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Bright Ideas

The College of Engineering’s Senior Design Showcase puts talent on display.

For students in Ohio Northern University’s T.J. Smull College of Engineering, the spring semester of their senior year is the culmination of all their experiences in and out of the classroom over the previous seven. It is then, through a senior capstone project, that they must demonstrate their abilities in their chosen engineering discipline and show everyone what they’ve learned.

  • Each spring, students in the College of Engineering present senior capstone projects at the Senior Design Showcase.
  • A group of students created a 3-D LED display for the ECCS department.
  • The display features 4,096 individual LEDs and can be programmed to display shapes, letters an animations.

Students have most of the year to work on the projects they present at the annual Senior Design Showcase each spring. This year, 21 groups of students, representing mechanical, civil, and electrical and computer engineering and computer science (ECCS), pushed themselves to apply their knowledge and skills to a wide array of engineering projects. Some of the projects were personal, such as the portable lifting device that one mechanical engineering student created to help people like his mother get in and out of automobiles after her knee replacement surgery made that mundane task exceedingly difficult. Others sought to improve on existing technology, with one group’s project hopefully helping a beloved regional hamburger chain modernize its equipment.

For seniors Garrit Corlett, a computer engineering major from Streetsboro, Ohio; Tyler Feitshans, a computer engineering major from Tipp City, Ohio; Christian Raber, an electrical engineering major from Wooster, Ohio; and Steve Maag, an electrical engineering from Ottawa, Ohio, motivation for their capstone project came from a desire to leave something behind that might attract the next class of young ECCS engineers.

They created a 3-D LED Cube Laying Screen Display, a three-dimensional grid of multicolored LEDs that can be programmed to display patterns, words or motion sequences viewable from various angles. The devices are relatively new and are often used for digital signage and for art installations in large hotels and museums. Theirs will do much the same in the Biggs Engineering building.

“Dr. Al-Olimat really wanted something the ECCS department could use to represent itself,” says Maag. “Our capstone will stay here at ONU and represent the skills that students can learn here.”

When it comes to physically showing what they do, electrical and computer engineers are at somewhat of a disadvantage. While the mechanical engineers roll out their Baja SAE car, and the civil engineers show off their concrete canoe, ECCS’s equally impressive computer programs and advanced circuitry are more nuanced and can be more difficult convey.

"The ECCS faculty is always looking for new ideas, especially ones that will attract people's attention," says department chair and professor of ECCS Dr. Khalid Al-Olimat.

From left: Christian Raber, Garrit Corlett, Steve Maag, Tyler Feitshans.

Boy, did he get it.

Showcase is an appropriate name for the event where Corlett, Feitshans, Raber and Maag introduced their 3-D LED display. As the other presenters quietly explained their projects to the attendees within the McInstosh Center ballroom, Joe Perry’s iconic guitar riff and a howling Steven Tyler quite literally had people “walk this way” to behold a pulsating, multi-colored, three-dimensional light show choreographed to the Aerosmith classic in the back of the room.

“Ours is a rudimentary, low-resolution 3-D display, but it works just the same. We wrote a computer program so we can actually design whatever animations we want,” says Feitshans.

For the showcase, Corlett and Maag each designed animations. Corlett’s “Walk This Way” animation included synchronized shapes and patterns and culminated with “ONU” in block letters. Maag’s animation was a recreation of a scene from the Pixar film “Up,” a fitting tribute to one of the College of Engineering’s most famous alumni, Bob Peterson.

The elegance of the animations belies the sheer complexity hidden beneath the display. To send the necessary signals to the 4,096 LEDs, more than 1,500 feet of wire is plugged into breadboards, or solderless circuit boards, with more connections tying the breadboards together and connecting everything to the computer controllers that interpret the software commands.

After their initial design called for 30 breadboards and an estimated 10,000 feet of wire, the team knew they had to do something. “When we saw how much wire it was going to take, we figured there was no way we could do that, so we went back and improved the design, and then we went back and improved it again,” says Maag. Eventually, they were able to pare down the required boards nearly in half to 17.

"Students gain experience throughout the course sequence of senior design and become more confident in their ability to tackle problems that arise and to provide good solutions to them," says Al-Olimat.

The project was complex in strictly engineering terms as well. It tested the students’ grasp of the full scope of the engineering curriculum.

“This project encompasses quite an array of engineering,” says Garrit. “We’ve got some basic programming on the software side of computer engineering. We have all the controls, which are the hardware side of computer engineering. We are using electrical engineering to learn how to run this at low levels, and we needed circuits knowledge to design our circuit and hook up all the wires.”

Additionally, the students designed the jig, or wood template, they used to position the LEDs for soldering. Precise spacing in all three dimensions is critical for the display to work properly. The team carefully drilled 512 holes in a pattern of 32 by 16. Once an LED was inserted into each hole, the soldering began to produce one of the eight layers that comprise the cube.

In all, the students applied the skills they’d learned, taught themselves some new ones, and practiced the most important one of all, teamwork.