Grant directed at engineering education in WNC

Western Carolina University is the recipient of a $500,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation to help expand engineering education across Western North Carolina through a partnership with regional community colleges.

The funding will support WCU’s efforts to ensure a seamless transition for community college students who want to earn four-year degrees in engineering through the implementation of engineering pathway courses at community colleges and the recruitment of qualified students into the program.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical, Blue Ridge and Isothermal community colleges are initial partners in the effort, which will eventually include WNC community colleges from Rutherfordton in the east to Murphy in the west.

The grant, awarded out of the foundation’s Essential Skills in Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, will help produce qualified workers for manufacturers, including some of the region’s largest private-sector employers, said Dan Gerlach, Golden LEAF president.

“The grants awarded under this initiative will provide citizens from tobacco-dependent, economically distressed and rural communities with access to skills training for high-wage jobs, connect the state’s industries with the skilled workers they need and upgrade the capacity of our training institutions,” Gerlach said. “North Carolina leads the Southeast in manufacturing jobs, with more than 18 percent of the rural workforce earning $8.5 billion in manufacturing wages.”

The funding will provide support for Western Carolina’s recently announced undergraduate program in engineering at its instructional site at Biltmore Park Town Square, and will supplement advanced manufacturing engineering education on the campus in Cullowhee, said James Zhang, dean of WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.

During the past legislative session, the N.C. General Assembly approved a budget that includes more than $1.4 million for expansion of WCU’s engineering program to Biltmore Park. The appropriation was designed to enhance education opportunities in the fast-growing corridor between Asheville and Hendersonville to help meet increasing industry and business demand for a highly qualified workforce.

University officials have credited N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, who represents constituents in Buncombe, Henderson and Polk counties, with ensuring that the state budget included funds to bring WCU’s engineering program expansion to the Biltmore Park instructional site. WCU expects to begin offering engineering classes there in the fall of 2014.

“This grant is key to strengthening the linkage between WCU and Western North Carolina community colleges and industries, as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at high schools in our region,” Zhang said.

“These funds also will greatly assist us in our work with our community college partners to develop short-term training courses to meet the immediate needs of industry in the region,” he said.

Funds from the foundation also will enable the acquisition of a new piece of equipment – a selective laser melting apparatus – that will enable students to gain hands-on experience working with 3-D printers that are capable of creating metal prototypes of objects, adding to WCU’s current inventory of 3-D printers that create prototypes in plastic and resins.

The equipment will be housed in the university’s Center for Rapid Product Realization. The “engagement arm” of the Kimmel School, the Rapid Center provides technical assistance to companies, organizations and entrepreneurs through faculty expertise and hands-on learning activities for students.

“By locating this new equipment in Cullowhee, located in the middle of the region that we serve, we will have the opportunity to provide education and training to engineers from all over Western North Carolina,” Zhang said.

GoldenLEAFlogo-RThe Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1999 to help transform North Carolina’s economy through grants made possible by a portion of the state’s settlement agreement with cigarette manufacturers.

For more information about engineering at WCU, visit the website