One Size Does Not Fit All

A ten-year follow-up study on capstone design courses.

In June 2016, I attended the 2016 Capstone Design Conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was the fifth in a series of conferences starting in 2007 that focus on all aspects of capstone design courses. More than 200 attendees representing 76 institutions from several countries met to share and learn about best practices in design education and capstone course management. Engineering, industrial design, information technology, and other technical fields were represented. Panel sessions, workshops, networking events, and poster sessions provided attendees with opportunities to learn how capstone design courses are structured at other institutions. This information can be very helpful to faculty creating new capstone courses or trying to keep existing courses current and relevant.

As design instructors, we know that there are many ways to solve a problem and that there is rarely only one correct design solution. The same applies to course design: there is no one correct way to structure and manage a capstone design course. Most biomedical engineering capstone design courses have similar goals and desired learning outcomes, but the optimum structure (for a particular institution) depends on several factors, such as [1]

  • the culture and focus of the particular program (emphasis on preparing students for industry, medical school, or academia)
  • the curriculum (credits available for the capstone design course)
  • the availability of internal resources such as faculty advisors, prototype facilities, laboratories and test equipment, computer facilities, design software, and funds for projects and guest speakers
  • the availability of external resources such as medical, dental, or nursing school faculty; community-based physicians, nurses, or physical therapists; industrial design and business students; industry sponsors; supportive alumni; and guest speakers.

As we strive to continuously improve our courses, it is helpful to understand how capstone design courses at other institutions and in other engineering disciplines are structured and managed. The first comprehensive national survey of current practices in capstone design courses was conducted in 1994 [2]. A second, similar study was conducted in 2005 to update the results and determine trends over the ten-year period [3]. The results of these studies illustrated the diversity of the approaches to managing and structuring capstone design courses.

At the 2016 Capstone Design Conference, the results of a third study, conducted in 2015 by Dr. Susannah Howe of Smith College, were presented [4]. The survey used for this study combined questions from the 1994 and 2005 studies with several new questions, and it was administered using SurveyMonkey. The survey was sent to e-mail addresses contained in mailing lists and databases of ABET accredited programs, department chairs, ASEE Design in Engineering Education Division members, and past Capstone Design Conference attendees. Responses were received from 522 capstone design faculty from 256 institutions representing 464 departments and programs. More than 20 engineering disciplines were represented in this survey, and 36 of the responses were from biomedical engineering capstone design instructors. A summary of select survey results and emerging trends reported by the study authors are presented here.

Duration of Capstone Course

More than 50% of respondents reported durations of two semesters, representing a significant increase compared to results from the 1994 and 2005 surveys. A few reported course durations of up to four semesters.

Structure and Sequence of Capstone Courses

The majority of responses indicated that courses and projects run in parallel. All respondents reported that projects were a required part of their courses; very few indicated projects only, with no class time.

Capstone Faculty Design Experience

Many capstone design instructors have previous industry design experience. More than 50% of 2015 survey respondents indicated having six or more years of industry experience. Many commented that they had more than 25 years of experience.

Topics Covered

The top five topics presented in capstone design courses, selected by the 2015 study respondents, were

  • written communication
  • planning/scheduling
  • oral communication
  • concept generation/selection
  • team building/teamwork.

These results are similar to those of the 1994 and 2005 surveys and reflect a continued focus on preparing students for professional practice.

Ensuring Team Meeting Times

The inability of capstone design team members to find common meeting times is a major source of conflict among teams. More than 50% of respondents reported a mix of in-class team meeting times and student-arranged team meeting times outside of class. Since 2005, there has been a significant drop in the number of courses that provide almost all team meeting time during lab sections that are part of the course.

Contributors to Grading

Course instructors and project advisors and coaches had the most input into grades for capstone courses. Industry liaisons, other department faculty, students, departmental advisory boards, and national competition judges provided much less input into grading.

Contribution of Course Deliverables to Grading

More than 60% of the respondents indicated that the final report, final oral presentation, and final product itself played a major role in the final grade. Fewer than 25% reported that midcourse reports and presentations played a major role, and fewer than 20% reported that design reviews, individual assignments, logbooks, peer reviews, and quizzes and exams played a major role in grading.

Product versus Process

When asked if the outcome of the student projects is more important than the design process followed by the team, the results followed a somewhat normal distribution along the product–process spectrum, with the peak located between balanced and slight emphasis on process. The comments received from respondents reflecting this distribution of results included [5]

  • “Product is key!”
  • “We focus on the product and very little on the process.”
  • “The final product is the result of the process so they have to balance.”
  • “Process wins out, but product usually follows for a good process.”
  • “We typically don’t build the real products, as the system costs millions to construct. Hence, we focus on the design process.”

Team Size

The typical range of the team size reported was three to five students. Teams with four members represented the most common project team size. For biomedical and industrial engineering projects, teams consisting of three members were most common.

Project Funding Sources

The most common sources of project funding reported were institutions (82%) followed by external sponsors (61%). Other sources included student team members and private individuals. For external sponsors, 38% of the respondents indicated receiving between US$1,000 and US$5,000 per project, 40% received less than US$1,000 per project, and 22% received more than US$5,000.

Sources of Projects

The most common sources of design projects in 2015 were industry or government sponsors, followed by faculty research. There was a significant increase in student generated and/or entrepreneurial projects compared to 2005. Service learning projects were included in the 2015 survey for the first time and were reported as another category of projects.


The diversity of the capstone course structures and management approaches documented by the 2015 capstone design survey presented during the keynote presentation at the 2016 Capstone Design Conference demonstrate the many ways to run a successful capstone design course. Slides from that presentation and various papers from the 2015 and other capstone design surveys are available for review at the Capstone Design Hub and the Capstone Design Conference website.


  1. J. R. Goldberg, Capstone Design Courses: Producing Industry-Ready Biomedical Engineers. San Rafael, CA: Morgan and Claypool Publishers, 2007, pp. 19–21.
  2. R. Todd, S. P. Magleby, C. D. Sorensen, B. R. Swan, and D. K. Anthony, “A survey of capstone engineering courses in North America,” J. Eng. Educ., vol. 84, no. 2, pp. 165–174, Apr. 1995.
  3. S. Howe, “Where are we now? Statistics on capstone design courses nationwide,” Adv. Eng. Educ., vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 2010.
  4. S. Howe, L. Rosenbauer, and S. Poulos, “2015 capstone design survey: Initial results,” in Proc. 2016 Capstone Design Conf., Columbus, OH, June 2016.
  5. S. Howe, S. L. Poulos, and L. M. Rosenbauer, “The 2015 capstone design survey: Observations from the front lines,” presented at the 2016 ASEE Annu. Conf. and Expo., New Orleans, LA, June 2016.