Capstone projects: A window into how students think about the larger world

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Capstone team for "Engineering on Display"

The capstone team that designed dashboard displays for the new engineering building. Students from left are Sukjin (Jimmy) Yoon, Brent Gonzales, and Brian J. Kapala. Siemen's Daniel Hart, is second from the left. (Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

It's true. The green and gold confetti already has fluttered down upon the 1,300-plus mortarboards and lei-laden UAA graduates of 2015. Summer session began Monday.

Still, the end of spring semester is so rich with presentations and projects-come-to-fruition that it's worth one last dip into student scholarship.

This time, we visit a campus spine, one of those elevated walkways linking UAA's buildings. On the Monday before finals, professor Adriano Cavalcanti's computer science and engineering students populated a long stretch of spine, one that links the old engineering building on one end to the consortium library on the other.

Student engineers, many dressed in suits and ties, looked like job interviewees. They stood in front of their tall and wide project posters and computer display screens that explained their work and showed their solutions in action. If you made any eye contact at all, they were ready to jump in and explain their work.

Think science projects on steroids. These "capstone" projects challenge seniors to apply everything they've learned about computer systems engineering toward solving a challenging real-world problem. Here's a quick look at what some of these students had tackled.

Engineering on display

UAA will open a new Engineering and Industry building later this year. A goal for the new building was to provide public computer dashboard displays so anyone passing through the building could see electricity usage, water consumption, building temperature and more.

Alas, that goal didn't align with budget constraints, until an industry donation provided the dashboard monitors and a student capstone project provided the vision and elbow grease to program the data for display.

Siemens Building Technologies donated four monitors for the dashboards, and loaned employee and operations supervisor Daniel Hart, a 2008 UAA engineering graduate, to work with the team.

Siemens has systems monitoring infrastructure throughout the UAA campus, and normally partners with another firm, Lucid, to work on displaying this data to drive energy management and conservation. The student capstone project, done by Nailya Galimzyanova, Brian Kapapla, Brent Gonzales and Jimmy Yoon, replaced the Lucid work with their own, at a saving to the building budget of between $40,000 and $70,000, according to Hart.

As Hart explained, Siemens provided the students with building data, and the student shaped the information into accessible graphs and charts. "This was a big feat for them," Hart said. "They did a really good job."

The best part of the project, according to the students, was working with professionals from Siemens and from the campus facilities and information technology departments. It was real-world, they said, not textbook.

Check out their work on the public monitors when the building opens this fall.


Engineering student Bruno Lopes took the long way to UAA. From Brazil, he traveled the world in search of an exotic place to live. Alaska fit the bill; he met and married his wife here, and set about getting an education.

First he earned an associate degree at UAF and went to work for the Tanana Chiefs Conference as an IT systems administrator, traveling into 20 interior villages to help maintain a telemedicine program.

In a sense, Lopes cut his teeth on that experience and got to know the challenges of distance health care for rural areas. He pursued his engineering degree at UAA, and now has developed a solution to allow an individual rural patient to interact virtually with his or her doctor in a different location. With computer technology, he's accomplished the goal in a way that meets health care privacy requirements and also allows the session to be billed through insurance or by Medicare or Medicaid.

Lopes said the model of the doctor who makes house calls inspired him. "That's a concept that is widely adopted in Europe-France, for example." Coming from South America, he finds the U.S. health care system impersonal.

Alaska's far-flung population is the perfect place to test his virtual house call. He notes benefits, such as avoiding costly visits to a hospital emergency room. "If you step into a hospital after midnight, it will cost $1,200," Lopes said; a hospital needs a staff of 12 or 14 people just to support one doctor for one five-minute visit.

Lopes believes bringing the doctor to the patient via computer, legally and with all privacy safeguards in place, will ensure more people living remotely get help when they need it.

Home security system

Although there were well over a dozen projects, we'll visit just one more.

Gabriel Perez Cortes is from Puerto Rico. His teammate, Dari Donkuro, is from Ghana. As Cortes put it, "Where we come from, home break-ins are pretty common." So they were motivated to work on a DIY home security system.

They used Raspberry Pi, credit card-sized single-board computers developed to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools.

"I have to say learning how to deal with Raspberry Pi, the device itself, was hard," said Cortes. "You have to learn the whole operating system, how you connect everything, how you deal with connections to the receiver."

Did they plan to develop this for the consumer market?

Not at all, Cortes said. Instead, he'll post his how-to on, a site "for those who prefer to build instead of buy."

"Whoever wants this code can just download it," Cortes said. Because he uses the free, open-source software called Linux, sharing his code will be "a way to give back," he said.

A version of this story by Kathleen McCoy appeared Sunday, May 17, 2015 in the Alaska Dispatch News.


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