Elon engineering sets milestone, graduates first 4-year class

Nearly a decade in the making, an engineering program that beats with Elon's heart for service and problem-solving is growing by leaps and bounds.

As Skylar Barthelmes, Matt Foster and Ryan Sienerth received their bachelor of science degrees in Engineering on Friday, they looked ahead with bright hopes and potential as the first graduates of Elon’s four-year engineering degree program.

Their conferral turned a page for Elon engineering, ushering in a new chapter of growth and achievement, promising that they will be the first of many to come.

“It’s nice to know we’re getting a degree that’s growing in prestige,” Foster said, “It will hold more weight as time goes on and Elon’s engineering program grows.”

Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak presents at Elon’s Teaching and Learning Conference about integrating service learning into STEM courses. 

Foster’s confidence comes from watching engineering take root during his four years at Elon, working closely with faculty, and seeing undergraduates flourish in the program. As Elon looks toward Boldly Elon — the 10-year strategic plan that will include the construction of the Innovation Quad to house engineering and STEM departments that have outgrown McMichael Science Center — faculty reflected on the years of planning and work behind Friday’s milestone and looked toward future success.

“It’s been a journey,” said Associate Professor of Engineering Sirena Hargrove-Leak, who serves as director of the four-year program. “I’m honored to do this work. At the same time, I never envisioned myself doing this work, establishing a program and crafting a curriculum. I’m amazed and gratified every day, but seeing the outcomes in students is what’s most gratifying.”

It took nearly a decade of deliberate planning by committees, campuswide input, and guidance from Elon’s president’s and provost’s offices and deans of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, to launch the four-year program in fall 2018.

Associate Professor of Engineering Scott Wolter recalls arriving at Elon in 2013 for his first semester as a faculty member and immediately becoming involved in meetings and discussions around establishing engineering degree programs at Elon.

At the time, Elon offered a dual-degree engineering program, requiring undergraduates to take three years of liberal arts and STEM courses at Elon before transferring to a partner institution’s engineering school for two years of additional courses. The dual-degree program is still thriving, with students earning two undergraduate degrees within five years.

The original work of a committee led by now-retired Professor of Computer Science Dave Powell — aimed at advancing targeted engineering degrees like at other institutions — allowed faculty and campus leaders to design an Elon brand of engineering education. Such a program would hold Elon’s strengths of service, engagement and experiential learning at its core, encouraging undergraduates to engage the liberal arts with engineering principles.

Rich Blackmon, assistant professor of engineering, and junior Brittany Barton demonstrate the optical coherence tomography laser imaging system they are researching. the technology could one day be used to instantly detect cancer cells and destroy them, Blackmon hopes.

The resultant program “embraces our mission as an institution that is focused on relationship-driven experiential education,” said Gabie Smith, dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences.

That curriculum includes yearly hands-on Grand Challenges courses, drawing from the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges facing humanity in the 21st century — such as clean water access, engineering the tools of scientific discovery, and enhancing cybersecurity. At other institutions, those projects are often left for seniors and advanced engineering students.

“Everyone wants an engineering program that fits into the fabric of Elon,” Wolter said. “We started putting together the curriculum almost four years ago. We crafted what the actual coursework would look like and created academic plans.”

Elon’s four-year curriculum offers students the option to concentrate on areas of engineering, including computer and biomedical engineering. Every student engineer is required to take the Engineering Design for Service course, which teams students with clients from the community to design and prototype solutions to improve their quality of life.

“Students are provided ongoing opportunities to work closely with faculty as they collaborate on engineering solutions for the challenges facing our society,” Smith said. “Elon’s commitment to engaged learning, through undergraduate research, internships, global study, service-learning and leadership, is an essential part of the engineering student experience.”

Crafting the four-year program came with the goal of ABET accreditation, a signifier of an engineering program’s quality and value to employers. Hargrove-Leak recalled the guidance and commitment of Elon’s Computer Science faculty, who participated in the ABET accreditation process some years ago, as instrumental in helping steer the engineering program curriculum toward that target.

Assistant Professor of Engineering Jonathan Su.

Now under Hargrove-Leak’s leadership, Elon engineering is amid the ABET accreditation process and this winter was recommended to proceed in the organization’s accreditation 2020-21 cycle. Due to COVID-19, the ABET review team has postponed some institutional accreditations. A campus visit by the accreditation review team is expected in 2021 after Elon submits a self-study next year.

Paired with a dedicated crafting of curriculum, Elon hired faculty to strengthen the program. Assistant professors Richard Blackmon and Jonathan Su brought their expertise in biomedical and mechanical engineering with a passion for teaching to McMichael Science Center. Last fall, Matthew Banks became the engineering program’s first lab manager.

“I personally am very proud of my fellow engineering faculty and the way they’ve developed as strong faculty members, assuming responsibilities and taking on leadership,” Wolter said. “I can see their passion for this program. They’re looking forward. Everyone is looking forward and progressing.”

That progress has brought growth. As of this writing, 52 incoming students had been accepted to the engineering program — its largest-ever incoming class — and Elon launched the Engineering Scholars program this spring and will pilot its first 16- to 20-member cohort this fall. As many as nine seniors are expected to graduate from the program in 2021, followed by more than 20 in 2022.

Wolter is grateful to the many faculty across disciplines who gave time, energy and input toward Elon engineering’s curriculum and missions.

“Everyone has been very insightful. They ask the right questions and that makes us think about our program from a different vantage point. All those discussions have only strengthened the engineering program,” Wolter said.

“We are a part of Elon, and I think that’s what makes it interesting: To start an engineering program so small and develop it to meet the needs of this 21st century.”