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Building Careers, Building Communities: The Citadel’s Mechanical Engineering Program Paying Dividends for the Lowcountry and Beyond

When The Citadel’s nationally-recognized School of Engineering added a mechanical engineering program in 2014, expectations were high with a growing manufacturing region demanding mechanical engineers and a $1.3 million allocation by the South Carolina Legislature. Now four years later, the program has quickly grown into one of the most popular majors on campus and is custom-made to supply the talent desperately needed for South Carolina’s booming manufacturing industries.

Moving Parts

After receiving approval from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education in late 2013, The Citadel moved quickly to establish its mechanical engineering program on campus. When the department head of mechanical engineering, Col. Robert Rabb, U.S. Army (retired), arrived in January 2014, he envisioned building a comprehensive program that fully supported the career progression of students. "Through faculty role modeling, mechanical engineering graduates continue to grow intellectually and professionally through participation in professional society activities, continuing engineering education, graduate studies, and self-study during their professional career," said Rabb. "This leads to enhancing their professional development, broadening their perspectives, and enriching their lives."

Rabb’s goal in coordinating the infrastructure of the program was to integrate it among the other engineering programs already offered by The Citadel. Since the college’s founding in 1842, engineering has been a bulwark of The Citadel’s educational landscape, and Rabb’s mission was to use the mechanical engineering major to strengthen the offerings of the entire School of Engineering. To support the new program, the South Carolina Legislature designated $1.305 million to purchase necessary equipment and fund some minor construction and renovation.

"We built a fabrication shop that includes wood and metal working machines and project space," said Rabb. "This met the manufacturing needs of the program and expanded the capability of all of our engineering programs on campus."

The legislature’s funding was judiciously used to lay the foundation and carefully build the program. To make use of available resources and space, the funds also paid to upgrade an existing electrical engineering lab and two civil engineering labs to be more robust and meet mechanical engineering needs. A new 5,000 industrial autoclave was recently installed in an outfitted composites lab. The new equipment will enable the mechanical engineering program to be one of the few in the country where students can design, build and then repair composite materials.

"The autoclave allows our faculty and students to participate with other institutions and organizations as part of the South Carolina Research Authority’s Feasibility Assessment Collaboration Team," said Rabb. "Our students and faculty can research and investigate composite materials development, characterization and testing. Lightweight, high-strength and high-stiffness composite materials have been identified as a key crosscutting technology in U.S. manufacturing." By completing some of the same work they will do in the field, engineering students gain a considerable advantage. "Graduates will be able to apply and operate current engineering and analysis tools and equipment to solve the problems facing a technologically complex society," noted Rabb.

Engineers Needed

When economic forecasters look to the future of Lowcountry industry, they see manufacturing. The engineering-related job market in the Charleston area has exploded in recent years, including a dramatic increase in the need for mechanical engineers. The Charleston Regional Competitiveness Center forecasts that by 2018, there will be a 16.4 percent growth (equating to 7,200 new jobs) in the engineering field in the Lowcountry. In addition, the center’s 2016 to 2021 forecast lists aerospace manufacturing as the highest growth industry and the top industry creating the most new jobs in the Charleston region. This information mirrors the Department of Labor’s statistics that place a 12-month growth rate for manufacturing in Charleston at 25.4 percent.

South Carolina industries, especially Charleston-based companies, looking to hire local talent and train their existing workforce have driven the need for expanded engineering education opportunities. There is an ongoing growth of current and new companies providing engineering support and products for the rapidly expanding Lowcountry manufacturing hub, with employers spanning the areas of health care, aviation, defense applications, power systems, telecommunications, transportation, manufacturing, testing, and data centers, among others.

Some local manufacturing industries need employees with advanced degrees and offer flexible work hours and pay as motivation for their employees to pursue degrees or certificates. The availability of The Citadel’s mechanical engineering program is a valuable benefit for local employees, military members and veterans, and the program supports not only improved technical competence and company advancement, but also promotion opportunities for the current workforce.

