With research adopted by the U.S. government and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Associate Professor Scott Wolter's proudest achievement was returning to his alma mater to develop the engineering program and teach the next generation of world-changing engineers.
Scott Wolter jokingly brags that he was Elon’s first dual-degree engineering major.
“I graduated from Elon last century,” Wolter, the director of Elon’s dual-degree engineering program, tells students and parents. “I like to tell them that I beat them to the dual-degree, because I got one from Elon and one from N.C. State. It may have taken me a little longer, but I did it.”
Elon University has grown in leaps and bounds since his time as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, but the “old Elon” remains. It’s in the way people are welcomed into the fold, the encouragement of wide and varied student interests, and an appreciation for quality of life, Wolter says. Those were at the heart of Elon College when he graduated in 1985 and are why — whether conducting “rock-star” research into diamond films, patenting security technology for the federal government, or developing ways to keep U.S. military healthy in the field — he longed to return.
Elon was calling him home.
Now back on campus for the better part of a decade and building Elon’s engineering program, he recognizes that the importance of community and the attention to students as more than their majors remain Elon’s greatest assets.
“Year after year, Elon students are so full of energy and have such a passion for learning,” Wolter said. “I love hearing about their interests outside of engineering, like music or athletics, and Elon is very good at enabling students to pursue those interests. I like getting to hang out with them a couple times a week”
Students notice his investment in their success and personal aspirations, remarking affectionately of his enthusiasm and support for their work both within the program, such as engineering’s senior capstone projects, and extracurricular pursuits with the MakerHub and Kickbox programs.
“Everyone in engineering has been so supportive, but Dr. Wolter especially,” said Madison George ’23, whose extracurricular idea for a custom-fitted, 3D-printed pole vaulting shoe, has become her Honors thesis research project and earned notice within the athletic shoe industry. “I was just a first-year student with an idea, and he opened his lab to me and taught me about the materials I could use.”
Wolter’s investment is genuine, and he loves touting students’ accomplishments.
“I would put our engineers up against students at any school,” Wolter said. “They’re smart and they’re gritty. They’re not afraid to do the hard work.”
Wolter knows about hard work and has done it in labs around the world. Elon’s computer science courses with Al Carpenter, the namesake of the Duke Building’s computer science lab, sparked an interest in STEM. After graduating with a degree in business administration and a minor in computer science, his father suggested he consider a career in engineering. Wolter enrolled at N.C. State University and earned a second bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering.
He chose materials science — the interdisciplinary study and design of various materials and their properties — because of the smaller size of that program within a much larger school. That decision was fortuitous. Combining physics and chemistry with engineering, materials science is involved in everything from space travel to computer technology to textiles and medical devices. Wolter became enthralled with studying the structure of man-made materials and how they react to various forces.
“Everyone in engineering has been so supportive, but Dr. Wolter especially. I was just a first-year student with an idea, and he opened his lab to me and taught me about the materials I could use.”
Madison George ’23
“I love the breadth of the field and that I could study almost anything,” Wolter said. “I like the diversity of challenge it offers.”
He remained at N.C. State for his master’s degree, completed his doctorate in materials science at The Pennsylvania State University, and returned to North Carolina for post-doctoral research with N.C. State and the Army Research Office in the Research Triangle Park as a National Research Council Fellow.
In the 1980s, as science pushed for advancements in non-silicon semiconductors, interest grew in the field of man-made diamond films. As part of a team, Wolter presented his research on epitaxial diamond growth around the world. “We were sort of like rock stars,” Wolter said, recalling his invitation to work at a lab in Ulm, Germany.
Since then, he’s been awarded Department of Homeland Security ALERT (Awareness and Localization of Explosives-Related Threats) grants to support the development of advanced X-ray imaging systems for airport security. He is part of a team that received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Sanitation Technology Cluster at Duke University. When the H1N1 flu emerged in 2009, Wolter worked with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a device to determine an individual’s health status in the field by using semi-conductor surfaces to analyze blood samples targeting mRNA. That technology was intended to reduce the spread of disease among active-duty military.
“I would put our engineers up against students at any school. They’re smart and they’re gritty. They’re not afraid to do the hard work.”
Scott Wolter, Associate Professor of Engineering
His experience has taught him that patience is as important as curiosity and hard work.
In 1999, the Elon itch struck when he heard that a dual-degree engineering program had been established. Wolter began making connections with then-program director Rich D’Amato and STEM faculty on campus. It wasn’t until Fall 2012 that he was able to return to Elon teaching circuit analysis as an adjunct while still with Duke University. When an engineering faculty position came open in 2013, he applied and was hired.
That same year, Elon began work toward expanding the dual-degree program and establishing a four-year engineering degree program. Elon’s brand of engineering education — emphasis on design-based curriculum all four years, developing socially and culturally conscious engineers, infusing liberal arts perspectives into engineering concepts — is an innovative model for the field, Wolter said. Teaching is in Wolter’s blood. His mother was a teacher. His twin sister, brother-in-law, and younger sister are all educators and fellow Elon alumni.
“I enjoy engineering a course, putting together a course that will produce the best learning experiences for students,” Wolter said. “I want to get them excited about coming to class every day.
“I want classes to be informal. We can have dialogues. They can stop me on the fly and ask questions. You can tell they’re learning when they’re asking questions.”
As the program continues to grow — hiring for a fifth engineering faculty position in environmental engineering is underway and groundbreaking for the first two buildings in the Innovation Quad is planned for this spring — Wolter is excited for its future. The IQ will add 60,000 square feet of labs, workshops, and classroom spaces for STEM and interdisciplinary programs. He’s also comforted knowing that the “old Elon” of cross-campus collaboration and meaningful relationships — the Elon he treasures — will carry on.
“I’ve enjoyed the ride,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the world and discuss science, to work for the U.S. government and assist in protecting the military, to do research at an R1 university. And then I’ve been able to come back to my alma mater and work with students and be a part of a growing, innovative program with a great team of people.
“I couldn’t script it any better.”