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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

AeroAstro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2005–2006 issue of AeroAstro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Independent research, small teams make Experimental Projects Lab a unique, popular capstone

By Jennifer. L. Craig and Edward M. Greitzer

Subject 16.62x students choose their topic and advisor, define their experimental problem, develop a hypothesis, create objective statement, identify goals, propose conclusions … it’s a tremendous capstone exercise in independent research and a great generator of student enthusiasm.

Sho Sato (left) and Ruijie He with the gearless contra-rotating prop nano air vehicle they developed, built, and tested in 16.62x. (William Litant photograph)

Sho Sato and Ruijie He

Juniors and seniors in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics complete their degrees with a capstone sequence which serves to both integrate knowledge from various disciplines and to emphasize the Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate context of our curriculum. The Experimental Projects Laboratory (subject 16.62x in MIT-speak) is one of the choices in this sequence.

The department has other capstone options, but those subjects are usually large ones where a student is one of many team members and the project topic has been specified. In 16.62x, in contrast (and in contrast to almost every other undergraduate subject), students select their own projects from a broad list of faculty suggestions or from student-generated ideas, and work as two-person teams with a faculty or staff advisor. They design, construct, and carry out an experimental project of their own choosing, and report their findings in oral and written formats. The small team size offers opportunity for close contact among students and faculty and staff. The aim is to ensure that students are engaged with an advisor and a project they are enthusiastic about.

The explicit message to the students from the syllabus is:

First and foremost, this is your project. You choose the topic and advisor. Your responsibility is to define an experimental problem, develop a hypothesis, create objective statement(s) and success criteria consistent with the definition of the problem, identify experimental goals, design and construct the apparatus needed to perform the research, conduct the appropriate testing, evaluate the results, and propose relevant conclusions.

The majority of the projects are what might be described as “hard-core Aero-Astro”: assessment of flow uniformity in a supersonic diffuser for a gas dynamic laser, determination of the yield strength of a tank for low cost rockets, or assessment of cockpit display techniques for event avoidance. These increasingly include software and artificial intelligence components. Controlling robot quadruped maneuvers over rough terrain, and monitoring the contents of containers on a space station, are examples of this past year’s projects.

A number of human factor projects have been conducted on the driving simulator at the MIT Age Lab as students determined the effects of distraction and stress on driving performance, evaluated flexibility as a function of aging, or defined the readability of screens that provide information to drivers. Although the context may not be an aerospace application, the techniques used, and skills learned, are directly relevant to the aerospace industry.

Several sports-related projects are also typical in each term. Recent examples include assessment of a new type of speed skate, determination of optimum finger positions for competitive swimmers , and evaluation of composite baseball bats for increasing batted ball speed.

Even though 16.62x is a laboratory course, the definition of “laboratory” is meant to be inclusive. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that the laboratory location and type is basically set by the imagination of the students and advisors. Students have carried out experiments in many interesting places: MIT’s Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel, Gas Turbine Laboratory, and Age Lab; an ice rink; a towing tank; Logan Airport — even atop an MIT building.

Three themes tie this diversity of topics and venues together. The first is student experience in learning how to design an experiment. Each team learns how to craft a testable hypothesis about the natural world, outline objectives, develop success criteria, and assess its hypothesis. Developing the ability to design an experiment that enables tangible knowledge discovery is one of the learning objectives of 16.62x; hypothesis formulation and assessment is an important part of the process of developing learning for any organization, and is a critical skill in engineering practice.

component commonality

In the Wright Brothers Wind tunnel, 16.62x students Sunny Wicks and Ben Stewart prepare to test a drag-reducing winglet they designed for the top of America’s Cup ship sails. (William Litant photograph)

The structure and content of the 16.62x cycle follow from this objective. Thus, early in the process, there is strong focus on developing a clear description and an understanding of the hypothesis, an objective or statement of how to assess its correctness, and a statement of how one defines success for this assessment. Further, the design and execution of the experiment is aimed at how the data the students obtain will address testing the hypothesis.

The second theme, and another key learning objective in 16.62x (and in all of Course 16’s capstone courses), is teamwork. Collaborative skills on both small and large teams are a big part of succeeding in a project; our faculty know this, and our industry colleagues hold this skill in high regard. In 16.62x, students work with a partner as the heart of the larger team comprised of their advisor plus the engineering and communication faculty and technical staff. Participating and functioning as a fast-paced, high-functioning team does not always go smoothly, but the faculty pays close attention to helping students resolve difficulties and to strengthening their skills. We have found that informal team meetings with all the stakeholders present (faculty, advisor, technical staff, and communication instructor) are useful forums. In contrast to conventional presentations, which emphasize progress, the team meetings focus on issues of concern, and thus foster in-depth exchange among student and faculty and staff about both technical issues and team dynamics.

Excellence in written and oral communication is the third overarching theme. The communication-intensive curriculum is an Institute-wide mandate, and 16.62x is one of Course 16’s communication subjects. Working with a communication instructor, student teams report their progress through the two semesters in a sequence of written documents and oral presentations that are less like conventional homework and more the kinds of communication in which professional engineers engage. Students learn about audience and persuasion, information organization, informational graphics and data presentation, and how to describe complex engineering decisions. Many 16.62x teams present in various student conferences, and their success rate is high. Over the past six years, our students at the AIAA regional student conference have won first place undergraduate awards in 2005, 2003, and 2002 as well as second or third place in 2002 and 2000. Again, from the student comments, the idea of presenting communication as an essential part of being an engineer seems to be well accepted

What do our students think about 16.62x? Engineering experimentation can be demanding and sometimes frustrating, but it’s one of the few experiences of truly independent work for the students. For some, the subject is a research experience that helps shape their professional lives. Our observation is that students finish the Experimental Projects course with a sense of pride and accomplishment about, in the words of one student, “Working as a team on a problem that didn’t already have a solution.”

In their own words: Students' comments on 16.62x

On choosing 16.62x projects
Students on what they like about selecting projects:
“Being able to choose to do your own project is a terrific opportunity. It gives people the chance to meet a lot of professors and really get a project that intrigues them.”
 “independence, being able to choose my own direction”
“Having the experience of managing your own project. Overcoming obstacles and difficulties in project development to finally realize your end goal”
“Working outside of any classroom. Working on a topic that interests you with a close advisor.”

On teamwork and team meetings
“The team meetings and formal presentations were great. The critiques received ruing these meeting were very helpful. The team meetings were informal and relaxed.”
 “Team meetings are very good. They helped us to get back on track and to get objective feedback on our progress. Straightforward and honest feedback is very useful”
 “Teamwork. Cool projects. Yea”

On communication as an element of evaluation
“The final report was also a great opportunity to learn to write collaborative papers.”
“I liked making presentations on it as well because everything done was my own work and so I took pride in making it the best possible.”

Jennifer Craig is a lecturer in MIT's Program in Writing and Humanities and teaches written and oral communication in the Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. She may be reached at

Edward Greitzer is the H. N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Aero-Astro Deputy Department Head. His main research interests are in airbreathing propulsion and turbomachinery and he is the MIT lead on the joint Cambridge-MIT Institute Silent Aircraft Initiative. He may be reached at

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