Senior Design Handbook

Civil, Architectural & Environmental Engineering

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, if not in the previous twenty-odd.

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 C&AE Senior Classes. 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 Drexel. All majors should hearken back to skills, knowledge, or experience from co-op that may pertain to the Senior Design effort. The 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.

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 client could—on the basis of your report—decide to build (or operate) or not and could go on to write a complete contract for the final design and construction (or operation).

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 Drexel), 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.

This handbook is addressed to students in Architectural, Civil, and Environmental Engineering and in Appropriate Technology. The predominant common thread in the work of these professions is that each project is unique and must solve a particular problem with respect to the conditions of a particular site. Every job is a custom job.

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 firms who prosper from firms who fail.

You--not your advisor--are responsible for defining the criteria by which your design success will be evaluated in 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 prepare a full set of engineering documents ready for construction. That's not expected. What's important is that you display an understanding and capability of working at all levels of detail. In practice this means you must address the following:

Whole design

Complete the general design of the whole project, making all major system or component selections, at least to the level of defining major loads or inputs and the equipment or members that sustain those loads. The emphasis at this level is on overall coherence, effective coordination of systems or components with one another, appropriate cost, and plausibility.

Representative details

You are to carry out representative detailed design for each major system or component. That means (depending on the size of project), that you must design a portion in full detail, perhaps with intermediate levels shown for the whole building or structure. In all cases you are expected to do full technical analysis and design of at least one significant system element. Then, make these components or systems fit and work together. You will need to discuss with your advisor what is appropriate for your particular project.


You are to carry out the design project over three terms as follows:

Fall Term

Select a project, a team, and an advisor; then work out, write, and present a Proposal. This goes somewhat beyond a business proposal, which is merely a sales document.

Winter Term

Work with the team and the advisor to carry the project forward and to produce and present a Progress Report. 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.

Spring Term

Work with the team and the advisor to finish the project and produceand present a Final Report.

Besides these large-scale milestones, the Department also requires early in the Fall term a Pre-Proposal Problem Statement, indicating each team’s composition and choice of advisor and project.  The Preproposal originally submitted is reviewed by the advisor and the Senior Design coordinators and returned to the teams to put in final form.  In the Winter term, teams work out a Memorandum of Understanding with their advisors and sponsors to ensure that everyone is on track.  Finally, in the Spring term, teams submit an Abstract, which describes the completed project, for inclusion in the College of Engineering Senior Design Project book. Careful attention to the previous two documents should make abstract submission relatively easy.  The Abstracts are also reviewed by the advisors and the Senior Design coordinators and returned to the teams so that the projects are accurately and professionally represented in the booklet. Due dates for all of these assignments are given in the Schedule. Guidelines for the deliverables are given in Useful Forms.

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 civil and architectural engineers; 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.

Choose your Team

Complementary members

It's wise to consider the talents of your team members. You want to be sure that among you it's possible to deal with all the issues your project will require. That usually means that you want to be certain that the talents and interests of your teammates are complementary: you don't all want to do structure with no-one ready to work on HVAC or environmental impact. By the same token, you should look for complementary abilities from the organizational point of view--some good mix of leaders, followers, and agile getters out of the way. Complementary talents work better for the reports and presentations, as well--someone to draft, someone to edit, someone to keep records, someone especially good at graphics or other technical matters.

Teams should be 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 should only be considered after consultation with the Senior Design coordinator or the proposed faculty advisor, since experience shows that larger teams often have problems.

Remember that your friends are not necessarily the best people to select for your team. Many of you know this, but focus on the considerations above if you want to get your project done with the least amount of grief (and keep your friends). This is not to say that friends can't compose a successful and even happy team--many have--but be aware that intense project work puts sometimes heavy strains on friendships, as it does on marriages and other family ties, too.

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 taken more than 40 courses in 10-week terms so that you are well aware that you cannot slip.

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 conceerning 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.

Choose your Project

Here are some tried and true suggestions for determining the direction and scope of your project.

Must be interesting to members

You're going to be living with this project for eight months. You'd better like it pretty well at the beginning or you're going to hate it by the end. It isn't necessary, on the other hand, to love it completely initially. As you explore it, you'll undoubtedly find much that interests and challenges you. Also, since you know that you’re going to be asked what you have learned, it isn’t a bad idea to choose a project that will teach you some things that you want to know—beyond how to survive a design project.

