When I was in my final year of engineering school, my development project was chosen for me – this saved me from the project selection process that could have been many days work. Fortunately, it was within an area personal interest – a RF sweep generator. However, this is generally not the case these days and much time can be spent agonizing upon the topic, complexity and cost.
I hope you find the following information helpful.
Timing, timing, timing
Get started immediately – procrastination is a killer – especially here… Get your project selected and approved ASAP so you can get your components on order. Perhaps nothing can be more frustrating than having to do it all the final night – and Murphy takes full advantage of such situations. Also note that in industry, project management is essentially timing, timing and more timing – start learning this skill now!
Set reasonable goals – and state your goals in advance
Yes, a snazzy project can be a real showstopper… if it functions as expected, is within your budget and can be finished on time. My recommendation is that you avoid taking such risks – a 3.5 grade on a relatively simple, doable project is better than a potential 4.0 on one that you cannot deliver. Learning a lot about a simple circuit is a lot more impressive than learning little about a complex circuit – and there is just so much to learn about simple stuff – consider my multi-part series on “The Single Transistor Amplifier Revisited” (part 1, 2 and 3)… and the work continues…
Stating your goals in advance will help you in the long run by allowing you to better focus and make more intelligent decisions. Advance goals could include: just for fun, learning new stuff, learning how to make DIY circuit boards, leaning how to assemble, learning how to write software, or learning how to troubleshoot hardware. When you run into difficulty, asses the difficulty in light of your goals and you may just decide that the issue is irrelevant.
Look into a field of personal interest
This goes without saying. Consider solar power, lighting, audio, Arduino, 555, etc. (many areas overlap). Avoid using capacitor limited off-line power supplies due to safety issues, unless, of course, you wish to evaluate such in the light of its advantages and disadvantages.
Narrow your field as much as possible
There is just so much stuff out there that you must focus narrowly.
Use Internet research intelligently
Select keywords intelligently because your initial search terms may not always bring up what want. Rack your mind to select the best keywords. Just a simple keyword change often makes a great difference and will save you much time. Sometimes, my initial searches are intended to identify best key words.
Select two similar projects if possible
That way if one does not work as expected, you already have a “backup project” that already falls within your project approval.
Look for projects with good documentation
Read the comments to see how others fared and you might just learn that it is a good project, or that it has problems…or that it never worked for anyone. On the other hand, do not let one of two negative comments decide the matter because they may not be legitimate.
Prefer sites with forums
There are sites with some pretty smart and helpful participants that can provide help in time of need.
Make bill of materials (BOM)
Getting your material list down on paper will save you time when it comes time to order components and will help identify stuff for which you may scrounge. Research major components to see if they are available – some projects call for components that have been obsolete for 30years. Locate acceptable and inexpensive substitutes – this is also an important learned skill. Learn how to effectively use DigiKey’s component search engine that allows selection in the following areas: type of component, key specifications (voltage, current rating etc.), cost, availability, vendors, substitutes, package (SMD or thru-hole), etc.
Purchase spare components
Accidents do happen and Murphy’s Law states that the only components that fail are invariably the ones with no backup…
Circuit boards are nice, but expensive and add additional work and delays in project completion. Circuit boards are not in order until the circuit is fully de-bugged. My recommendation is to hand-wire your circuit on perf board. DIY circuit boards are a possibility, but do not expect great results the first time as this too is a learned skill. I have seen some very nice DIY circuit boards, so it can be done.
Do not be surprised if your circuit does not work immediately – allow sufficient time for troubleshooting. Troubleshooting too is a learned skill.
Avoid psychiatric drugs
This is no laughing matter because in this stressful world, many seek relief via a psychiatrist. Others misuse prescription drugs such as Ritalin to get over the last minute hump. While possibly helpful in the short term, the risks are great and may lead to a lifetime of drug dependency, suffering, and diminished mental capacity – keep your body (and mind) chemical-free as most of this stuff (including prescription drugs) cause irreversible damage. If you cannot cope with stress, identify the stressors and work to reduce them – when caught up in a situation it is difficult to see objectively and make good decisions. Also note that most of this stress we bring on ourselves by procrastinating.
Undocumented words and idioms (for our ESL friends)
ASAP – abbreviation – As Soon As Possible, quickly
Murphy – allusion to Murphy’s Law that states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong…
showstopper – noun – the main attraction that gets all the attention
de-bug, debugged – verb – work out or solve problems – literally, get the bugs out – historically, this came from an actual incident in which an early computer went down when a moth got its wings stuck in some relay contacts…