design cost realistically separate companies who prosper from companies who fail.

You--not your advisor--are responsible for defining the criteria by which your design success will be evaluated in both December and May, and this sort of definition is a demanding process. You must then decide what work must be accomplished, divide it equably amongst the group members, and schedule yourselves over a prolonged period to complete an enormous variety of tasks. Finally, you are expected to carry the analysis and presentation to a far greater level of detail and polish than ever before.

Scope of Senior Design

Senior Design is intended to be a representative design process. You are not going to be able to do everything to industry standard, that's not expected, what's important is that you display an understanding and capability of working at all levels of detail.

Fall Term

Select a project, a team, and an advisor; then work out, write, and present a prototype and testing plan to meet the needs followed by a prototype that has undergone the testing plan. This assures that the project is advancing equally on all fronts, that all major decisions are made, and that the individual components of the design are likely to work in concert.  Along the way, you will create deliverables relating to client needs, product specifications, patent and FDA requirements for your design, modeling and testing plans, and human factors analysis. Teams also work out a Memorandum of Understanding with their advisors and sponsors to ensure that everyone is on track. 

Spring Term

Work with the team and the advisor to finish the project and produce and present a final prototype and final report. As part of the spring semester, you will gain access to clinicians and be able to test your products at Jump Simulation and Education Center in Peoria.  This is a unique opportunity to gather testing and usability data in a clinical setting.

Getting started with Senior Design

This section urges you to take advantage of the unique opportunities that Senior Design offers, gives guidelines for choosing your team, project, advisor, and sponsor, and encourages you to get started.

Get psyched

Senior Project Design may seem at first to be a special senior burden that demands vastly more work than a regular course or than its credits justify.

But Senior Design is more than this. It does look good on your resume—and in your portfolio, because you’ll have an impressive-looking final report to show around. Additionally, Senior Design gives you the opportunity—at less risk than you’ll ever run again—to gather and test your skills against as close to a genuine professional challenge as we can make it. This kind of team project work is typical for engineers in the field; there’s no flying solo on projects on the scale our professions offer. Go at it in the right way, and you will have done a full-scale, full-tilt simulation (or better) under capable mentorship. This chance is precious—make the most of it.

You can go for it most effectively if you take some care in choosing your team, your project, and your advisor. Your project may also get a real boost from having a sponsor.

Choosing your Team

In our class, we have students rank the projects after the sponsor pitches.  Student rankings are evaluated by the instructor and teams are formed by assigning students to one of the top 3 projects in the list.  The instructor attempts to balance gender, expertise, and personalities as best she can.  Teams are sized based on the scope of the project. For most projects that are acceptable, a team of two is too small to handle the work, as well as inviting confrontations not resolvable by a tie-breaker vote. Teams sizes greater than four are only considered after consultation with the Senior Design coordinator or the proposed faculty advisor, since experience shows that larger teams often have problems.

Be able to meet regularly

You want to be able to meet easily and regularly as a complete team. Past experience shows that having a member who cannot make it to at least a weekly team meeting (in addition to your meeting with your advisor) is an invitation to dissension and agony. You have a Friday noon-time held so that you all have an hour free each week – take advantage of it!  One meeting a week is typically not enough, you’ll also need to schedule work time in evenings and weekends and arrange for access to work spaces.   

Various forms of electronic communication help but are no substitute for face-to-face meetings—not just for touching base but for real discussions that lead to well-thought decisions. Do take some forethought concerning your agenda so that your meeting time is spent as profitably as possible, and do keep good notes or minutes, so that everyone's responsibilities are clear and as few things as possible have to be done more than once.

Moving right along

This section goes through—roughly chronologically—the various steps in the Senior Design process, with suggestions on how to succeed at each stage.

Define your Problem

Defining your problem is almost always one of the most demanding (and often frustrating) aspects of the Fall term. It's tempting to say "we're going to design a new ______" and start making sketches. That's a mistake! What you're asked to do is to analyze the situation, which should lead to a design request. What needs must be met by the completed project? How are they measured? Looking at a problem this way often leads to the expected design solution. There are times, nevertheless, when a clear definition of the needs may lead to an unexpected solution.