If you’re not doing this already, this is an excellent time to start asking yourself as you take up each new endeavor, "How am I going to use this again?" Unless it fits into your larger and longer term plans, it’s not worth the effort that you’re going to have to put into it. ‘Lifelong learning’ is one of the ABET core competencies, and you’re on the launching pad.

Must match your skills

As with the team composition, the project should match your skills as a group. Don't pick a project that relies on a fancy HVAC system if none of you likes air-conditioning. Further, make sure that members of your team have or can acquire the report and presentation preparation skills that will be needed for this project. You’re aiming at some appropriate mix of good talkers, good writers, good editors, and good visualizers. Try to play to each team member’s strengths.

Beware of over-ambition

One of the most common problems is to pick too large or too complex a project. Be sure that you can finish it within the allotted times. We have had very large projects completed successfully, but the effort required was extraordinary. Moreover, you don’t want to waste your effort in doing the same thing several times over. For instance, you should not undertake a multi-building design unless clear how to focus quickly on one building. While you are liable to be involved professionally in very large projects requiring many engineering and other disciplines, you should select a scope within team member interests and abilities. A few ‘black boxes’ to be done ‘by others’ are all right, as long as you know size, shape, output, and so forth (this should not be construed as a suggestion to select for a project designing a nuclear plant).

Choose your Advisor

One of the cherished features of Senior Design is that students do get to call the shots in shaping their projects. Like other human pursuits, however—and like engineering projects in particular, Senior Design is not completely wide open. You are first of all limited by your own skills, interests, and energy level, and by time. You are also limited by who’s available to advise your team.

It’s not likely that you’ve held on for five years at Drexel with interests radically different from our Department’s strengths, so chances are heavily in favor of your identifying a suitable advisor from the list of faculty and their areas of expertise available on this website. Some faculty have also indicated projects that they would be up for now. Even where an advisor has something launched, there is ample latitude for the team to shape its own project.

Faculty workload distribution is also a constraining factor, so that it is in your team’s interest to get your advisor signed up as soon as possible. Try to get an advisor whose interests and expertise are closely aligned with your project. An uncomfortable advisor is seldom a highly effective one, and everyone’s motivation will suffer.

Obtain a Sponsor

Consider obtaining a corporate or individual sponsor as one factor in your project selection. There are several reasons why this may be advantageous. First, it exposes you to 'real' clients who have a real problem and very specific concerns. Second, it is often a way to defray the expenses of Senior Design. Most groups so far have found that over the course of a year they spend between $300 and $800 on travel, slides, reproduction, codes, models, and other similar expenses. Most sponsors are glad to make a gift to cover that amount, because they realize your work will be worth far more to them as a feasibility study or recruiting tool.

The most critical value of a sponsor, however, is access to relevant data. Many projects have failed because students couldn’t obtain necessary site-specific data. Estimates and extrapolations have their place, but they have to start somewhere.

It's very important to make clear to a potential sponsor that you are not selling a service and that they are not avoiding the necessity of hiring a professional engineer or architect. They are providing a grant to a particular group of students, who in turn will usually promise to provide a copy of their final report for use by the sponsor. If you have questions about sponsorship arrangements, see the Senior Design coordinator.

Get Going

Pick your group as rapidly as possible. While you may officially have several weeks, they will be wasted if you don't pick your group quickly and get started on the project. Also, of course, other teams are competing for the available student and advisor talent. It's frightening how quickly the Fall term can vanish.

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. For an object as complex as a building or the extension of a rail line or the remediation of a multiply afflicted site, for instance, there are literally hundreds of parameters that must be within pre-defined values. It's up to you define them, and to rank their priority, so that you may choose among alternatives during the design process.


For AE's, one aspect of this definition process for a building design is to create an architectural program, a list of the spaces in a building, with all their required characteristics, including such items as structural load, adjacency to other spaces, size, minimum dimensions, design temperatures, acoustic attenuation, lighting levels, and so on and on. CE projects will have an equivalent document that lists all the requirements of the finished design. For example, a bridge or pier design would need to consider live and dead loads, strength and stability of materials, water currents, soil and bedrock characteristics and depths, design, construction, and life cycle costs, and so on.

