Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q:  What is the “SERC”? and what is the connection with the  Capstone Marketplace?

A:   The System Engineering Research Center (SERC) is a University Affiliated Research Center for the Department of Defense.  Its focus is on advanced research in System Engineering.   Stevens Institute leads a 20-plus university consortium to execute SERC’s activities.  As one of SERC’s thrusts for human capital development, a “Capstone Marketplace” has been created as a “clearing house”, connecting government operators with undergraduate student teams working on senior design projects.  Stevens provides administrative, contract, legal, and other administrative support to manage the Capstone Marketplace.  See “About the Capstone Marketplace” at the bottom of the website Homepage.

Q: I’m an engineering student in a university.  Can I initiate a Capstone Project?  How do I do it??

A:  The Capstone Marketplace can now accept Research Topic nominations from universities.  As a student, you will have to coordinate with a Faculty Advisor who can stand behind your project idea and who can coordinate your university’s administrative requirements.  The Marketplace’s role is to match your idea with interested government customers. We  will send notice to you when this happens.  Your school can then expect a Request For Proposal.   If your proposal is accepted by the government sponsor, your school will get a Capstone award.   The government customer has the option of engaging with more than one school on the same topic.   We have added a form on the website for universities, students, and others in academia to start this process, please use the link for  Academic Inputs for the Capstone Marketplace

Q:  I’m with a Department of Defense organization.  How do I initiate a Capstone Project?

A:   Go to the Resources Section and see the  Govt Research Topics for Capstone Marketplace document.  Use this as a guide and email your document to “capstonemarketplace@sercuarc.org”   We will respond to you and will post the Research Topic on the site and help you to connect with a university for the project.  We are establishing an annual cycle for this, the best times for problem submissions will start right after the New Year for the following Academic Year.

Q: I’m a government guy with an interesting operational problem.  I’d like to turn students loose finding potential solutions.  Do I have to find my own funding for this effort?  Does it matter if I’m not in DOD?

A: It depends.   We have government organizations, such as USSOCOM and several other offices in DOD, who have already set aside funds for Capstones on their topics.  If your problem aligns with an existing sponsor’s interests, then we can use the funding we have, with sponsor permission.  Otherwise, you will have to identify another source of funding support for your particular project.  For the Capstone Marketplace contract, our DOD Contracting Office will have to approve transfer of funds from other U.S. government activities to Stevens Institute, who manages the contract actions for SERC and the Capstone Marketplace.

Q: When will faculty and students be notified about participation on a project?
A: After receipt of a university’s proposal, the Marketplace managers review the proposal with government sponsors for selection.  Universities and teams are notified of awards as soon as possible.  It’s our objective to have all fall Research Topics assigned by mid September.  We expect a two semester effort to be the norm, but will consider single semester research projects on a case by case basis.

Q: Can a Capstone Marketplace award be granted without identifying specific students?
A: Yes, we would prefer to see proposals from universities as soon as they can be submitted.  In the proposal, please include a description of expected student participation, with particular attention to how students will approach “cross-domain” or multi-department solutions if it suits the research task. The  Capstone Marketplace Objectives document in the Resources section lists “attributes” we feel will add value to a student design project.

Q: Who evaluates the proposed teams?
A: For a particular proposal award, SERC’s Marketplace personnel coordinate with government sponsors, and handle the contract paperwork.  The proposals are evaluated on the attractiveness of the “approach”, the university’s support to their student team, and the government sponsor’s priorities for their list of topics.  Its important that proposers read the Capstone Marketplace Objectives and describe in their proposal how they intend to guide student teams to align with the objectives.  Once the Capstone project is awarded, government Subject Matter Experts (SME) will join the team as “customers”, and will assist in evaluating student team efforts.  Capstone Marketplace personnel will also be available to university faculty and students for guidance on project execution.

Q: Do any of these projects have citizenship restrictions for either students or faculty?
A:   It’s a decision which is up to the government Research Topic originator.    Unless otherwise noted in the Research Task description, there are no citizenship restrictions for students or faculty.  Only a few government customers have made a condition that only U.S. citizens are allowed on certain projects.  Another important note is that only U.S. Academic institutions may participate in Capstone Research Topics–no foreign universities.

Q: Are any of the projects subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) or other government restrictions?
A: Unless otherwise noted in the Research Topic, there will be no ITAR or other restrictions.

Q: What are the Intellectual Property (IP) rules for these projects?
A: A university’s policy on IP needs to be stated in the proposal.  In general, each university is responsible to create its own IP policy with its faculty and students.  SERC’s interest in IP is to manage the government’s rights to use IP created with federal funds.  There is further guidance in the Resource section regarding government rights.  See SERC-CAPSTONE-release-of-information  document.   The SERC Contract Office and the university business offices will agree on how IP is going to be handled as a part of contract awards.  Additionally the Faculty Advisor and the student team members are requested to formally acknowledge the IP policies at the start of their projects.    The IP arrangements should be documented in team  Project Plans, and presented at the kickoff meeting in the Fall.

Q: Would successful execution of any of the currently listed projects result in classification of the work product created by a student team?
A: It’s not anticipated that any of the student work will be classified.  However, project team results may induce the government sponsor to pursue additional, follow-on research and development effort which could become restricted.  We are working to be able to transition the most promising Capstone efforts at the end of the school year to funded R&D.  More on this soon.

