How would you describe a Capstone project?
Capstone is a major project that is related to what you are studying and requires a lot of independence and responsibility. You own it at the end. You can be proud of it. You learn a lot while working on it.
What is your Capstone topic?
My Capstones topic is robotics, and I am specifically building a Rubik’s cube that can solve itself. It has all the electronic components inside a core that connects to the main pieces which will rotate the faces of the cube. And this is one part of the project, the robotics part. The other part of the project is the algorithm for the cube to solve itself. That is more on the side of artificial intelligence, and it’s software that I wrote based on people’s experience writing algorithms for Rubik’s cubes in multiple different ways. Besides the robot and the software, another deliverable for my project is the paper itself that explains all the design processes in building the robot and describes how the solving algorithm works.
Why did you choose this topic for your Capstone?
Before joining Minerva, I always thought I was going to do engineering. I knew I wanted to build stuff, so in my first year, I started learning how to program. That was cool because it was my first time doing programming, but I felt like there was something missing. In my second year, when I was in Seoul, I had the opportunity to do an internship at a Maker Space in Korea. There, I found out that this is what I was missing — I really wanted to get my hands dirty and build products. I realized the way I could do this through Minerva would be through robotics: I could design the hardware, print the parts myself, and then connect that to Minerva classes through the programming aspect. I decided to explore that a bit more in both Minerva classes and as a hobby, so I got a 3D printer with some of my friends. We printed a lot of stuff, and I built some robots.
In one of my artificial intelligence classes, we discussed the Rubik’s cube, and I realized there are a lot of people that have built robots that can solve a Rubik’s cube. That is when I got the idea to do the same thing — it would satisfy two of my interests, robotics, and programming. However, soon I realized I do not want to be like everyone else. What could I do that was different? What if the Rubik’s cube is solving itself? I started from there. It would be a hands-on project that has a programming aspect and is related to my major. It would also have multiple components that are challenging enough to keep me interested for 1.5 years and demonstrate the required applied knowledge of a Capstone project.
How have Minerva’s academics supported you in your Capstone? What skills or lessons did you learn that you have utilized in your Capstone topic?
Let’s start with the hard skills. In the programming aspect, my classes gave me a foundation to understand how I could extend an algorithm to make it work for my specific case. The software I am using in my Capstone was inspired by the A* Search technique introduced to us in my artificial intelligence class. My software is an extension of the neural networks that we saw in machine learning. In terms of soft skills, Minerva has helped me build a lot. Minerva classes are designed with pre-class readings and in-class discussion, which gives us the ability to explore topics on our own, then bring them to the classroom to talk through with our peers. It also provides us with the tools to become self-learners and self-starters, encouraging us to grow independently and take responsibility for our work. I think those are skills that are transferable to a Capstone topic. Additionally, my advisor knows a lot about robotics, so he helped me with some parts of the hardware.
What has the Capstone experience been like for you?
It’s been a rollercoaster — lots of ups, downs, and loops. You start and are very excited. You know what you are doing, so you can make the project happen. You have a list of tasks you need to do. You have a timeline. Then, you start working on the tasks, and you realize it will take a lot more time than you thought it was going to take. You realize you will face some challenges that you have no idea how to solve. For example, my biggest challenge was figuring out how to get the face of the Rubik’s cube to rotate. You try something, and it doesn’t work. You try something else, and it doesn’t work. You change some of the design and print the cube again, and it doesn’t work. There are a lot of attempts. You reach a point where you have spent time and money, and you are really tired. You don’t know if the next idea will work, and you wonder why you want to do it. Something that really helped me get out of this state was talking to a field expert. I explained the problem, and he gave me a suggestion. For me, there were a lot of challenges along the way, but usually, when I face a challenge, I get energized by it.
What do you aspire to do when you graduate?
I would like to work in the robotics or the 3D printing industry — I realized these two industries make me the happiest. I’d like to develop new robots or change the world by creating new manufacturing techniques that allow us to do more than what we are currently doing. Alternatively, if I don’t end up in either of those industries, working in machine learning would give me enough challenges at the same level of the project that I am currently developing to keep me energized and enjoy what I am doing.
What advice do you have for a prospective student about doing a Minerva Capstone?
If you are spending 12–15 hours a week on a project for almost a year, you need to find a project that you are actually interested in because it is a long time in which you will be looking at the exact same thing and trying to solve the same problem. If you are not motivated by your research question, then it’s not going to be a good experience. Find a topic that you are interested in exploring and do not be afraid to choose something that will require you to develop new skills, especially if you are already interested in working on them. For me, those skills were in robotics. I always wanted to build a robot but I didn’t know-how. I really wanted to learn more about these skills, so I chose a Capstone that would push me to learn them.
If you were inspired by Rafaela’s story and are seeking a college experience that will teach you valuable pragmatic skills that will enable you to change the world, apply to join Minerva today.