You have just finished the 4th Year of your Engineering Course and you are glad that the shoreline is closer than it has ever been. Still, something about the remaining year still bugs you. You know very well what it is. It is a killjoy. You hate that feeling that is robbing you blind of your peace of mind. It is what your predecessors kept complaining about and now the worry is turning your smile upside-down. It goes by different names in different parts of the world but it is an inevitable rite of passage for any aspiring Engineering graduate.
Admittedly, I was also in a similar predicament. I felt clueless and incompetent regarding it. “Where do I even begin?” “What new thing can I develop with my current skill set (which honestly at the time felt like it was close to nothing compared to fellow colleagues)?” “Should my project idea get rejected what recourse would I have?” These were some of the questions that tormented my mind while on attachment and the project abstracts were being required with a deadline that was fast approaching. Never had imposter syndrome paralyzed me as it did back then. I surmise that you might be in a similar state or worse. I am here to help.
“So, where do I begin?” you might ask.
First, you could ask yourself these questions: “What problem in my immediate surrounding can I solve?” “What have others done to address a similar issue?” “Which among these societal problems could be solved using Engineering principles?” “Do I have the technical know-how to solve the problem?” If not, can I learn it within a Semester with its heavy demands? “Will I be challenging myself beyond my realistic capabilities?” “Will the cost of implementing the project hurt me financially?” If you can answer the above questions then you will have generated your project idea successfully.
This article is a guide for those who have already generated an idea and are confident that it will be accepted by the panel that reviews the abstracts and allocates supervisors.
Here are the 10 tips you should consider as you begin the project:
#1 Have a good grasp of the project’s concepts
You should be able to articulate your project idea clearly to anyone who randomly asks you what your project entails. Like they say- if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old then probably you don’t understand it well enough yourself. Be comfortable merging technical Engineering jargon with simple explanations of the concept. If you can’t explain it then no one else can. This is one of the most common reasons why the panel can reject your proposal.
#2 Decide whether your project will be purely software-based or hardware-based
If you choose a purely software-based project be ready to justify why you chose that route. After all, Engineering merges a myriad of fields and hence can’t be simply limited to software alone.
The ideal Engineering element merges both software and hardware aspects and the examiners expect that if you are to reap a bountiful harvest of marks from them. Unless you get the green light to do a Simulation, the majority of students will have to stuff in some code to control circuit elements to do their bidding.
#3 Sharpen your programming skills
I cannot dare understate the importance of programming in Engineering. Without it, you are risking your academic future by walking a tightrope with a precipice beneath you. If you’ve reached this far in your course that means you know a thing or two about C, C++ and Python. With the exception of MATLAB programming, most microcontrollers have their syntax based on the three languages cited earlier.
The two most common microcontrollers used for projects are Arduino UNO and Raspberry Pi. The latter is a bit more complex if your programming abilities are wanting but it offers the most versatility. Conversely, Arduino UNO is the darling of nearly all Engineering students for the reason that will yield the fourth point.
#4 Select projects that are “easy” to implement
Let me clarify what I don’t mean by easy. Easy does not mean you won’t put in a lot of hours and work to carry the project to completion. Easy does not mean you will have a smooth ride. Easy does not mean you will only print “Hello World” or “Light an LED” and pat yourself on the back. Thomas Edison already built the first light bulb and made a fortune for doing so.
Easy means that the project is within your current capabilities. Easy means you won’t burn yourself out at the expense of other units – which I should state here is a small fraction of all the mandatory units you will have to deal with. Be honest with yourself. Know what you can and cannot do. Also, remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Be innovative.
#5 Start early
The Semester usually starts at a slow pace and picks up momentum after a month or so. That’s the ideal time to begin your project. This is the time you consult widely and go on a witch hunt for information and other projects that might share some similarities with yours.
This is the time to learn how to use referencing software and MS Word like never before. This is when you should polish up your programming skills and play with Simulation tools such as Tinkercad, Circuito.io and any other web-based IDEs.
This is the time to discover how certain components function when programmed using your microcontroller. This is the time to create private playlists (not music) on YouTube that teach how to program microcontrollers. It is also the time to identify “How to sites” or “Beginners Guide to sites”.
#6 Cooperate with your project supervisor
As soon as you get allocated a Supervisor or you identify one and they accept to work with you; be ready to cooperate with them. Even if you might have personal reservations based on your own interaction with them during class or from other students’ complaints, don’t use that as a means to dismiss them. Remember, at the end of the day they are human just like you and they can intuitively tell when they are being kept at arm’s length. Building trust is an invaluable asset in all interpersonal relationships inclusive of this one. If you’re still sceptical, remember that you’ll eventually graduate and might need the same lecturer to be your referee in your CV.
Putting it in another way, working relationships will extend beyond school and into the workplace.
