Beginning this fall, WCU will offer a stand-alone engineering program after years of partnering with UNC Charlotte

By BILL STUDENC MPA ’10

Representatives of Western North Carolina business and industry are celebrating the recent announcement that Western Carolina University will begin offering a bachelor of science in engineering  degree as an important development that will produce a new crop of graduates who can help those companies grow. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors earlier this year approved the new stand-alone BSE program, which is spinning off from an existing program in electrical engineering offered jointly with UNC Charlotte.

Frank E. Mullen Jr. ’10, drafting and document control supervisor with the Murphy division of Moog Components Group, a leading manufacturer of precision electro-mechanical components, is among those eager to begin hiring graduates of the new program. “As a technology-based company, Moog Components Group offers opportunities for engineering graduates from many disciplines,” Mullen said. “Our engineers hold critical positions in sales, design, manufacturing, automation, purchasing, tool-design, facilities, safety, environment and quality assurance. Many of our successful engineers are graduates of Western Carolina University. As we face the technological and business challenges of the future, it is imperative that the company has a well-trained and technically experienced generation of new engineers to draw from.”

Business and industry leaders say they are especially glad that WCU is taking a generalist approach to its engineering offerings, with a common core of coursework in mathematics, science and engineering that will be augmented by concentrations in specific specializations. Because of WCU’s existing program in electrical engineering with UNC Charlotte, the initial area of concentration for the BSE degree will be in that discipline, with additional areas of concentration to be added over time based on the needs of business and industry, said James Zhang, interim dean of WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology. “The BSE provides us an opportunity to better serve our students by providing them more choices in various engineering specializations,” Zhang said. “It also unleashes the power for us to better serve our community by providing comprehensive engineering expertise to regional industries. It is a win for the university, a win for our students, and a win for regional economic development.”

Stephen Edmonds, a Franklin-based engineering consultant, helped advise the Kimmel School on the development of a world-class structures laboratory on campus that played an important role in convincing a Brazil-based renewable energy corporation to locate the headquarters of its U.S. operations on campus. Edmonds already knows what concentration he would like to see added to the program mix next.  “From my view, I would like to see more course work related to mechanical engineering – in particular, courses in thermodynamics, heat transfer and structures,” he said. “This would support the growth of engineering jobs related to gas turbines used both in power generation and for aircraft.”

Sharon Swede, a manager with GE Energy in Greenville, S.C., said modern industry is in need of a stable pipeline of talent. “When a region can provide both the educational opportunity and exciting careers where talent can be grown and challenged, it has a powerful combination,” Swede said. “Such regions are where the next generation of engineers will gravitate to. Companies in this region will definitely benefit from WCU’s new engineering program in terms of recruitment, retention and workforce development.”

The transition from the BSEE degree to the BSE, to begin during the 2012 fall semester, requires no new funding, faculty, laboratories, equipment, courses or library resources because all the elements are in place from the current electrical engineering degree. The move to the stand-alone program at WCU comes after its electrical engineering curriculum was accredited last year by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, a widely recognized accrediting body for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology.

The partnership with UNC Charlotte, established in 2004, paved the way for WCU to be able to launch the BSE independently, said Beth Tyson-Lofquist ’78 MAEd ’79 EdS ’88, WCU interim provost. “The experiences gained from UNC Charlotte and the ingenuity of the engineering and technology departmental leadership and faculty have fostered the establishment of a program responsive to the region and to WCU’s mission of engagement,” Tyson-Lofquist said. “The engineering instructional activities are orchestrated to provide relevant and authentic learning experiences for students—partnering with businesses and organizations addressing real-world problems and challenges. Being able to segue from the current electrical engineering degree into this new program will allow WCU to design other concentrations in response to regional needs and increase the opportunities for these authentic learning experiences.”

In recent years, WCU has assumed responsibility for offering an increasing portion of the curriculum in its joint BSEE program with UNC Charlotte. For the 2011-12 academic year, all courses in the program were led by faculty from WCU’s Kimmel School. “The number of classes now being offered by UNC Charlotte and the numbers of students being taught by our campus are quite modest,” UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip L. Dubois said in a letter of support for WCU’s stand-alone program. “They no longer justify the administrative costs of running a joint program when that program can be administered effectively by a single campus. I believe that students will be well-served by a simpler structure.”

Only two other UNC institutions currently offer the BSE degree – East Carolina University and N.C. State University.