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  support to manage the Capstone Marketplace.  See “About the Capstone Marketplace” at the bottom of the website Homepage.

Q:  Can non SERC universities do Capstone projects?

A:  Yes, any accredited U.S. university may participate.  Emphasis will be on developing appropriate technical solutions to a need or problem.

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 “”   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 DOD 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.  Your funds first get transferred to the DOD office (USD R&E) that supervises the SERC and the Capstone Marketplace.   Their DOD Contracting Office will approve transfer of funds to Stevens Institute. The Capstone Marketplace will showcase your problem topic and receive proposals from university teams.  When a proposal is accepted by you, then Stevens will write a subcontract to the university to fund the student team.

Q: When will faculty and students be notified about participation on a project?
A: After receipt of a university’s proposal, 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 are important for a student design project.

Q: Who evaluates the proposals?
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 assist as one of the “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 for each government Research Topic originator.    Unless otherwise noted in the Research Task description, there are no citizenship restrictions for students or faculty.  In rare instances, a few of our government customers have required that student teams be “U.S. only”.   Another important note is that only U.S. Academic institutions may participate in Capstone Research Topics–foreign universities can not be contracted with U.S. research funds.

Q: Are any of the projects subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) or other government restrictions?
A: We try to shape the expected student research so that it does not contain any classified information or details subject to ITAR.  Unless otherwise noted in the Research Topic, there will be no ITAR or other restrictions.  Each subcontract will have further details on any ITAR requirements.

Q: What are the Intellectual Property (IP) rules for these projects?
A: Each university’s policy on IP needs to be stated in the proposal.  In general, universities qare responsible to create their own IP policy with faculty and students.  SERC’s interest in IP is to protect the government’s rights to use any IP created with federal funds.  There is further guidance in the Resource section regarding these government rights.  See SERC-CAPSTONE-release-of-information  document.   The SERC Contract Office and the university business offices agree on how IP is going to be handled as a part of contract awards.  Additionally Faculty Advisors and student team members are required to formally acknowledge the IP policies at the start of their projects.    The IP arrangements are 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 efforts that could become restricted.  We are working on processes to identify the most promising Capstone efforts at the end of the school year with expectations that several will transition to R&D projects managed directly by sponsor organizations.  Some of these projects may become classified.

Q: What level of involvement is expected from government 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 4 major Capstone reviews for a two-semester student Capstone project.  The first is at the beginning of the Fall term, second at the end of Fall term, third in mid-semester of the Spring term, and the fourth and final review at the end of the Academic Year.  It’s estimated a minimum of 20 contact hours with government reps will be needed per project.  More is encouraged.

Q:  How will teams be evaluated? and by whom?

A:  The number, scope, scheduling, and frequency of student team reviews are agreed at the start of the project by the proposing team and its government customers.  Project reviews presented by the students should follow business formats, where cost, schedule, and technical performance are assessed.  The Capstone Marketplace “Project Plan” is a suitable template for conducting design reviews and project updates.   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 tools such as Dropbox, Skype, Go To Meeting facilitate contacts.     Capstone Marketplace staff occasionally join team reviews to assess effectiveness of the student-government interaction.  Government sponsors will be requested to provide input to faculty regarding the team’s overall performance on the design project.  The Capstone Marketplace has a Google Share Drive on the Stevens Institute server, which serves as a repository for sponsor and team information.

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, larger awards 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 labor cost for Capstones.

Q: How are funds disbursed?
A: The SERC has a government contract through Stevens Institute which allows the Capstone Marketplace to receive funds from Department of Defense sponsors.  Stevens’ Business Office offers Firm Fixed Price subcontracts 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 are the main contract deliverables.   Payments from SERC to the universities will be made as these milestones are satisfied. Copies of each of the sequential deliverables must be in hand at the Capstone Marketplace before invoices can be processed.

Q: Are funds “taxed”?  And if so, by whom? 
A: SERC’s overhead for Capstone Marketplace is provided by our DOD contract.  Additional funds from other military components and government agencies are available to universities for Capstone work with a minimum “pass-through”.   Recognizing that each institution has different mechanisms for handling incoming funds and executing contracts, SERC requests that university overheads for Capstones be minimized.   Capstones are intended to be enrichment opportunities for undergraduate students in their coursework.   As proposals are prepared, Faculty Advisors 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 and to monitor that expenditures meet contract guidelines.

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 and faculty advisors will negotiate the scope and objectives with the government sponsor and will document these in Project Plans, which includes its own 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:  SERC’s objective is to stimulate students’ critical thinking and to give them opportunities to use basic “system engineering” approaches in undergraduate projects.  SERC’s methodologies are presented in the SERC Capstone Marketplace Objectives document, which can be found in the Resources section.  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 complete.  Students are encouraged to organize their teams and their development activities  as if they were a small industry team.  Teams will be expected to track their team organization, customer requirements, work breakdowns, schedules, spend plans, and technical progress.   The students on the team do not have to all be engineers; inclusion of students with business or other majors may be able to assist the team in managing the business details of their projects.

Q:   Can graduate students do Capstones?

A:    Yes.   We have  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, the bulk of the 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 are approved depending on funding and level of response from academia.  Some Fall projects that are unassigned at the start of the year may be offered as Spring Semester projects.

Q: What are the expected deliverables for projects?
A: A typical  Capstone contract should include 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.