Team teaching, targeted results

Story by Bailey Schober

Images by Christopher Gannon

Instructors in agricultural and biosystems engineering are adding value to their students’ education by teaming up and working with industry. Together, they offer students the freedom to make mistakes, and the freedom to succeed,
all in one important capstone course— Applied Project Management in Technology and Technology Capstone.

Instructors source capstone projects from corporations, small-town businesses, start-ups or faculty members. Projects must demonstrate a need for improving a process, increasing efficiency and implementing an action so students can fully manage a technology project from start to finish.

The Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering (ABE) has 480 students in the industrial technology and agricultural systems technology majors. Over the course of four years, these students gain classroom and laboratory experience exploring machinery, processes, management, manufacturing and occupational safety.

As seniors, they participate in this two-semester course that is project and team based. The course helps students refine, expand and build upon their project management skills.

“My favorite part of the capstone class is the opportunity to work with leading companies on real problems and projects. I enjoy getting to work alongside my peers to push ourselves to new limits and reach out to a variety of resources both at the university and industry levels,” says Brian Davis, a senior in agricultural systems technology.

Teamwork by design

The course is taught in two sections, and each section is co-taught. Jacek Koziel, associate professor, and Joe Vanstrom
(’08 industrial technology, ’12 MS industrial and agricultural technology), lecturer, are a teaching team. Gretchen Mosher (‘11 PhD industrial and agricultural technology), assistant professor, and Steve Bell, lecturer, co-teach the second section.

“This is a unique course because we don’t really teach, but instead, mentor. Joe and I come to weekly mentoring meetings together. We both have a little bit of input, kind of like a mom and dad providing the same input, but
from different perspectives,” Koziel says.

Student teams of three or four are carefully formed by the instructors based on project preference, individual strengths and weaknesses determined by the CliftonStrengths assessment and previous work experience.

“We are not technical experts in all subject matters as our projects are so eclectic, but we point our student teams
to where resources are in the department, college, campus or externally,” says Vanstrom.


Davis, Ross Henning, Kyle Henik and Levi Benning are tackling a project for ADM with the guidance of Koziel and Vanstrom.

Their project focuses on improving a grain seed sifter for use as an educational tool. Employees cannot see inside the seed sifter during demonstrations. ADM asked the student team to modify the sifter to be better suited for educational use. The team will add clear side panels showing ow paths, imaging videos for close-up views of the product in hard-to-see areas, custom catch pan assemblies, interior lighting and emergency stops and outlets.

“I like having the freedom to use our own opinions, to put forth our ideas and see them come to life. It’s great working
as a team and meeting each week to come up with the best solutions for our project,” says Henik, a senior in industrial technology.

Henning says the course offers valuable career development.

“There’s a sufficient amount of time for students to thoroughly examine a project and deliberately make decisions for a well-executed outcome,” says Henning, a senior in agricultural systems technology.

Davis brought the project idea to this course when he returned from his summer internship at ADM. Thanks to his two internships and the capstone project experience, Davis was offered a full-time position with ADM upon his graduation in May. Henning, Henik, and Benning also graduated in May.

Capstone revival

When Mosher started teaching this course six years ago, she had a total of 18 students and five projects, and she taught one section on her own. There were about 65 students and 20 projects between the two sections.

Bell teamed up with Mosher in 2015, and Koziel and Vanstrom first taught the course together in 2016. Although the structure of the course has stayed nearly the same, the quality of the course has increased because of the quality of projects and the increased focus on project management skills.

This year, they set a record for enrollment with 144 students and 40 projects. Koziel and Vanstrom’s student teams meet for one hour weekly, and Mosher and Bell’s teams meet for 30 minutes bi-weekly to discuss their project updates and receive guidance on making the next step toward completion.

“I’ve overseen a massive amount of growth in this course. Our team saw the need to have both a responsive and sustainable teaching approach,” says Mosher.

The commitment is intensive for the instructors, including up to 28 hours of weekly team meetings, but they say it is worth it to promote student growth through personal and professional development.

The course culminates with student presentations on Capstone Day during which students explain their results to an audience of industry clients, students, faculty and staff.

“Capstone Day is always a major win. It’s a day when there is a sense of relief and the industry clients are happy and excited. Working through a project involves a lot of detailed planning so the culmination point is rewarding,” says Vanstrom.

Bell says the capstone format is fun for the students and the instructors.

“I’ve spent over 30 years in industry. I always thought I would love to come back to teach a bunch of young spirits,” Bell says. “Truth be told, I live vicariously through these students. I love to watch them grow and take on the world.”

Community of commitment

In addition to teaching and mentoring, instructors build relationships with companies to ensure they manage expectations and maintain connections.

“We were able to start a research collaboration with FarrPro as a result of earlier engagement with a technology capstone project. With companies like FarrPro, we can be research and development partners, and they can be our conduit for cutting-edge research into animal production systems and other focus areas,” says Koziel.

Mosher says companies are always looking for ways to engage with students. “The technology capstone provides an ‘in’ with our department so students can check out a company’s culture,” she says. “This course also keeps the university connected to our industry stakeholders.”

Course success is the result of balancing time and relationships, mentoring students, establishing a community of commitment and emphasizing the process.

“Both sets of technology capstone instructors work to give students the best educational experience possible. We are the last touchpoint before students go into industry, and we want to make it a positive experience for them,” says Vanstrom.