Leaders get ‘sneak peek’ at expanded engineering program at Biltmore Park

More than 100 people representing Western North Carolina business and industry, community colleges, economic development groups, government officials – and even a prospective student or two – enjoyed a “sneak peek” Wednesday, April 16, of Western Carolina University’s expanded undergraduate engineering program, coming this fall to the Asheville-Hendersonville area.

Guests at the event peered through a window to glimpse the construction now underway to convert nearly 11,000 square feet of former retail space on the ground floor at 28 Schenck Parkway in Biltmore Park Town Square to engineering laboratories and classrooms scheduled to open in August.

Expansion of WCU’s engineering degree was made possible through more than $1.4 million included in the state budget for the 2013-15 biennium. N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), who is credited by university officials with ensuring that the state budget included funds for expansion of WCU’s program, called the arrival of engineering to the fast-growing Interstate 26 corridor between Asheville and Hendersonville “a special day.”

“When you go to Raleigh, you just hope to be able to do something back home to make it worthwhile. I can’t tell you how worthwhile today is for me,” Apodaca said. “I think we are fulfilling our mission. I think engineering is at the forefront of economic development for Western North Carolina, especially in this Interstate 26 corridor where we are now.”

Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher characterized the expansion of undergraduate education from the existing Cullowhee-based program to WCU’s instructional site at Biltmore Park as “a game-changer” for WNC.

“It is so because we know that one of the keys to a region’s economic development is close proximity to an institution of higher education that offers engineering. We know that our industry and business partners in Asheville, Hendersonville and the surrounding area are in real need of the type of skills provided by a general engineering degree, such as the one that we will be offering here,” Belcher said.

The majority of students who will enroll in the program are expected to come from the ranks of working professionals who have earned two-year degrees at a WNC community college and who are looking to move up in their careers, he said. “These are fathers and mothers. They are husbands and wives who want to continue in their jobs while seeking the additional education needed to help them advance, but who don’t want to or cannot leave this area to go elsewhere to get that four-year degree,” Belcher said.

The approval of funding from the state enabled WCU to seek a $500,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation that is being used to help expand engineering education across WNC through a partnership with regional community colleges. The grant 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.

Dan Gerlach, president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, said the grant awarded to WCU fits with his foundation’s mission “to help transform the economy of rural tobacco-dependent economically distressed areas of our state.”

“One of the ways that we must do this is by realizing that manufacturing is not only our past, but it is our future and it is our present,” Gerlach said. “What we do is we look at the needs of industry, and perhaps no other institution of higher education in this state does this as well as Western Carolina University. It says, ‘what do you need to help our graduates, to help our future graduates, to help the families of this region, get the jobs and living wages they need so they can enjoy the high quality of life of the Western North Carolina mountains.’”

James Zhang, dean of WCU’s Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology, where the university’s engineering program is housed, said expanding engineering offerings to better serve the needs of the people of WNC is an alignment of the vision and mission of WCU, the Kimmel School and the University of North Carolina system.

“Delivering the engineering program to Biltmore Park is a demonstration and a commitment to this region and to its people on the part of political leaders, economic development leaders, institutional leaders and all of us here today,” Zhang said. “It enables us to better serve the students, especially the working professionals, in this region. It enables us to better serve and engage with the industries of this region. And it enables us to better communicate and work with our sister schools and community colleges in the region.”

Carolyn Coward, a member of the WCU Board of Trustees, invited guests at the sneak peek to climb aboard “the Western Carolina University train” in remarks peppered with puns noting the different meanings of the word engineer. “Our ‘engineer’ is none other than Chancellor David Belcher, who along with the tremendous staff and faculty, is engineering a new frontier for Western Carolina students,” Coward said.

She commended university leaders for having “not only the ability and enthusiasm to generate the kind of support to establish WCU programs such as this engineering program, but also the foresight to engineer the kind of programs that will continue to address the academic and economic needs of Western North Carolina.”

To close the event, Zhang presented Apodaca, Gerlach and representatives of WCU with a specially designed souvenir engineered by faculty members at the Kimmel School. Featuring a square base with three diamond-shaped pieces that fit together, the metal keepsake represents the type of prototype that WCU engineering students soon will be able to create using equipment purchased by funds from the Golden LEAF Foundation.

Zhang said the three diamond shapes represent advancing careers, educating the workforce and creating opportunities. “None of these pieces can stand alone, but when you put these three pieces together, it becomes a very strong unit and a symbol of our commitment to the region,” he said.

For more information about engineering education at WCU, visit the website engineering.wcu.edu.

Western Carolina University architect Galen May (center) prepares to give a hard hat tour of new engineering classrooms and labs to N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca (at left) and other guests during a “sneak peak” event at Biltmore Park.

Western Carolina University architect Galen May (center) prepares to give a hard hat tour of new engineering classrooms and labs to N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca (at left) and other guests during a “sneak peak” event at Biltmore Park.