From the Classroom


What Does an ECU
Engineer Learn?

Paul Kauffmann designed a program that helps students

see real-world applications in what they’re learning.
Compared to other engineering schools, ECU students
take about
twice as many lab courses

By Steve Row

ECU engineering students test chemicals in a bioprocess lab.

s with so many other academic endeavors at East Carolina University, the question about the engineering program is not so much “Why are you offering this?” as it is “Why didn’t you do this 25 years ago?” Engineering, which admitted its first students in 2004, is graduating only its second class in May. But for Department of Engineering Chair Paul Kauffmann, getting to this point has taken his whole life.

East Carolina’s engineering program, which had 22 graduates this year, is tiny compared to, say, N.C. State University, which is the state’s largest and had 420. But ECU’s program is unique because its vision is different. Kauffmann, who came here in 2003 to help get the program started, and his colleagues did not set out to reinvent the wheel; they were interested in turning out engineers who could quickly make a positive impact because of the breadth of their expertise and skills in the modern workplace.

Instead of offering the traditional concentrations of civil, electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering, the ECU program, which is housed within the College of Technology and Computer Science, focuses on slightly more exotic fields such as biomedical and bioprocess engineering, systems engineering and engineering management. ECU considers its department a general engineering program, one of about three dozen in the U.S.

ECU’s engineering program offers concentrations in biomedical engineering and bioprocess engineering, specialties that fit in with a region still heavily dependent on agriculture but one that is also served by a top-level medical school and hospital. Engineering processes and systems can help develop better ways to process food and pharmaceutical products, as well as advance medical research and treatment with the latest technology and equipment.

ECU’s program also takes a different approach to academics. Rather than learn only the history of engineering or basic engineering theory in the first semester, for example, students take an engineering graphics course. During their second semester, freshman engineering students split into teams build auto-guided robotic vehicles that can negotiate a maze, sense a flame and extinguish it.

Dr. Jason Yao, an assistant professor, calls this course the “Pirate Challenge,” and said it represents “a unique introduction to engineering” taught by the ECU faculty members and not graduate students. Students design and build a three-wheeled vehicle with sensors, guided not by a remote-control device but programmed through circuitry.

The ECU approach to teaching engineering is practical and applications-based, which means more of a hands-on way of learning. Theory is taught, but helping students see real-world applications of different types of engineering is what matters. The ECU approach, unlike that in many other schools, teaches students about materials, circuits, thermodynamics and engineering graphics early in the curriculum, Kauffmann says, and “we have about twice as many lab experiences [than more traditional engineering programs], because we believe in an applications-based curriculum.”

From seminary to a slide rule

Kauffmann brings a wealth of real-world engineering experience to ECU, although he did not enter college planning to be an engineer. As a youngster growing up in Richmond, he played with Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs and Erector sets, but he started out as a philosophy major at St. Charles College in Baltimore, heading toward seminary. Then he transferred to Virginia Tech and switched to engineering.

“It was time for a 180-degree switch. I had enough New Testament, Greek and Latin, so I thought about engineering,” he said. He chose electrical engineering, in part, because his mother had predicted that “computers might become a big thing.” He also had worked one summer as a millwright’s helper, a manufacturing-related job “that had way too much dust.”

After graduating from Virginia Tech in 1971 with a degree in electrical engineering, he began a career in Philip Morris USA’s Virginia and Kentucky operations. He earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Tech in 1976. He rose to plant manager of the York Engineering Center near Williamsburg, where he worked from 1984 to ’89; and director of machine design engineering in Richmond from 1989 to ’92.

Kauffmann then left the corporate world to become associate professor and acting chairman of the Division of Business, Engineering and Technology at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va., where he stayed for five years. After earning his doctorate in industrial engineering from Penn State in 1997, he went to Old Dominion and became chairman of the Department of Engineering Technology in 2001.

His research has received grants from the NASA Langley Research Center, Green Virginia Ethanol Project and, more recently, the National Science Foundation, a $1.4 million grant to develop more application-based teaching of biomechanics and robotics in rural schools’ math and science classes.

Setting goals, aiming high

“We have a particular mission to serve those in the eastern part of North Carolina, and we want our students who become engineers to stay in the East, help build a better economy and make the region more economically competitive.”

Kauffmann says he has several goals for ECU’s engineering program but the primary one is making sure his students survive freshman year. “We’d like to get freshmen to their junior year,” he says, adding that the program has about a 50 percent retention rate, similar to most other university engineering programs.

“We want to get students to live and work together in Jones Hall, in what we call an ‘engineering learning community,’ to help build and establish a sense of camaraderie. A freshman ‘survival’ course, Engineering 1000, is going to help develop complementary study skills.”

What Kauffmann and his colleagues under­estimated in getting the program started is the fact that many incoming students aren’t as prepared for the rigors and discipline of an engineering program as perhaps they should be. Kauffmann says shortcomings in math and science are evident, although Yao points out that in the four short years since ECU’s program started, engineering students’ “competence, interest level and attitude all are getting stronger.”

Kauffmann foresees a time when the ECU engineering program will number about 700 students, and he thinks advanced degrees are likely, such as a master’s degree in bioengineering or biomedical engineering. Meanwhile, the program continues evolving and receiving outside advice about curriculum from a 30-member professional advisory board. The board is composed of local leaders as well as representatives from NASA Langley, Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., and engineering firms near Washington, D.C. 

Dr. Loren Limberis, an assistant professor, says the department’s core curriculum “has been adjusted to better fit what we perceive the student needs to learn at the right time.” This re-evaluation led to moving the robot design and construction project from the first semester to the second semester, which Limberis says lets students “feel ownership of a multi-week project through design and application.”

The department plans to combine systems engineering and engineering management into one concentration soon and hopes to gain approval for a mechanical engineering concentration, perhaps as early as the fall of 2009. Additional concentrations might be added in other more traditional fields, if enrollment grows as projected. The department, now in Slay Building, might need new quarters in the future, too, as enrollment increases.

Kauffmann believes the program is poised to generate increased recognition and visibility, and he says the future is bright. “We have a better, more capable faculty than I thought we would have at this point,” he says. “Our facilities are great. We just spent $1 million on lab equipment.”

“We have a particular mission to serve those in the eastern part of North Carolina, and we want our students who become engineers to stay in the East, help build a better economy and make the region more economically competitive,” he says.

“In the past, we (in engineering education) have been driving the car by looking at the rear-view mirror. Instead, we want to look forward. For a world with highly technical demands, we want to determine what are the job fields out there that will need our engineering students in the E ast, and in North Carolina as a whole.”