The best way to learn is by doing, a philosophy underpinning everything at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), and nowhere is that more evident than in its Engineering Design course.
Mirroring the problem-solving, interdisciplinary structure of the school itself, the two-quarter capstone gives students the opportunity to apply their multidisciplinary training to current, real-life challenges impacting people’s lives.
Each year, student teams are paired with industry partners to develop new technologies or processes that can be implemented in a real-world setting, factoring in concerns such as cost, practical application, and available resources. Projects span the industrial gamut, with previous topics including water purification, energy storage, biomedical implants, cancer diagnostics, biomanufacturing, design optimization, data analytics, commercial production, and sustainable energy, to name a few.
At its core, Engineering Design at UChicago is an experience tailored for students who want to make real impact in real-time.
Designed to draw on a full suite of engineering skills, the capstone course is offered to undergraduate seniors who are majoring in molecular engineering and will in future be an option available to Master of Engineering (MEng) students. Throughout the two quarters, PME faculty and industry mentors provide constant one-on-one support, coaching each team.
“This course provides molecular engineering students with a key foundational experience in their early career,” said Master of Engineering Program Director Terry Johnson. “Their education culminates with them working directly with an industry mentor on an actual industry problem, which can set them up for career success for years to come.”
The Master of Engineering program provides a technical and professional education that prepares students to assume leadership positions in engineering innovation.
A course of distinction
Along with direct industry partnership, PME’s capstone course stands apart with its foundation in molecular science—on approaching problems with an open mind, where commonly accepted obstacles can be circumvented by engineering on the atomic level. Students will call on the broad disciplinary expertise they’ve cultivated over previous years to create effective, impactful solutions.
For his capstone project, Tarek Jabri, SB’22, worked on biological sensors with Hollister Incorporated, a biomedical company based in northern Illinois. Reflecting on the experience, Jabri appreciated the opportunity to make a direct impact on people’s quality of life.
“It’s inherently motivating to know your work will help people who rely on these products—that our work could change their lives for the better,” said Jabri. “We were encouraged to approach our problem however we saw fit, which allowed us to explore different aspects of the problem and come up with very different solutions. It was a hugely educational and rewarding experience.”
Jabri, now a first-year PhD student at Harvard University, says the course expanded his view of research and garnered a new appreciation for topics that could have direct applications.
The course is equally beneficial for industry partners. In Hollister’s view, the capstone course helps shed light on engineering problems that need an outside perspective. The course also establishes a mentoring relationship that often extends beyond the end of the project and into the student’s professional career.
“UChicago students have always delivered fascinatingly outside-the-box solutions, and we’ve pursued some unique technologies that we wouldn’t have considered by ourselves,” said Abe Janis, program manager of external innovation, and principal scientist of technology development at Hollister. “But we also see these projects as the start of a relationship that continues to grow even after the course is over. At the end of their final presentation, we let students know that we’re here to support their careers however we can. Effective mentorship is a long-term commitment, and it’s one we value.”
Marvin Ruffin, technical product manager for the UV Group at Excelitas Technologies, works with UChicago students to develop photocatalytic water purification systems aimed at removing pollutants from water supplies. From his perspective, the course is an ideal way to help a new generation get their start.
“We partner with UChicago because the students come to us with fresh ideas and perspectives that breathe new life into our work,” said Ruffin. “Beyond that, it is rewarding to help guide young people, young engineers, taking the first steps in their career.”
Ben Kibalo, technical services manager in natural materials at DSM Biomedical, said the partnership presents an ideal opportunity to connect with new engineers and introduce them to aspects of the job they can only get in the field. Students have worked with Kibalo to evaluate the suitability of biomaterials for various soft tissue repair applications.
“It’s an ideal match—the University of Chicago and DSM Biomedical,” said Kibalo. “Our mission of solving the world’s healthcare needs through sustainable science aligns perfectly with this unique program. As UChicago engineering students are already well-versed in advanced materials research, this experience should give them additional confidence and motivation to make a meaningful societal impact earlier in their careers.”
Annie Mitchell, SB’23, is an undergraduate currently investigating a new method to analyze next-generation sequencing data for oncology patients at UChicago Medicine, and she says that although her project is challenging, she feels well prepared for it.
“In the molecular engineering major, you learn how to think like an engineer and to deal with unknowns,” Mitchell said. “The opportunity to take on a project like this, with all the mentorship and University resources, is such a great way to put all that training into action. It’s an accumulation of everything I’ve learned.”
At the end of the course, students present their findings to the project sponsors and PME faculty. Many who’ve completed it have gone on to work for companies such as 3M, Caterpillar, Meta, Medtronic, Samsung, and Tesla among others.
“PME’s capstone project is a rewarding experience that students can draw on throughout their careers—research experience, connections, mentorship and future jobs are all outcomes that benefit our students as well as the companies with whom they work,” said Mustafa Guler, associate senior instructional professor.