A Grand Junior Engineering Design Experience

Interviews take the students into different spaces, and they are able to explore new topics. Through these connections, they realize they can better optimize the value of their ideas.
- Stu Thompson, Bucknell University

Bucknell Engineering

A Grand Junior Engineering Design Experience

Contributed by Stu Thompson, Bucknell University. This article originally appeared in KEEN Annual Report, 2019-2020. Reprinted with permission.

Imagine being a junior in college and your professor asks you to contribute to solving one of the 14 National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges. The pride you must feel being given the opportunity to use your education to help make the world a better place! But which of the Challenges will you and your team tackle? Advancing Health Informatics? Restoring and Improving Urban Infrastructure? Preventing Nuclear Terror?

After reviewing the Challenges, you hesitate. “Wait, how can we solve any of these? These are enormous issues.” 

“No,” your professor assures, “you are not expected to totally conquer the Challenge in a single semester. Simply come up with an idea, even if it is the smallest design concept, and make your contribution.”

Bucknell Students

That’s the proposition Dr. Stu Thompson, associate professor of electrical engineering at Bucknell University, presents to his students in his junior-level design course. The course provides students with their first full design cycle experience. 

During the course, the teams propose their ideas to a variety of stakeholders, iteratively design and improve on their concepts, assemble and test working prototypes, and, at the conclusion of the course, present their findings in the form of a poster session.

The course emphasis is on the process, the function of the end product, and who will use it — putting the course in a valuable real-world context. Students learn important lessons in being adaptable and fluid in how they approach problem-solving.

Lily Parker was one of Thompson’s recent students. Her team worked on the problem of CO2 contributing to unsafe levels of greenhouse gases. To contribute to the solution, after speaking with several knowledgeable stakeholders, the students decided to develop a temperature sensor that will aid in the efficient creation of biochar. 


Biochar prevents dead biomass from reintroducing carbon into the atmosphere. It is certainly not the only solution to climate change, but the project does contribute an engineering tool that can be used by others in approaching a larger solution.

The course helps students understand that as individuals, they do not know everything and never will – they need to make connections with others in technology, government and in the global community. 

The course requires teams to interview stakeholders including subject matter experts, potential users, manufacturers, investors, regulators, and even opponents and doubters. 

Thompson states, “Interviews take the students into different spaces, and they are able to explore new topics. Through these connections, they realize they can better optimize the value of their ideas.” 

After completing the course, students like Lily Parker can dream big with confidence. Not only does Lily have the knowledge and experience to complete a design project, she knows she can contribute value to solving even the grandest of challenges.

Meet the Author

Stu Thompson

Stu Thompson, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering, Bucknell University

Stu seeks to integrate teaching and research in his work. Engineering design is a major component of the undergraduate engineering experience so he includes multiple aspects of design via projects and open-ended assignments in all of his courses. He strongly believes in the benefits of undergraduate research and pursues research projects that fit the interests and abilities of his students.

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