The short history of the engineering department at Elon University began well after many current students were born, but the program has expanded to annually accept 80 students, each interested in indulging their curious outlook on solving the world’s advanced problems with their inventive minds.

The department offers a dual-degree program where students start off at Elon for three years, where they study both introductory engineering material and take coursework for an Elon degree in an area complimentary to their intended discipline.

The students then transfer to a partner institution for two years to complete their degree.
This idea was the brainchild of Associate Professor Emeritus Richard D’Amato just after he moved from a position at Jacksonville University to Elon in 1999.  He immediately saw an opportunity to expand Elon’s science program initiatives to attract technically-minded students and began to develop a framework for an engineering program, which had never been brought up in the past.

The inspiration — and many of his ideas — came from Jacksonville’s program.
“The school gave us a head-start by giving us office space within the chemistry department. It was small, but it helped us grow a humble program,” D’Amato said.

The program quickly grew from a few people to a couple dozen. The programs offered at the time were engineering physics, engineering math, computer science, computer engineering, environmental science, environmental engineering, chemistry and chemical engineering. Maintaining an intimate atmosphere was becoming harder for him to do alone.

Work space and the workload also became a luxury and a necessity. D’Amato hired Sirena Hargrove-Leak, associate professor of engineering, in 2004. She is currently co-directing the engineering program. The two set their sights on the basement, originally occupied by the physical therapy department, as a potential place to expand. After that department moved into the Francis Center, discussions about who should occupy the space quickly resulted in the growth of the engineering program.

The hands-on workspaces were still constricted to broom closets — the roomiest solution at the time — so D’Amato took the initiative to slowly urge Elon to construct an ancillary facility designed for engineering projects. After a few years, the family of a former Elon student gifted the university with enough funds to build the Hampl Engineering Workshop. It has been used for classes and extracurricular engineering projects ever since.

In 2007, Elon hired Dr. Scott Wolter, associate professor of engineering, who is now co-directing the program with Hargrove-Leak. Then in 2014, Elon hired Christopher Arena, assistant professor of engineering, in an effort to further expand the selection of engineering majors offered to include biophysics and biomedical engineering.

“We plan to focus on the retention of the students attending and outreach in the community to encourage the next generation of engineers” Hargrove-Leak said.

Having a liberal arts background in the world of engineering assists students in encouraging a broader focus of education outside of their field of study and help grow supplementary skill sets.

Two scholarships are also offered annually to high-achieving students for “merit-based accomplishments”, each worth $7000.
As for the future, they are working to give the option for students to stay on-campus to receive their engineering degree with the integration of a four-year program, for which new faculty must be hired and new courses must be introduced.

“We’re also pursuing official accreditation of the engineering program. That comes with a full set of requirements. Among those is having enough faculty members to cover all of the content,” she said.

A focus in the hiring process for new staff in this four-year program is in biomedical, computer and environmental engineering, with a possibility for industrial engineering.

Finding enough space is a challenge D’Amato says was an issue from the start.

“Ever since we built the McMichael building, we’ve always needed more space, but never had enough to go around,” he said.“Launching the engineering program was hard enough, but expanding it without more space? Forget about it.”
“We need additional space for a capstone design experience,” Hargrove-Leak said. “As a chemical engineer student, my capstone experience took place in a room outfitted similar to a small chemical plant, with full-size equipment. Our space is not sufficient.”

They plan on launching a general engineering program that lays the groundwork for the basic engineering concepts and provides outlying electives for the concentrations.

Predicting the future growth of the program is tricky, but Hargrove-Leak is confident in the department’s ability to move forward her initiatives.

“I expect the growth of the program to slow down in the initial phases. Our courses will probably be under-enrolled for a short time. We will hopefully get to the point where the classes will be filled and all of the courses reach capacity.”

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