ECU freshman Billy Battersby constructs a robot for his robotics class in the ECU College of Engineering and Technology. The new name was approved April 11 by the UNC Board of Governors. (Photos by Jay Clark).
‘A PERFECT FIT’ Engineering, biomedical program poised for collaboration, service to region
East Carolina University has been building a workforce of teachers, nurses, artists and doctors for decades. Add another fast-growing group to the list of professionals that ECU sends out to serve the region: engineers.
The rapid expansion of ECU’s 10-year-old engineering program has earned it a step up in academic standing. The UNC Board of Governors on April 11 approved renaming the College of Technology and Computer Science to the College of Engineering and Technology. The change had the unanimous support of other engineering programs in North Carolina’s public university system.
ECU students Brandon Gordon, left, and Patrick Williams work on a part while Walter Snead, background, works on the team's robot for a robotics class at ECU.
“One of East Carolina’s primary goals is to serve as a national model for regional transformation. Having a more prominent College of Engineering and Technology lets ECU be the center of influence for technically-driven improvements in our region,” said ECU biomedical engineering student Amos Cao of Greensboro.
A new master’s degree in biomedical engineering within the college also was approved. Biomedical engineering integrates science with biology and medicine to solve clinical problems. The program includes collaboration with ECU Division of Health Sciences faculty.
Cao’s classmate, Megha Sinha, has been developing a non-invasive diagnosis and monitoring protocol for pulmonary hypertension. It’s important work for the region and state, which has some of the highest cardiovascular disease mortality rates in the country, Cao said.
Another research project has included faculty from the College of Nursing in helping to design a monitoring device for hospital patients’ movement to prevent bedsores, said Barbara Muller-Borer, associate professor of engineering.
“Any equipment you interface with at a hospital or doctor’s office, biomedical engineers are involved,” she said.
Adding a master’s degree in biomedical engineering is a good fit for ECU because of its affiliation with health sciences. The graduate program will build on the growing undergraduate program, where students have conducted multidisciplinary research with faculty in dental, physiology, pathology, communication sciences and disorders and nursing, Muller-Borer said.
As part of Cao’s capstone project, he and three other biomedical engineering students worked with ECU faculty member Dr. Bryan Dangott in the Brody School of Medicine Department of Pathology in a yearlong process to develop a computer-based system to improve the accuracy of breast cancer diagnostics.
“I've always had an interest in human health, but I could never see myself being a physician. Pursuing biomedical engineering at ECU has trained me to apply my technical skills to solve the same human health challenges, and has greatly prepared me for graduate level research,” Cao said. “The best part is I genuinely enjoy the hands-on, problem-oriented type of work that all engineers deal with on a daily basis; biomedical engineering just lets me connect this back to my original goal of directly improving people's lives.”
Biomedical engineers are involved in the development of many types of medical procedures and devices, such as prosthesis, pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, dialysis machines and MRI imaging systems. They also are involved in biomedical research and the development of biomaterials, bioelectronics and biomechanics, ranging from tissue generation to bioengineering blood vessels and organs, Muller-Borer said.
Started in 2010, biomedical engineering is the second largest concentration in the engineering department. Jobs in the sector are expected to grow by 27 percent in the next 10 years.
Several seniors plan to apply to the first master’s degree program at ECU, Muller-Borer said. About 50 percent of undergraduate students are going out-of-state to graduate programs, and officials hope to keep some of the students here at ECU. They plan to offer an integrated bachelor and master’s of science in biomedical engineering beginning in 2015 so students can start on graduate work their senior year, she said.
“One thing I’ve pointed out is that ECU is the only university in the UNC system with a medical school, a dental school, a business school and now a College of Engineering,” Muller-Borer said. “That is a real big strength for our program. That’s where our students will get their experience.”
The new name reflects the impressive growth of ECU’s engineering department – from 37 students in 2004 to 521 in 2013. Students can choose from five possible concentrations – biomedical engineering, bioprocess engineering, electrical engineering, industrial and systems engineering and mechanical engineering.
