Capstone project with UVa gives Sweet Briar engineering seniors field experience

Capstone project
Engineering majors Charlotte Green (left) and Anne Meyer with their robot, which measures soil respiration on Sweet Briar’s campus

Students in Sweet Briar’s ABET-accredited Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program have plenty of opportunities for hands-on learning — both in required internships as well as the program’s senior capstone course, the culminating experience for engineering majors.

“Capstone is a chance to hone and develop skills on a project for an external client,” says director Bethany Brinkman. “The yearlong experience involves all aspects of the design process with the end result being a working product ready for mass manufacturing.”

In this year’s capstone, Charlotte Green and Anne Meyer created an autonomous robot that measures soil respiration, which Meyer describes as the carbon dioxide that soil naturally “breathes” out. “Good soil respiration is indicative of healthy soil,” she says, “so measuring respiration gives agriculturists and environmental scientists a better understanding of the condition of the soil.” The robot communicates the data back to an unmanned vehicle that’s being designed by students from the University of Virginia. So, not only are the Sweet Briar students getting to solve a real-world problem, they’re also gaining experience working on a team.

Anne Meyer
Anne Meyer takes a closer look at the wires.

Meyer and Green are developing and testing their robot at Guion Science Center as well as at locations near the new vineyards on campus. The final project will be tested and utilized at a vineyard near Charlottesville, Va.

Meyer says the project has allowed her to push the bounds of her knowledge about computer programming. “The most challenging part of this project has been converting mathematical equations into computer code and incorporating the multitude of sensors required to obtain all of the necessary data for calculating the equations,” she observes. She also says it’s been rewarding to see the hard work come together in a functional product.

Anne Meyer
Anne Meyer gets the robot ready.

For Green, the capstone project has allowed her to discover an interest in soil mechanics. She had been considering a career in bioengineering in the equine industry, but has decided to focus on soil mechanics instead. In fact, Sweet Briar’s engineering program has helped her refine her career goal a great deal from when she first arrived on campus. “When I first started at Sweet Briar, I thought I might be a chemistry major,” she told us. “However, thanks to this program, I have found a career that allows me to bring in my passion for chemistry, biology, mathematics and business into one. This program has really shaped me into someone who can better understand the bigger picture involved in creating something.”

Like Green, Meyer says Sweet Briar’s engineering program has prepared her for the capstone project and for her future career. “Throughout each of my four years, I have been required to develop projects using critical thinking, as well as all of the information that I have been taught in class,” she says. “This continuous culmination of education, critical thinking and hands-on development made this capstone project very approachable because I already had experience with this type of project development.” After graduation, Meyer will head to NAVAIR in Patuxent River, Md., and plans to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

Eventually, Meyer hopes to become a test pilot for NAVAIR on their fixed wing platforms.

“This capstone project has taught me so much about the autonomy of systems,” she says. “This is vital in aerospace because the majority of modern flight systems are autonomous in some fashion. The emphasis on critical thinking and education will remain with me throughout my career. These are vital in every aspect of quality engineering.”