The Expo Advantage


Prof. Jeremy Michalek was just another student trying to excel at Carnegie Mellon University.  He took a version of the class “Engineering Design II: Conceptualization and Realization,” culminating in every student giving presentations of their work. He found it effective, but could it have gone further?

Today it does, resulting in the college’s annual “Senior Design Expo,” which allows the public to view everything from what could make packing easier to what might take the ironing board out of ironing. And Michalek has enjoyed watching these students in action just a little more than most, as he now teaches the class and is the head of the expo.

“They know on the first day of class what we’re shooting for,” Michalek says. “Come up with an idea, prototype, and get it ready for the expo through improvements. We stress making detailed design decisions and thinking broadly about needs in a market that aren’t getting met.”

And when he says detailed, he means it. A recent story on the creation of the Swiffer detailed how engineer Harry West’s team literally watched people clean their floors. Carnegie Mellon teams take a similar approach. One, for instance, observes people changing tires to help develop their car product. “We want to find the big issues and have them prototype right away to see if they’re on track,” he says. “You spend too much time drawing and you may not see early enough where you’ve gone wrong. If there’s a problem, you want to have enough time to fix it.”

Students building a prototype of iPod-powering bike. Image: Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering Flickr


And the prototype phase has students come up with a minimum of 100 ideas, narrowed down by assessing its plausibility and filling a need. “The prototype must have a purpose of showing us what we’re trying to learn from it,” he says. Then they go through a prototype review to get feedback from other students in the class and have a discussion of what the team still needs to work on.

Students also do a quality function and mechanical analysis. “The teaching assistant and I come up with questions appropriate for each product,” he says. “In the case of the luggage project, [it was] how much force has to be applied to the handle when pulling that last bit of air out [for more packing room].”

Finally, the end point: Showing the product at the expo. Michalek felt a few definitely stood out this year.

One was a luggage product, with packing room being created by removing fibers from the clothing. With a vacuum seal bag inside the luggage, the students made a handle for a luggage pump—similar to a bike pump—sucking air out in order to just maybe get those extra few shirts and pants inside.

Another was a bike light. “Even though there are bike lights, it’s tough to see to the side,” he says. “They [the students] came up with a way to trigger a pivot on the bike with your thumb so you can keep your hand off the handlebars and swivel the light to the left or the right to see obstacles better.”

Another made ironing less of a pain, trying to cut out the ironing board necessity by using a magnet on the other side of clothes, never having the shirt leave its hanger as you press away.

Though Michalek hopes some inventions from the Senior Design Expo one day do well for his students, he wants it to at least give them real world skills, such as the ability to pitch their creations confidently. “This is different than a long presentation,” he says. “People just happen by and you have to give them an elevator pitch, really explain that product fast. It prepares you for the real world. You shouldn’t have to wait until you have a job for that kind of practice.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

People just happen by and you have to give them an elevator pitch, really explain that product fast. It prepares you for the real world.

Prof. Jeremy Michalek, Carnegie Mellon University


March 2013

by Eric Butterman,