Define the Criteria for Success

Define a program and an evaluation matrix including weighting factors. To define the problem explicitly enough for good solution you need to define how you're going to evaluate the success of the design--in quantifiable terms. You must determine and give values to the parameters by which you will measure the completed project. It's up to you define them, and to rank their priority, so that you may choose among alternatives during the design process. After you have done this, you will check in with you faculty advisor and sponsor for confirmation.

Define the Work Project

Look ahead to what you're actually going to present at the end of each term. Be as specific as possible about the elements of your report, the analyses you're going to perform, the drawings you'll make, and how you're going to show them. If you examine the final project early, you'll almost certainly spot weaknesses that need to be addressed as well as unevenness of detail or points that you want to consider that have slipped through the cracks.

Develop a Project Schedule

One of the most recommended and least followed aspects of Senior Design is to develop a Critical Path Schedule for the year. It's difficult because you haven't been through the entire process yet, so that it's almost impossible to anticipate all the steps, and even more difficult to estimate how much time each will take. Nonetheless the effort to plan ahead is worthwhile. Break down tasks as small as possible and assign them, many tasks are postponed because they are too complicated.

For drafting and design

For scheduling

Perform all research

This section reviews some of the more important areas that your project will need to cover.

Codes and Regulations

Standards Use Google and library resources to locate relevant standards – these will help you develop testing protocols as well

Common standards are ISO 9000, AAMI, ASTM, IEEE

FDA Use FDA’s website to help you determine the classification and protocol for your device.  Tip: Look at past products which are similar and reverse search.

Intellectual Property All projects will analyze patentability of the designs. Recall that IP is not a guarantee if there’s not an exact replica of your design – a combination of patented devices to make your idea is not a unique idea!  Tip: Google Patent is good for existing patents but patents pending will only be on the USPTO website. Also, look in prior art for any similar devices to help you find them.

Develop design alternatives to consider

You'll undoubtedly be considering design solutions to the problem as you work on the many details necessary to define it. That's good, but don't let them be fixed too early. Once you have the major problem definition well set, then take some time (a focused brainstorming session is very useful) to develop the basic alternatives you're going to explore during the early fall. These alternatives are the ones you're going to evaluate using the matrix defined above. They must be elaborated enough to allow understanding of all major systems, but not so elaborate that you're unwilling to toss one aside for another, or to combine the best aspects of different ideas. Costs should be considered in this phase as well.


During the fall you're expected to move rapidly to a choice of one of the design alternatives. Do this by applying the evaluation criteria to determine which proposed solution is most successful.

You may find that you wish to combine elements of different solutions, and perhaps generate yet another idea. That's OK, just be quick. Your selection process should be over by about the second week of October.  Preparing your Memorandum of Understanding helps you to get this in form.


Once you've developed your ideas to the next level of technical analysis you'll almost certainly have to make revisions. It is to be hoped that these will be relatively minor, but if initially you've left out an important issue, they may be major. Now is the time to make them--and to adjust your time schedule and task list to reflect your progress (or lack thereof).


You should spend most of the Spring term refining your calculations and design elements. There should be no major decisions being made at this stage—rather, you are making things that you have decided on fit into your design. Much effort should be devoted to further testing and refining as needed.

Maintain Progress

One of the great dangers of Senior Design is being lulled by the apparent great stretch of time between Fall and Spring. Virtually every group will complain in May that they didn't have enough time. You must plan to use your time effectively and maintain steady progress. The following notes present ways of addressing the issues that arise in this area.


Bi-weekly meetings with your instructor and/or TA.  This are not optional!

Schedule regular meetings with your sponsor and faculty advisor, minimum is monthly, starting with the first week.  

Use your sponsor and faculty mentor. It's very tempting to skip weeks because of exams or an interview. If you don't meet with your sponsor and faculty advisor, you're losing an opportunity for review and suggestion. On a very practical note, if you don't show up it will probably be reflected in your grade.

Schedule regular team meetings--twice a week beyond your advisor meeting

Meet at least once a week aside from your advisor meeting. Previous successful seniors report that twice a week (often over dinner or lunch) has been very useful.

Develop a schedule for the entire year

In the Fall, create a schedule for the entire year, in enough detail that you can see what has to be accomplished each week in terms of measurable tasks. Revise it as you progress through the year.

