A group of six men stand around a table with a prototype on it. A scientific poster on an easel stands behind them.

Team 18029 used the Pima Community College mechatronics lab to build a prototype of a robotic weeding machine.

Students with information processing and machining expertise add new facets to multidisciplinary powerhouse.

Interdisciplinary Capstone at the University of Arizona is growing every year, and not just due to increased undergraduate enrollment in the College of Engineering. This year, the course has launched two partnerships to expand its offerings to students beyond the college.

Introducing iSchool Students

Engineers aren’t the only UArizona undergraduates who complete capstone projects. Seniors in the School of Information have their own semester-long capstones. In fall 2019, several iSchool students joined engineering design teams for the first time to complete their projects through the College of Engineering.

“The goal for both the College of Engineering and the School of Information is for students to become accustomed to working in interdisciplinary teams and bringing different skill sets to a group to solve a real problem that comes from industry partners,” said Catherine Brooks, director of the iSchool. “I think it represents the real world and the diversity it takes to solve a problem.”

Because iSchool capstone projects typically last one semester, most iSchool students will only be involved with part of the engineers’ yearlong efforts – though one student is taking a semester of independent study to work with the same engineering team for the full year. This setup imitates a practice common in industry, in which a software developer might join a project that’s already begun, or otherwise be only involved with a specific element.

While some iSchool projects are company sponsored, many are designed and led by students, so Nicholas DiRienzo, assistant professor of data science in the iSchool, said the school also looks forward to connecting with Interdisciplinary Capstone’s industry partners.

“Our students have a variety of skills: data science, machine learning, artificial intelligence and most things programming,” DiRienzo said. “It’s a win-win for both groups in that our iSchool students get experience working with a team of engineering students with different backgrounds and training, and the engineering students get the same working with the iSchool students.”

The PCC Connection

Interdisciplinary Capstone has also strengthened its relationship with Pima Community College in 2019-2020. The seed of the partnership was planted in the 2018-2019 academic year, when a senior design team used the mechatronics lab on the PCC downtown campus to build their project, a robotic weeding machine.

“Going to the PCC downtown campus was just perfect,” said team member and recent biosystems engineering graduate Tristan Stevens. “We had the lab with all the tools inside where we could test everything, but if we needed any help, we could just walk across the hallway to the tech school, and faculty members and professors at PCC would help us.”

This year, the schools are taking the collaboration to the next level, with three students from PCC’s machining program joining senior design teams to provide their unique expertise.

“A lot of the things our students do every day could be helpful for these projects,” said Greg Wilson, dean of applied technology at PCC. “We think it’s important to expose our students who may not have thought of careers in engineering to the field, and it seems like capstone design might be the first step to making it happen.”

Garrett Tinderholt earned his bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering at the University of Arizona in 2016. Now, he’s supplementing his engineering experience by learning about machine tool technology in PCC’s machining program.

“I’m hoping to find a spot in industry where I can bridge on-the-ground manufacturing with engineering,” he said. “I figured doing the senior design program again would be an exciting opportunity to do both.”