Engineering program booming after just four years

On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year out of the last six. The university also anticipates being able to officially report growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in this incredible momentum.

Today, we cover our College of Engineering and Technology and its upstart engineering program, which has grown from 24 students in 2013 to 168 in 2016.

As Western Carolina University prepares to celebrate another year of record-breaking enrollment, Jeff Ray, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology, will have his own little celebration going on.

The engineering program is expecting to see a fourth consecutive year of growth as one of WCU’s newest majors continues to thrive.

“Since I got here three years ago, we really are seeing an increase in engineering every year,” Ray said. “Like the university, we’ll break a record, too, as far as the college as it relates to engineering.”

In 2012, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors authorized WCU to begin offering a bachelor of science degree in engineering as a stand-alone program. Prior to that, WCU offered a joint bachelor’s degree program in electrical engineering, the BSEE, with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, while also providing programs in engineering technology. The engineering program now has three concentrations – mechanical, manufacturing and electric power.

The first students (24 to be exact) enrolled in the new BSE in the fall of 2013. The program has increased each year, growing to 168 to start the 2016-17 school year. May’s commencement ceremonies featured the first eight graduates of the program.

Overall the College of Engineering and Technology this year could see an increase of up to 200 students this year, Ray said. Last year, he said the total number of students in the college was around 700.

Among the factors leading to the college’s growth is the project-based learning approach, the quality of faculty and staff and the high demand from the workforce in the engineering and technology fields, Ray said.

WCU is the only college or university in North Carolina that is accredited in both engineering and technology by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology, he said.

Because the engineering and technology programs are hands-on, Ray said students are well prepared when they enter the workforce.

“They make it, test it, put it into practice,” Ray said. “The one common thing for all of our students, and we hear this from our employers, is our students are ready to hit the ground running. They’re ready to do something the first day they go to work.”

Faculty members are required to have industry experience as engineers, which give students a unique perspective.

“That makes a difference in their education,” Ray said. “You don’t see that at a lot of larger institutions. It’s that fostering, mentoring attitude that the faculty bring to the classroom, and their perspective outside the classroom.”

Students receive hands-on experience through the Rapid Center, a university-based research and development center. At the Rapid Center, faculty and staff work with business partners primarily in the Southeast to address their specific needs. Students work to find solutions to those problems during the two-semester senior capstone project.

Last year’s name change also has brought more recognition to the program, going from the Kimmel School of School of Construction Management and Technology to the College of Engineering and Technology. Ray said putting engineering in the title helped put the program on the map.

The next step for growth is to increase enrollment in the engineering program at the Biltmore Park instructional site, which Ray is expecting to see in the fall of 2018. When the program began there in 2014, there was no two-year feeder program to draw students from.

A recent collaboration with the state of North Carolina, the community college system and the engineering programs in the UNC system created an associate of engineering degree. Now students in the Asheville area can go to Asheville-Buncombe Technical College or Blue Ridge Community College, obtain an associate of engineering degree, transfer to WCU and, in two years, get their bachelor of engineering degree.

The Biltmore Park instructional site is within commuting distance for many prospective students along the Interstate 16 corridor at Buncombe and Henderson counties, Ray said. Factor in the $500 in-state tuition of NC Promise taking effect next fall and, “that’s a value,” Ray said. “That’s affordability and accessibility of an engineering degree right there on I-26 for anybody that goes through that program. It’s a direct 2 plus 2. I think we’ll see the Biltmore Park program take off.”

Much like WCU’s total enrollment has.