Decision Matrix

Another aspect of the process is to create an evaluation matrix which will allow you to rank design alternatives on a relatively limited number of predetermined values (first cost, flexibility, HVAC control, operating economy, security are examples). Each of these values would have a weighting value, allowing you to build a matrix to compare the alternatives.

While not precisely indispensable, the computer is an extraordinarily useful tool for these aspects of the problem definition process. FileMaker or Access are excellent for tracking many different pieces of information, selecting only those of interest at a particular time, and presenting them in an orderly manner. Excel is good for the evaluation matrix, although the matrix can also be executed in FileMaker. We have available at least one example of a prior student architectural program for you to build on.

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.

Prepare the Mock-Up

One very useful tool a three-ring binder in which you mock up the report and presentation, initially only as a few words jotted on a page for each section of your report and presentation, gradually replacing the pages as you develop content. Or you can do this electronically in Microsoft Binder.

Read prior years' projects

Your advisor should have a good selection of projects from prior years. The Senior Design Coordinator also maintains a library with examples of all three kinds of reports—proposals, progress reports, and final reports. The collection has some examples going back as far as 1983, with a pretty full representation from 1997 forward. A very wide range of projects is represented. Review them early to see what is typical of the level of work required and the various ways it can be presented. Don't feel that you must copy these projects--virtually every one of them could be significantly improved. They are a very good starting point, nevertheless.

The report library is currently located in Dr. Mulhern’s office, 273C Alumni Engineering. Reports may be reviewed there, or checked out overnight.

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. Looking at prior year's schedules (and the comment on them in the reports) can be very helpful.

Decide which software programs to use (9/16/2007 Note - This section is badly outdated and needs revision)

The appropriateness and the availability of the software are issues here. Students will themselves own some of it on their own machines, Drexel has wide-ranging site licenses for some, more limited licenses for others, and will generally allow students to install their own software on CAD lab computers.

A listing of some programs that you will want to consider, with their applications, follows.

For overall report preparation and presentation preparation

Microsoft Office, a package for which we have a site license and which students got with their own computers, which includes

For information management

For drafting and design

For structural design and analysis

HVAC Programs

Lighting programs

For hydrology and hydraulics

These programs are already installed on our lab machines or have come with undergraduate textbooks.

For scheduling

Perform all research

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

Codes and Regulations

What are the relevant codes for your project? Examples are Zoning, Building, Fire, Health, Handicapped, Historic, Life Safety, and so on. You should complete all data gathering during the Fall term, leaving Winter term to developing your design and performing the necessary analyses.

What are concerns for the safety of the public in your project? What permits are required? Do you have to do an Environmental Impact Study? For what jurisdictions do you need to do or get these--for the county, for the state, for the federal government—for all of the above, and for some district or other as well? Who requires a report on your project? Who needs advance notice (before you dig, drill, drive piles)?

What are the key applicable sections within each of those codes for your project? Are there conflicts of one with another (there are any number of documented instances in which one government agency requires you to do what another prohibits)? If so, how are you going to resolve those conflicts?

You'll probably need to visit the city or township offices to learn much of this information. Be warned that making an appointment that everyone really indispensable can attend often takes weeks. Don't wait too long to start setting this up.

Existing Structure Information

If you're involved in a renovation project you will need to determine and document the existing conditions. Very rarely does this process proceed smoothly. Start early, work hard, and be prepared to explore many alternative routes. You want to be sure all this effort is complete during the Fall so you don't waste design time during the Winter. We've seen that even as simple a matter as getting access to a building can be extraordinarily frustrating.


For building and other construction projects, what are the characteristics of your site? Topography, utilities services, rights of way, earthquake zone, wind load, environmental pollutants, vibration, view requirements, traffic access, and so forth, are all examples of issues to be considered and defined.


What are the soil conditions? You must obtain relevant soils information for a building project during the Fall. This may need to be extrapolated from nearby borings, or perhaps from soil maps or conversations with local engineers. This aspect of research can take a long time to pin down.

Alternative systems

To meet the problem needs you will almost certainly consider a number of standard alternatives for each building or system. What are the properties of the alternatives? How do they interact with other systems being considered? How can they be measured by the criteria you've set up?

Often this stage of research will require conversation with manufacturer's representatives or local engineers. The time involved can be considerable.


What materials are appropriate to your project? What are their properties, costs, longevity, workability, and so on ?