Be ready to follow their guidance and when minimal be proactive in reaching out to them. They might also be going through a lot in their personal lives and nobody wants additional burdens laid on their already tired backs. It’s here that you’ll get the opportunity to develop your emotional intelligence. It’s pointless to have a high IQ coupled with a low EQ.
#7 Document all the steps of your project well
Recall that documentation alone carries a lot of marks- close to 30% of the overall project score.
Learn how to use the full potential of MS Word formatting features. Trust me, MS Word is one of the most powerful text editors out there. I personally use it for writing my own books. Additionally, check out tutorials on YouTube when you get stuck while writing your final proposal or report.
The key chapters for a project proposal include Chapters 1 & 2 (Introduction and Literature Review) while the remainder of the chapters get beefed up as you begin the implementation of the project i.e., Chapters 3 & 4 (Methodology and Results). Chapter 5 entails Conclusions and Recommendations based on your objectives and actual results. The front matter of both the proposal and report are similar i.e., Declaration, Acknowledgement, Dedication, Abstract, TOCs, List of Figures and Tables etc.
The back matter mostly comprises the Project Budget, Project Timelines, References (IEEE Format) and Appendices (this is where most of the code snippets from your IDE are put).
However, take note of what your Supervisor tells you to put or omit in the two critical documents as well as their preferred format(s). Also, note that the tense of the project proposal is future tense and that of the report is past tense. The Methodology should at least have flowcharts and block diagrams of your project while the Results should have actual pictures of your system/ circuit assembly.
#8 Test your systems/ circuits periodically
Imagine the shock and horror on your face when during the demonstration, your system/ PCB assembly fails to work yet it was functioning before. How do you explain yourself in such a scenario? Well, first and foremost ensure you take videos of your periodic testing right from the breadboard prototyping to the final PCB assembly. Be careful to note the different power ratings of the devices you are using as well as their actual power consumption. Datasheets are a lifesaver in this regard. Video recordings (either screen recordings for Simulations or for the final system) are a good way to have evidence that your system worked before, even if during the presentation it fails to work as intended.
#9 Improve your public speaking skills
As the semester comes to a close, you will be expected to do some presentations. For your first semester this will mostly be a proposal presentation and a final presentation and demonstration towards the end of your second semester. They will also account for 30% of your overall score.
I know for some they would rather do anything else but speak before a crowd. Unfortunately, stage-fright has to be dealt with. The prolific author called Dale Carnegie wrote a book titled: “How to Develop Self-confidence and Improve Public Speaking”. As much as I have never had fear while speaking before an audience; I felt it was worthwhile reading and learning from it and I believe you’ll stand to benefit from it. In short, public speaking can be learned.
As for Powerpoint Presentations, let them be as visual as possible. As a rule of thumb, remember the slides are for points and not notes. Just utilize the K.I.S.S. principle which is an acronym for Keep It Short and Simple. Clarity also dictates that you have a minimalist design and not one that is generous with colours till it resembles an art gallery (it has its place but not when you are doing a timed presentation of less than 8 minutes). Also remember to number your slides.
Furthermore, be ready to have your concepts challenged and measured. The panelists won’t give you an easy time so be ready to know your stuff inside-out (both technical or otherwise). Know when to concede and when to stand your ground. Respect the panelists even when you feel incensed by their comments. Feedback can be positive but be ready for a negative one as well.
It’s during your final presentations at the end of each semester that your documents are used to assess your work as you present. Also be well groomed- it attracts some few marks and helps boost your confidence which in turn makes the panel to take you seriously. As someone once quipped: you’ll be addressed as you’re dressed. Think about it.
#10 Journey before destination
The funny thing about life sometimes is that we are always in a rush to get to the finish line and we easily forget to enjoy the journey as we are solely fixated on the destination. Smelling the roses along the way is akin to enjoying the learning process as you execute your project in measurable steps. The whole point of the project is to make you appreciate that besides theory you are actually able to think critically and apply your skills to solve everyday challenges.
Thus, as you do your project enjoy the labyrinth of academia one last time as you look forward to finishing Campus. Though as a caveat, you don’t have to actually commercialize your project. For most students, getting that passing grade for the project is more important at the moment while for some theirs is to wow the panel (which rarely happens). Whatever goals you have set for your project, just give it your best and you will be okay.
When all is said and done, recall that at the end of it all, the project is just but a fraction of all your units in 5th Year. Do not expend all your energy in the project and forget to study for the other theoretical units. This could be detrimental to your overall performance and even your degree classification.
None the less, all the best in your project and don’t forget to check out my Powerpoint Slides in case you’d want a refresher/summary of the whole project process and some FAQs regarding projects.
“Recall that at the end of it all, the project is just but a fraction of all your units in 5th Year. Do not expend all your energy in the project and forget to study for the other theoretical units. This could be detrimental to your overall performance and even your degree classification.”