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The New and Improved Capstone

MPD2’s culminating class was updated for this school year. Learn why the change was made and what it will look like for students.

The capstone is frequently mentioned by alumni of Northwestern Engineering's Master of Product Design and Development Management (MPD2) program as a highlight of their experience in MPD2. 

Now, leaders of the MPD2 program are answering the question: What if we can take what’s already good and make it even better?  

Jim WicksCapstone is the culminating activity in the MPD2 program. Over three quarters, students dive deeply into a topic of personal interest to design a product or service that answers an unaddressed customer need.  

Starting this fall, MPD2 students will see a redesigned capstone experience.  

Why the change? The answer is very much in keeping with a key tenet of the MPD2 program: Human-centered design. MPD2 leaders spoke with the end-users of capstone – students who have taken the class – to see what the needs and wants truly are.  

The result MPD2 leaders hope is a nine-month journey that feels much more cohesive to students.  

"We're taking the materials we've used in the past and redesigning them so there is a really consistent set of highly applicable tools and frameworks for the students to use," MPD2 director Jim Wicks said, "from the early discovery stages to the final design execution stages of capstone." 

One significant change will see students address questions of business viability and feasibility sooner in their capstone journey. The hope is this will result in projects more similar to those students will work on when they leave the program and advance in their careers.  

“You’ve got to identify the right problem to solve," he said. "The elegant solution to the wrong problem is valueless to people. This is really starting with the human — the consumer — first, and having a business model and moving toward the end of that cycle.”  

Perhaps the biggest change will address the elephant in a lot of college classrooms these days: artificial intelligence (AI). Rather than attempt to push this revolutionary technology to the sidelines, the capstone redesign will look to incorporate AI into the students’ work, just like it will be incorporated into their careers.  

Wicks believes students can — and should — use generative AI tools as a co-pilot for their work. Done correctly, AI can be an assistant that helps accomplish tedious tasks faster, allowing students to devote more time to the creative components of their research and design.  

One example of how students could leverage AI tools is taking conceptual design directions from the students and visualizing it into multiple storyboards or stories. 

"What's most important is to get ideas out there and then evaluate them," Wicks said. "The evaluation is where we want students to spend their time and energy, not getting mired in the development and visualization of these ideas." 

Wicks also thinks AI will help students get a better understanding of a customer's complete journey through a product experience.  

"Sometimes students don't look deep enough to explore a person's journey through an experience, both current and future," he said. "Using tools, templates, and AI to go deeper and ask more questions will push students as they're evaluating and understanding that journey." 

The result of all the changes, MPD2 leaders believe, will be capstone projects that are more rewarding for students and provide more benefits to their working lives. 

“Our primary focus is the students,” Wicks said. “After them, our primary stakeholders are the companies that hire our students. The changes we’ve made are to make capstone what we believe to be much more relevant to what's happening right now in the industry.”  

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