"The Citadel School of Engineering has worked tirelessly to pivot to the demands of the regional and national market," said Page Tisdale, director of The Citadel Career Center. "For example, while our South Carolina Corp of Cadets makes up a large number of our engineering students, we have evening, 2+2, and certificate programs that quickly fill with students seeking a challenge to help them improve their professional options." The Citadel offers the only undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering in the immediate area.

Built to Specification

Boasting 330 students in the fall of 2017, The Citadel’s mechanical engineering program has grown in the last four years into fully developed undergraduate and graduate degrees offering focused tracks in manufacturing, power and energy, aeronautical systems, materials (composites), and mechatronics. In the fall of 2016, the program went through its initial visit by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and was granted accreditation for six years. In addition to cadets and veterans, students pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering include evening students who transfer from Trident Technical College and other schools and who often work while taking classes. Once they graduate, many stay in the local area and continue to contribute to the community. The Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree attracts both recent graduates and mid-level employees of Lowcountry companies who are working to improve their current skill set.

For both degrees, the program is focused on giving students hands-on training that allows them to graduate with career skills and with jobs already lined up. Many of the students obtain internships with local industries as well as national level research labs, often leading to employment offers. "We often have students interning in the field after their freshman year," said Tisdale. In addition to internships, students have the opportunity to attend national conferences to present their research and focus on projects that inspire them. For example, within its third year, the program entered into its first Mini-Baja competition, which involved designing and building a small off-road car.

The Department of Mechanical Engineering now has eight faculty members, all having won awards in their fields and having national or international publication records. Three are registered professional engineers, while three serve in regional or national-level leadership positions within professional societies. Having an engaged faculty who are experts in their field has been pivotal for enriching students through mentorship. "The mechanical engineering program develops the knowledge and attitudes necessary for critical thinking, professional expertise and skills to enhance economic productivity, and a commitment to lifelong learning demonstrated by advanced schooling and professional engineer licensure," said Rabb.

Finished Product

Four years after its founding, The Citadel’s undergraduate mechanical engineering program is on track to have over 50 graduates in May 2018. As of summer 2017, all graduates of the program had employment or were heading to graduate school within two months of graduation. The numbers speak for themselves.

"Our students are in demand," said Tisdale. "While our at-graduation employment rate exceeds 80 percent, the employment rate in our engineering program is very close to 100 percent within weeks of graduation."

According to Tisdale, the employer-to-engineering student ratio at job fairs is three to one on average, and employer and recruiting events close out in record time. "While we never like to turn employers away, we are often able to make sure we have the best, most competitive opportunities to present to our students," said Tisdale. "As a result of the demand, we have added additional staff to help support this growth and increase the number of competitive internship opportunities for our students earlier in their academic careers. This gives them the experience needed to have more options at graduation."

For both mechanical engineering graduates and the wider community, the prospects are promising indeed.

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A Closer Look at Four Soon-to-Graduate Citadel Mechanical Engineering Students

The Planner

When Charleston native David Sass was young, he loved building with Lego blocks and always wanted the biggest and most complicated sets available. Today, he is finishing up his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and helping to support a $500 million construction project as an intern at the Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in Ladson. He credits The Citadel’s program for making it possible.

"This program was a great opportunity to take classes from my home in Charleston," said Sass. "The commute is short, and there are plenty of jobs available to gain experience from while in school. The evening program was a great way to simultaneously gain work experience and finish my degree."

After high school, Sass initially wanted to pursue a degree in physics but was unsure what he would do with such a degree. Switching to mechanical engineering soon after, he enrolled in the 2+2 program, finishing his degree at The Citadel. "After hearing The Citadel had started a new mechanical engineering program, I knew where I wanted to get my degree," said Sass. "Since I first walked on campus, I have had the lasting impression that the faculty and staff want every student to be successful after graduation."

Having the support of the faculty has been particularly meaningful to Sass. "Every professor in the engineering department has been outstanding, but Dr. Howison has stood out in particular," said Sass. "He understands the material he teaches at a very high level, yet he is able to explain it in a way that the entire class can understand." Sass was initially hesitant about taking aerodynamics, but under Howison, it has become his favorite course. "The subject matter is quite difficult, but Dr. Howison has done a fantastic job of making the material palatable and understandable in real world scenarios," said Sass.

