Donors, mentors aid real-world engineering challenge

Erica Howard

Electrical Engineering students at FSU Panama City must overcome a final real-world challenge before graduation: senior design projects.

With the help of community mentors and funding from donors Tom and Donna McCoy, students take their knowledge outside the classroom to create devices for national defense, communication and environmental preservation.

This year’s projects, which were showcased in a community presentation April 22, included a radar system to detect birds in an aircraft’s flight path, a bee-hive monitoring system to prevent colony collapse, a children’s exhibit replicating animal speeds and an update to Bubble Bits, a 2014 project installing a children’s bubble exhibit at the Science & Discovery Center of Northwest Florida.

Students are issued hands-on engineering challenges from local agencies and firms, said Electrical Engineering instructor Geoffery Brooks, Ph.D. In addition to guest speakers and field trips, this process gives students the opportunity to interact with area businesses and build professional relationships.

Tom and Donna McCoy have supported FSU Panama City since 2004, with the establishment of the Thomas G. and Donna P. McCoy Optimist Club of the Beaches Endowed Scholarship.

After attending senior design presentations, Tom McCoy, an engineer, said he wanted to support the projects to help meet the employment needs of the region.

In 2008, the McCoys gave a $10,000 gift to take the financial burden of the projects off students. Through the earmarked funds, each team is reimbursed for building materials and equipment. Funds may also be used to purchase reusable materials and tools that can be utilized in future projects.

As the funds dwindled in 2013, the McCoys continued their generosity with a separate $10,000 gift to keep the resources available to students.

“Without donors, students would have to pay for parts and materials out of their own pockets, so they would be inclined to purchase fewer backup parts and cut corners when purchasing key components, such as sensors, microprocessors and transceivers,” Brooks said.

Shoa Russell and Jerry Walker, who collaborated on the Tin-Can Radar project, said the money was essential when major components malfunctioned in the last few weeks of the project.

“[The funding has] made the project a lot less about cost and centered it more on how far we can take the project and what we could learn from it,” Russell said.

To keep projects safe and secure, teams typically design and test their projects in the Thomas G. and Donna P. McCoy Electrical Engineering Senior Design Lab, which was formally named in 2008.

The McCoys were one of the first to respond to the campus’s Academic Center Building Fund in 2007, donating $100,000 specified for furnishings, equipment, technology and other essential enhancements of the electrical engineering senior design lab and other electrical engineering labs.

The space is reserved for students working on senior design projects with entry permitted only by swiping a valid FSUID. The locked room prevents distractions, tampering and other issues.

“The Senior Design Lab has allowed the team a place to come together to work on the exhibit and has allowed a safe place to keep our work from being interfered with,” said Sarah Warren, who served on the testing team for Bubble Bits.

Something as simple as a loose wire from a project being moved can cause a 20-minute setback, noted Kyle Harper, project lead of the Bee-Safe Hive Monitoring System.

“[The secured lab] keeps unintentional problems out,” he said.

The secluded room typically becomes a second home for engineering students approaching graduation, with white boards for brainstorming and design sessions, desk space for projects and ample floor space to accommodate large equipment and displays. A couch nestled by one wall extends the comfort, offering a place for a quick break or nap during marathon project sessions.

Time and resources also are saved with the help of project mentors and community partners. Typical mentors include FSU Panama City alumni, area defense contractors and engineering firms.

“A major part of the success of our senior design projects is due to the willingness of our local partners to give us good project ideas,” Brooks said. “When there are more ideas than teams, then the teams can choose one that best fits their interests, which ultimately results in a good senior design experience.”

Curriculum at FSU Panama City offers a broad understanding of electrical engineering principals. The projects help students learn more about specific areas and gauge interest in various specialties.

Michael Wojcik, project lead for Bubble Bits, said the experience has helped prepare him for the demands of his future career.

“It has helped us with working through the process of arriving to a design from an open-ended need of a customer,” he said. “This class has greatly helped us with public presentation skills, time management skills and team management skills.”

The next presentations are scheduled July 8 and Dec. 3 in the FSU Panama City Holley Lecture Hall.

To become a mentor or to suggest a project idea, email Brooks at gbrooks@pc.fsu.edu.

For more information about donating to the program, call Director of Development Mary Beth Lovingood at 850-770-2108 or email mblovingood@pc.fsu.edu.