Q: What level of involvement is expected from sponsoring entities committed to support the student teams?  And how will student teams connect with them?  
A: Government sponsors (operational units, staffs, and Subject Matter Experts) are to provide information and feedback at approximately 4 major Capstone reviews for a two-semester student Capstone project: beginning of Fall term, end of Fall term, mid-semester Spring term, end of Spring term.  We estimate a minimum of 20 contact hours with government reps will be needed per project.  The number, scope, scheduling, and frequency of reviews are up to the proposer and government customers.  Project reviews presented by the students should follow business formats, where cost, schedule, and technical performance are assessed against the Project Plan.    Contact and communication between the student team and the government sponsor is the responsibility of the university, and should be addressed in the Plan.   It’s expected that IT tools such as Dropbox, Skype, and Go To Meeting will facilitate contact.    Government sponsors will be requested to provide input to the team’s overall performance on the design project. Capstone Marketplace staff may join team reviews to assess effectiveness of the student-government interaction.

Q: What is the expected project budget?
A: SERC will award contracts to universities for up to $5,000 for each Capstone student team.  With exceptional justification, awards of up to $10,000 may be made.  Funds may be used for material, components, non-capital equipment, student travel, other student expenses as detailed in the Proposal Preparation Instructions and contract documents. Professional research salaries will not be authorized as a direct team expense for Capstones.

Q: How are funds disbursed?
A: The SERC has a government contract at Stevens Institute which allows the Capstone Marketplace to receive funds from Department of Defense sponsors. Stevens’ Business Office offers Firm Fixed Price contracts for each university team, based on budgets which are presented in the university’s proposals. Payments are made on a milestone schedule, against deliverables described in the contract.  A series of student team design reviews will usually be the main contract deliverables.  Copies of  each set of deliverables must be in hand at the Capstone Marketplace before invoices can be processed. Payments from SERC to the universities will be made as these milestones are satisfied.

Q: Are funds taxed?  And if so, by whom? 
A: SERC’s overhead for Capstone Marketplace is separate from the funds available to universities for their Capstone teams.  Each institution has different mechanisms for handling outside funds and executing contracts.  SERC is requesting that university overheads for Capstones be minimized.  Faculty Advisors need to coordinate with their business offices to determine the amount of funding they are able to use and what they should request in their proposal submissions.

Q:  How can universities spend their Capstone award funds?

A:  The “Proposal Preparation Instructions” provide detail on the use of funds and the restrictions that SERC requires for Capstone expenditures.  SERC has selected Firm Fixed Price contracts for awards, to expedite research activities.  Purchasing of supplies, materials, consumables, and other items for a student team can be cumbersome, but it’s up to each university to define their own processes.

Q: Are project scope and objectives negotiable?
A: Yes. The project descriptions shown are desired outcomes but may not completely reflect the abilities of undergraduate student teams or the specific interests of the government sponsors. Students will negotiate the scope and objectives with the government sponsor and will document these in Project Plans, which include a Statement of Work section.   The Project Plan will include details on team objectives, team organization and responsibilities, execution, services, facilities and equipment, deliverables, schedules, costs, and status and reporting for the project.  See the Project Plan template in the Resources section.

Q: SERC and the Capstone Marketplace seem to put a lot of emphasis on the “business” process for Capstone student design teams.  In that these are typically engineering projects, what’s the reason for this?

A: The SERC is trying to stimulate critical thinking and insert basic applications of “system engineering” in projects for undergraduate students.  SERC’s logic is presented in the SERC Capstone Marketplace Objectives document, in the Resources section of the site.  Research Topics are selected to give students real problems with real customers, who expect results, prototypes, demonstrations, or other tangible end items when the work is done.  Students are encouraged to organize their teams and their development activities much as a small business team.  The students on the team do not have to all be engineers.  The inclusion of students with business or other majors on Capstone Project teams may be of value, to help track the team’s contract, requirements, schedules, expenditures, project risk, etc.

Q:   Can graduate students do Capstones?

A:    Yes.   We have recently received authority to include graduate students on Capstone teams.   The approach is to provide (1) opportunity for graduate students particularly those in System Engineering and Business disciplines, to contribute their skills to the undergraduate teams, and (2) to allow graduate students with more extensive technical preparation in engineering disciplines to help mentor the team.   See Comments on Capstone Activities for the upcoming Academic Year in the Resources section.

Q: Do the projects have to follow a Fall-Spring schedule?
A: Yes, This first set of Research Topics will be awarded on a Fall-Spring semester schedule (or Fall-Winter-Spring quarter schedule for schools on the quarter system).  A limited number of single semester projects may be approved depending on funding and level of response from academia.

Q: What are the expected deliverables for projects?
A: A typical  Capstone contract should include approximately 4 milestones as deliverables.  For example, a Project Kickoff, at least two Interim Design Reviews, and a Final Review.   Each project team must  negotiate its deliverables ( prototypes, tests, demonstrations, analyses, tech data, usually available at the final review),  with their government sponsor.  Deliverables must be described  as part of the student team’s Statement Of Work in their Project Plans.