Contextual Information

What external local and regional influences—for example, historic preservation, and political, cultural, or social—do you need to consider? Also what non-code agencies that influence the criteria--insurance company, park service, mortgage lender, venture capitalist, and so forth—do you need to take into account?

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 Winter. These alternatives are the one 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 and presented in this phase as well.

You will be presenting these ideas (probably without a formal evaluation) as part of the Fall term presentation, but they will only be a small portion of that presentation. The bulk of that presentation should focus on your definition of the problem, the criteria you've developed, and how you're going to approach the solution.


During the Winter you're expected to move rapidly to a choice of one of the design alternatives proposed during the Fall. 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 the Winter term.  Preparing your Memorandum of Understanding helps you to get this in form.

Design in Depth

Once you've chosen your scheme you'll need to design all systems for your solution in detail. That will undoubtedly lead to compromises as you discover the implications of different decisions. Allowing enough time for these revisions is why we push you to make your basic decisions early.

It's during this stage that your analytic tools from the technical classes should be fully used. You'll need to size structural elements, foundations systems, runoff systems, HVAC systems, transformer loads, and all the other ingredients of your solution.

You are expected to do it using engineering logic, not merely by looking up standard solutions in a book.


Once you've developed your scheme 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 coordinating systems with one another and to checking calculation results.

Present with Splash

Senior Design week (the 8th week of the Spring term) is the occasion for you to be as professional and impressive as possible. Now's the time for all the color charts, models, new suits and haircuts, and fancy handouts. Your audience will include friends, employers, sponsors, and parents, not to mention other students and engineering faculty. Go all out.

Best of Senior Design Competition

The College of Engineering holds a "Best of Senior Design" competition for projects across the college. This competition, held in the last week of Spring Term, has a significant cash award. If you think that you're going to have an entry worth considering, you should be sure that your advisor knows that you wish to be considered for the competition and that the department Senior Design Coordinators (Dr. Martin and Dr. Mulhern in AY01-02) are aware as well. There are slightly earlier deadlines in the Spring for those wishing to compete.

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.


Schedule weekly meetings with your advisor, starting with the first week

Use your advisor. It's very tempting to skip weeks because of a Structures exam or an interview. If you don't meet with your 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. Look at prior Senior Design reports for good examples.

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. There is a form available here to make this easy. 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 engineering system. Be aware that all group members are expected to be aware of the general design of all engineering systems. Your advisor will feel free to ask the HVAC expert what are the basic parameters of the structural design or to ask your Structures person to expatiate on the HVAC system. 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, ski trips (not very convincing), 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. During the Fall and Winter these presentations are typically 20 minutes long, with another 5 minutes for questions, with another 5 minutes for setting up the next team. During the Spring they are 30 minutes with 10 minutes of questions and 5 of setup..

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

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 Civil and Architectural Engineering or in Appropriate Technology, or Environmental 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 (or not accomplished but learnt from). 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. Don't for instance, state that this composite reinforcement is "a lot stronger" than the type of steel customarily used in the application, state that it is 15% stronger, or whatever it is. Also, although we know that engineering is a pragmatic pursuit par excellence and consequently aims at the cheapest solution that will work, the expression 'cheap' never appears in your documents. Your solution is reasonably or competitively priced, gives good value for the investment, and so on.

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.

Review the Grading Sheet Expectations

Review the criteria that will be used to grade you each term. Be sure that you've addressed each appropriately. They are available here.

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, particularly in this litigious age.

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. Instead of just titling an illustration "HVAC System," don't miss the chance for a headline style caption that states, for example, "HVAC System Changes Air n% More Rapidly than Standard" or "HVAC System Is Controlled for Maximum Effectiveness and Economy."

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. You'd be much better going to Cavanaugh's during that period. 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, or you may have to stand a couple of rounds at Cavanaugh's to soothe an irate member who didn't get the word that the section he or she was slaving over had been phased out.

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 leadeership 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.

Other Computer-run Techniques

Presentation techniques are constantly developing, and some of the newer ones may be suitable for your team.  In the past few years, teams have made effective use of animations, particularly of modelling scenarios, for example, behavior of first-flush contaminants in an urban storm event.  Other teams have used programs like Flash to conduct virtual tours of their sites or structures.  CDs and DVDs make more elaborate video possible.  Some cautions:  make sure that your stuff will run satisfactorily on the equipment available (or bring your own tried-and-true) and make sure that it adds to and does not distract from your presentation.