Cao also hopes the name change will increase visibility for a discipline that some people are unaware ECU offers. The university said it plans to eventually double engineering enrollment to 1,000 students.
“ECU's department of engineering has given me the opportunities to succeed in every goal I set for myself, including being admitted to some of the most competitive graduate programs in the country. I wouldn't trade my four years of college experience anywhere else,” said Cao, who will graduate in May. He plans to get a doctorate, continue with postdoctoral research and eventually teach in the future.
ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology already has close to 2,000 students in four departments: engineering, computer science, technology systems and construction management.
A chalkboard in a bio-engineering lab shows the formulas and equipment used in the ECU classroom.
When officials at East Carolina University say the school’s newly named College of Engineering and Technology will boost economic development in eastern North Carolina, people like Lindsey Crisp nod in agreement.
Crisp is president and CEO of Carver Machine Works in Washington, N.C. The high-tech fabrication and welding company serves customers in the aerospace, defense and power generation industries.
Crisp said he’s often asked how his company—given its rural location--finds quality employees.
“I say all the time to our customers that we are in rural eastern North Carolina but we serve customers all across the United States. And then I talk about our relationship with ECU and the engineering school and how that pot of graduates is going to win our business.”
Crisp said he’s hired at least five ECU engineering grads in the last two or three years. “One is our quality engineer, one is the engineering manager in charge of all the company, another is one of our project managers, one is our shop floor supervisor and scheduler.”
He said he likes ECU engineering grads because they bring a problem-solving mindset to the job. “Once we saw their inquisitiveness and attitude, they have been a perfect fit,” Crisp said.
Crisp, himself an ECU graduate in accounting, said several of Carver’s ECU engineers started as interns at the company.
“They've gotten the educational piece of it and then they come here and they get practical experience. You can’t beat that.”
Another plus of hiring ECU engineering graduates, Crisp said, is that they often are from eastern North Carolina themselves, “so they tend to remain here for several years.”
Hayden Griffin Jr., professor and chair of the ECU Department of Engineering, said his graduates are attracting notice in the business world and in academia.
“Our students are finding good internships and co-op experiences,” said Griffin said. “Our graduates are getting good jobs and attending some of the best graduate schools in the world.”
ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard said enrollment growth in the engineering program reflects the interests of students and the needs of employers in the region.
“Clearly, this program has tapped into student and employer need, particularly in eastern North Carolina,” Ballard wrote in an op-ed article published recently by the Greenville Daily Reflector.
Ballard wrote that about 95 percent of ECU’s engineering graduates are offered jobs within 90 days of graduation, and about 65 percent of graduates stay in North Carolina — with about half of those working in eastern North Carolina.
Griffin said elevating the engineering program to the college level “will allow us to take this program to the next level.”
David White, dean of the College of Engineering and Technology, said the move sends a clear message to companies considering locating here.
“Our economic development partners inform us that our new name … is important for promoting economic prosperity in the east, which is consistent with our university mission. This name sends a message to prospective business and industry that we can provide the engineering-related talent they need.”
Keihin Carolina System Technology in Tarboro, an automotive electronics manufacturer, is another company that has provided internships to several ECU engineering and technology students and then hired many of them once they graduated.
“ECU has done an exceptional job of preparing their students for today’s employment opportunities,” said Batt Masterson, Keihin’s senior manager of technical operations. “We have been able to hire many of our interns upon graduation with confidence in the abilities they will bring to our organization.”
Connie Hunt, Keinin’s human resources manager, said ECU engineering students have desirable skills.
“They have a good understanding of our equipment and the lean manufacturing skills they are taught have been successful in improving efficiency and cost in many areas of our facility,” Hunt said.
Hiring qualified engineering graduates “that are residing at our back door” has produced a more stable workforce, Hunt said. “Our turnover has improved with the hiring of local students. It is a win-win for both us,” he said.
Keihin made a $100,000 donation to ECU’s electronics lab and funds a $20,000 scholarship for students transferring from Edgecombe Community College to ECU’s engineering program.