Sass has been impressed with the wide range of opportunities available to him at The Citadel. "Currently, I am working with my senior design group in developing a Green Gym concept," said Sass. "The idea we have been working on has some marketable potential and has been entered into The Citadel’s Bulldog Business Bowl. My team and I are very excited to see how far this idea will go." Having the chance to gain leadership experience through teamwork has also been an enormous benefit. "Working on labs with a team has helped me more than anything," said Sass. "The collaboration necessary to complete a shared goal is something that I have used during my internship and will continue to use during my professional career."

Having started his mechanical engineering internship in January 2017, Sass explains how it has given him great experience and insight into what he can expect later in his professional career. "This experience has opened doors and given me the confidence to pursue larger opportunities," said Sass. "I was fortunate enough to receive a job offer from SPAWAR during my first semester of my senior year and will start after I graduate in May 2018. This job offer was a huge weight off my shoulders and was largely due to the advantageous position that The Citadel faculty has placed me in."

For Sass, the faculty and the program overall have been the key to accessing the many opportunities available to mechanical engineers. "I cannot say enough about the faculty here. Dr. Rabb, my advisor, has done an outstanding job setting myself and other students up for a successful career. The Citadel has given me every opportunity to be successful both academically and professionally."

The Strategist

As a hands-on kind of person, Matthew Hovey loves fixing things and problem solving, and he hopes one day people will use something that he created to make their lives easier. After earning his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from The Citadel in May 2017 and choosing to continue his studies in the master’s program with a manufacturing focus, the Summerville, South Carolina native is one step closer to accomplishing his goals.

"I chose to pursue my degree at The Citadel because of its reputation, smaller class sizes and ABET accreditation of my degree," said Hovey. "The faculty members are top notch, highly educated professionals who want nothing more than the best for their students. They are willing to guide and support students in their education. Because of Dr. Rabb’s encouragement, I decided to continue my education at the graduate level. He always goes above and beyond for each student."

As an undergraduate, Hovey’s favorite lab was a part of his senior control systems class since each student got to use an Arduino Uno microprocessor, sensors, and program code to create a light show and play a song of his or her choice for the entire class. However, the most engaging project he participated in involved a bit more fabrication and effort. "For my senior undergraduate project, three of my classmates and I had the pleasure of building an automated four-wheel staking rover that drove surveying stakes into the soil," said Hovey. "It was challenging, but was also very exciting. Due to the constraints of the project we had to be very creative in the rover’s construction. Most of the parts we fabricated ourselves in The Citadel’s machine shop."

Having access to hands-on projects and real-world experience is important to Hovey, who started an internship at Mercedes Benz Vans during his junior year and continued to work for the company as a production engineer after graduation. "The company came to speak in one of my classes about internship opportunities. I received help with my resume at a resume blitz on campus, advice on my interview, and some pointers from the faculty," said Hovey. "I feel confident and comfortable working in all aspects of mechanical engineering using all the tools I have learned from my studies. Many of my homework assignments were real world applications that are now relevant to my current career."

Hovey also appreciated the leadership skills that were an integral part of The Citadel’s engineering program and the chance to stay local and learn within his own community. "Due to my work ethic and integrity, I have been given various projects and presentations and most recently accepted a supervisor position at my company," said Hovey. "If it were not for this program I would have had to commute upstate. Instead, I obtained a degree from an ABET accredited institution in Charleston around my friends and family."

Among his many fabrication projects, Hovey enjoys furniture making, metal working and anything automotive-related. He is currently rebuilding an old 5.7L gen III LS1 engine in his garage on the weekends and loves what he gets to do for a living. "Besides working in a career field in which it is my job to solve or prevent major problems and work with and design machines in just about every industry, the best thing about being a mechanical engineer is the look of respect that people first give me when I introduce myself as a mechanical engineer," said Hovey. "This is very gratifying."

The Innovator

For Alex Richardson, the best thing about being a mechanical engineer is turning scientific speculation into practical theory and transforming dreams into reality. Currently a senior in The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets, Richardson is just beginning to see the range of possibilities his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering will hold for his future.