Slides have long been a popular medium, especially for Civil and Architectural Engineers, who have to deal with actual site conditions. They have often been shot directly from the computer screen. Be sure to allow enough time for developing and the reshooting and redeveloping if something doesn't go right. Shoot a sample roll early in the term to determine what works.

Generally, a mild telephoto lens with a 35mm camera mounted on a tripod is quite effective.

Overhead Transparencies

Black and white directly on transparency material works well. Color Xerox works fairly well, but tends to wash out, as does color inkjet on transparency. Black and white transparencies can be effectively handcolored with markers, and they can be written on with markers during the presentation, an effective audience-involvement technique.


Videos can be very effective in presentations, particularly if group members have some training or experience in their production.  VCRs are generally available in the presentation venues. Videotapes are, however, extremely demanding in terms of preparation time. Do not think you can do a good video presentation at the last minute. You'll regret it.


Most C&AE faculty members do not like the traditional 30x42 boards. They're difficult to see in larger spaces, particularly when there are numbers to convey. Overall, do not use any visual medium that is not clearly visible and legible at the farthest point of the space you're using. "As you can see" is empty if they can't--because it's too small, out of focus, or you're standing between them and it.


Many effective presentations have combined multiple techniques. The biggest problem arises in the audience needing to switch its attention from one medium to another. This is particularly annoying when you have to turn lights on and off as with overhead and slide combinations. Particularly if you are using a combination of techniques make sure that your setup is the way you want it before you start (the team preceding you may have done something else, for instance). Take a minute or two if you need to; audiences generally don't mind a short delay if you look as if you know what you're doing.

Physical Models

Physical models can be very effective in helping an audience to understand a concept. They are often very time-consuming to construct, however. Be sure you think carefully how you intend to use your time. Also be aware that they can cost a considerable amount of money. If you choose to prepare a model consider one of the entire building or one of a significant system or detail or portion of the building, or both.  Simple models can be wonderful.  The AE winners in 2000 had a model wall section made out of foam blocks, wood, and straps that demonstrated to perfection their technique of pre-compressing straw bales in the vernacular architecture of the homes in the community they were designing in rural NE New Mexico.


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

Mock it up early in the term

As mentioned earlier, a mock-up of your report prepared early in the term and updated as you complete drafts of material can be extraordinarily valuable. Bring it with you for your advisor to review at each meeting.

Recognize the importance of the 10-page 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 Departmental Senior Design Coordinator for official requirements, it's wise to plan to furnish at least the following:

Copies of Reports to:

Limit glitter and expensive reproduction

Solid beats flashy in engineering, and it's better to expend time and effort on your work than money on the package.  Beyond this, your copy for the communications advisor need not contain all the bells and whistles, since this advisor will be concentrating on your prose and its relation to your ideas and subject matter.  Their connection with your graphics is also a concern, but in most cases, black and white will do, as will reduced scale.

It can be very expensive to make multiple copies of large drawings or bulky calculation books. Don't bother unless specifically required. Make one copy of large drawings, to be provided with the report that goes to your advisor. Put reduced copies in your report if appropriate.

Prepare one copy of your detailed calculation book. Give it to your advisor with the report noting in the other copies where the detailed calculation book is located.

Bind and cover your report in a user-friendly way

You are required to submit three copies of each of your reports--one an archival copy, one for your technical advisor, and one for your communications advisor.  The latter two will be returned to you marked; the first is retained for the Department library of Senior Design reports.  All these copies should use the title page template on this website; these elements may be included in a cover design or presented as a separate title page.  Either way, please make sure that your cover shows the number and year of your group and the title of your project.  Copies for the advisors should be durably bound but easy to handle--very large binders that won't fit in faculty mailboxes or briefcases generally impede full advisor attention.  It would be very helpful if your archival copies are bound in something fairly stiff, show the group number and year and project title on the cover and also on the spine.  Reports are stored on bookshelves, by year, and numerically within their year, proposal, progress, and final reports together.

Provide a set of slides and computer files to the Department

Provide a duplicate set of slides to the department coordinator. We have slides available from previous years for you to examine.

Relevant Information Sources

There are many useful information sources. There follows a listing of some of the more basic ones.

Updated 20 August 2001 (and slightly 9/16/2007 - needs considerable revision, but concepts are still valid)