Maintain a record of work planned and accomplished for the week and tie the weekly task list to your overall schedule

It's very handy to create a list of specific, measurable tasks that you plan to accomplish between now and the next meeting with your advisor (typically next week). Hand that list in to the advisor at one meeting, then discuss at the next meeting what you actually accomplished versus what you planned to do. Review that weekly task list against your overall schedule to be sure you're going to finish the semester with everything accomplished.

Working effectively

Brainstorm as a group, then analyze individually

Don't try and do everything in a group. You need to work individually on different aspects. Nonetheless, group creative sessions and discussions are vital, followed by individual development and further group discussion.

List product requirements early and check regularly

Always work towards measurable goals. The products to be used in your oral and written presentation are very useful targets.

Divide the work, usually by system, but meet regularly to coordinate

Most groups divide responsibility by functions or parts of the overall project. Be aware that all group members are expected to be aware of the general design of all engineering systems. To maintain that knowledge you must meet regularly to share your decisions and coordinate the effects of those decisions.

Allow for delays in your schedule

You will be delayed! Plan for it. Don't design right up to the presentation. Allow at least one and a half weeks each term in your schedule to catch up on the problems. The endless list of reasons for delay include exams, illnesses of student and faculty, missing information, job interviews, work requirements...

It’s all in the details

All of a term's work must be presented in a very organized, condensed manner. You should be aware of the requirements and be planning for them throughout each term. They are twofold. First, you will make a team oral presentation at which each member is expected to present one or more aspects of the project. Presentation expectations will be forthcoming.  

The second part of your work is the report, which is a document presented to a technically literate reader (typically your advisor and your sponsor). The report explains in both summary and detail the nature of your project, your goals and how you set them, what you attempted, how you performed technical analysis, how you obtained your results and what they were, and your conclusions about your results.

What follows are comments and suggestions about the presentation and report.

Plan for Both Written and Oral forms of Presentation!

Define your audience

You need to understand who your audience are. As with any presentation you've got to be certain they're understanding and appreciating what you say. To that end we suggest that your consider them:

Technically knowledgeable, but not expert in all areas

You can assume that your audience is technically knowledgeable in engineering. You are not explaining to a lay audience with the possible exception of some sponsors. At the Spring presentation you may have friends and parents in the audience. It will probably be wise to present your information in such a way that they can understand the key points, if not the details.

You must remember, nonetheless, that due to the variety of systems in a project not all the audience will understand all detail. This makes it tough in the oral presentation. The usual approach is to present overall issues and unique conditions in the oral presentation and save technical detail for your written report.

Frame Your Conclusions

Comment on what you have learned. Offer comments on your interpretation of what you've learned and accomplished. This is particularly relevant in the Spring, but also earlier.

Show That You Understand the Importance of Numbers

Represent engineering

Remember that this is an Engineering presentation, not a Humanities or an Architectural one. Your audience expects to see quantified results, whether in tables or in charts, or contained in your narrative. Quantify, as closely as possible, and wherever possible, and avoid vague or relative expressions.

Show assumptions

Your audience will want to know your assumptions, such as various design loads for each system. Present them clearly, with units, and perhaps with comparison to industry standards where appropriate.

Show clearly your calculations and their role

Primarily in your written report, you are expected to make clear how you arrived at your results. Be sure to show sample calculations, with clear reference of your tables of results to the relevant equations or source. Nothing is more frustrating to a report reader than to have pages of scribbled calculation tables with no explanations of how they were developed or what they are meant to show. Slickly presented calculations are hardly less frustrating, if where they came from and where they're going is not made clear.

Summarize results

Give tables or charts summarizing your key results. Don't bury them in those pages of calculations and expect the reader to dig them out. Instead, provide a summary with reference to where readers can find more detail if they desire. Make sure that you do not miss any opportunities to make sure that your readers are getting the point that you intend your numbers to show--this is especially important in the captions for tables and graphs.

Define what's not covered or studied

Do so succinctly and without apology. Defining and possibly redefining the scope of work in a given project is a vital skill for engineers.