"I am a competent engineer and leader as a result of my training at The Citadel," said Richardson. "It takes leadership to see a project through to its completion. I chose to pursue my degree at The Citadel because it had the best education to offer, and I was awarded a generous scholarship. The department has nothing but growth potential, and a team of leaders to teach."

As a member of the mechanical engineering program’s inaugural class, Richardson has witnessed its rapid growth and the faculty’s dedication to providing students with immersive educational experiences. "I couldn’t choose a favorite engineering professor because they are all wonderful, intellectually-stimulating people," said Richardson. "One of my favorite memories of my time in the program is Storm The Citadel, an event where Boeing hurls boulders with an intricate trebuchet every year. I also enjoy leading The Citadel Sustainability Project, where we use aeroponic farming to grow vegetables for cadets."

Since he likes airplanes, Richardson’s favorite course so far has been aerodynamics, but he also enjoys computer-aided drafting (CAD) and modeling, coding and building circuits. His internships with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Tiger Corner Farms have allowed him to directly engage in engineering work and gain crucial experience.

A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Richardson is busy finishing his senior year and looking forward to an exciting future. "After graduation, I’ll either go to graduate school or into the workforce, depending on what doors open for me," said Richardson. "I’ll enter a career I love and will be doing meaningful work." This emphasis on work that is essential and worthwhile is particularly important to Richardson. "I hope to be a leader in the design and manufacture of something meaningful to the world and to help the local community realize the value in an engineer’s work."

The Altruist

With a lifelong interest in knowing how things work and putting things together, Giancarlo E. Parrado is a natural as a mechanical engineer. However, what makes Parrado stand out is his love for sharing his calling and using his skills as a chance to connect with others.

"I feel like The Citadel’s mechanical engineering program has given me the experience to develop further in my character and other life skills," said Parrado. "Although there have been many challenges over the course of my four years here, I strongly feel like the benefits, friendships, mentorship and experiences of mechanical engineering have been well worth the struggles."

Now a senior in The Citadel’s Corps of Cadets, Parrado has volunteered for the events of engineering week in February every year since he was a freshman. "I greatly enjoy giving back and volunteering for the mechanical engineering department," said Parrado. "I like working with the younger students to help grow their interests in the engineering fields so that others can have the same opportunities I have experienced as an engineering student."

Parrado also values how his coursework encourages collaboration with fellow students. "The mechanical engineering program offers many opportunities to work on a team and experience leadership on these teams," said Parrado. "Just recently in my senior year I have been part of a project management class which has put more emphasis on taking charge of projects and project teams and has provided more applicable experience and insight into leading teams." For Parrado, these lessons would not be possible without the commitment of the mechanical engineering faculty. "The professors always put their students first to ensure the students’ success as well as the success of the program."

A native of Columbus, Georgia, Parrado gravitates toward hands-on manufacturing projects that let him practice his skills. "My favorite labs were the ones within the manufacturing class because it gave us the ability to use manufacturing equipment to develop different parts and it gave us real-world applications to put what we learned in lecture to use," said Parrado. "Engineering materials science was my favorite course mainly because this is the class that goes into the roots of how things work and how different applications can be achieved through manipulation of different materials." One memorable design project called for the planning, designing and executing of a water bottle rocket. "I was able to work on a team, develop and create something from scratch, and enjoy seeing the performance of the team’s work," said Parrado.

In the summers following his freshman and junior years, Parrado participated in internships with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Maryland and worked on projects revolving around military security at the Marine Forces Cyberspace Command. "Through the internships and the mechanical engineering program at The Citadel, I have learned the necessary skills and techniques for the design process to generate success of a mission," said Parrado. "I am pursuing positions with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab as well with SPAWAR to continue working in the manufacturing and aerospace fields. I hope to contribute to projects which will benefit the military community by improving the security and success of our armed forces."

For Parrado, the chance to pursue a mechanical engineering degree at The Citadel has shaped the direction of his future. "It has provided me with an experience to make connections and life-long friendships with my fellow mechanical engineering students," said Parrado. "The professors within this program not only present quantitative application to engineering, but also lessons applicable to different walks of life."

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