Inevitably you won't be able to complete everything you'd like in the time available. Acknowledge work still to be completed or revised, but don't emphasize it unnecessarily. You want your audience to appreciate what you have accomplished while recognizing that there's still more to complete. Also, especially in presentations, remember cooking show host Julia Child’s Principle: "Just push it together, and bring it to the table--no one knows what you were trying to achieve."

Provide System Overviews

Give your audience an overview of each system you're addressing. Typically, this can be accomplished by a diagram showing key elements, with labels for important component values and tables or charts of key parameter values.

Plan Your Presentation

Mock it up early in the term

Think ahead to what your presentation will require. Don't spend hours on a drawing that you never use. This goes for text and tables, too! Don't waste time bringing anything to a finished state that hasn't found a firm place in your plan. Also make sure that there are no crossed signals about this in the team.

Know your partners' work

All too often the fragmentation of a design team (bad!) is visible in conflicting statements from presenters who haven't coordinated their efforts beforehand. Other problems arise when individuals aren't sure when they are supposed to start or stop, or who's supposed to cover a particular issue. Make sure that everyone has a clear idea of the scenario--writing out an outline or agenda is not a bad idea--and rehearse.  Also, although it's all right if one or two students clearly occupy leadership positions on a team, you need to have balance in your presentation, with significant roles for all team members.

Rehearse your presentation

This is obvious, but neglected. One of the main problems most groups have is attempting to put too much material into their limited time. The only way to be certain is to rehearse and time yourselves. Take a tip from a United States Marine Corps training maxim: Sweat more in peace, bleed less in war.

Many advisors like to rehearse with their teams, and all teams are required to do a technical run-through in the presentation venue with the communications advisor to make sure that all software, hardware, and equipment expectations are met.  It is important that you rehearse in the room and with the equipment that you will use. Presenters have been known to become thoroughly unstuck when a presentation wouldn't run at all, ran faster or slower than it did on the accustomed equipment, insisted on throwing up extraneous screens, or whatever. The communications advisor is also available to assist with presentations and go through full-scale rehearsals with teams.

Presentation Techniques: a review of several varieties, with comments

PowerPoint Presentations

Recently, computer-run PowerPoint presentations of the material have been the most popular. This program is easy to use and properly exploited is readily visible to the audience. Remember, however, that the detail visible on drawings scanned into PowerPoint is apt to be less than it was on paper. Also remember that computers crash regularly and that there is nothing more embarrassing than to stand before an audience and say "we don't have anything to show because the machine crashed at 2:00 this morning". Always have backups—overhead transparencies, handouts, drawings that you can mount on an easel, and so forth.


You will be given guidelines to follow for your slides, but, in general, keep them clean and simple - limit text, think of the main point and take-home for each slides, if it doesn’t have one, you don’t need it!  Look at Assertion Evidence and Slideology for presentation styles and tips.


Please, please, please, sleep at least four hours the night before the presentation. There's nothing more embarrassing to you and your audience than stumbling, because you haven't slept in three days, over work you know perfectly well. That last color chart isn't nearly as important as the ability to think on your feet.  Remember that there is a question/discussion period.

Plan Your Written Report

Written Report format

Please see the Portfolio Components and Elements with embedded rubric to prepare your reports.  This should be a living document that you work on throughout the process.  This should be kept online in your preferred digital media (DropBox, Box, Google Drive, webpage, etc.).  At any time, your project sponsor, instructor, or TA may ask you to review the document and you must be able to show an up to date document.

Recognize the importance of the executive summary

We insist that the ~10-page summary of your report contain the entire meat of what you've accomplished. This means not only that it will contain summary tables of data as well as important explanations, but also that it will undoubtedly make extensive use of references to appendices for more detail. Those appendix references should make it easy for the reader to find quickly the justification for any design decision.

Requirements for your Project Deliverables

While the following should be checked with the Senior Design Instructor for official requirements, it's wise to plan to furnish at least the following:

Bound and cover-paged report reports to:

Provide a set of slides and computer files to the Department

Provide a copy of all of your design documents to your instructor.  You can provide a flash drive or any form of digital media (Box, DropBox, Google Drive, etc.).  


Updated August 3, 2016 by Jennifer Amos.  Credit to James Mitchell at Drexel University for portions of the text.