Cover Story


By Karen Shugart

Drew Cornett has already secured something many college students hope for: A well-paying job awaits him when he graduates. Better yet, his future employer wants to fund his graduate degree. What’s Cornett’s secret to success?

Drew Cornett, a 24-year-old engineering major from Boone, is studying mechatronics at UNC Asheville, a degree concentration that is garnering a lot of attention these days. After spending two summers as an intern at BAE Systems, the British multinational defense and aerospace company, Cornett has received assurance of his future with the company. “I have no worries at all—zero—that I will find a job,” Cornett said. “Especially with mechatronics.”

Dakota Lazenby, who is 20, agreed. “My initial thought on the degree was that it was something I could look forward to doing every day.” But the career-placement rate is a solid plus. “The promising salary and the ease of getting a job after doing this degree are definitely some of the driving forces that keep me focused,” Lazenby said.

More than just Robotics

Though the discipline is well known among engineers, mechatronics hasn’t yet become a household word. While often explained as robotics, practitioners are quick to add that it’s much more. Mechatronics blends mechanical and electrical engineering with computer science for the operation of machinery, explained Dr. Yusef “Joe” Fahmy, director of the mechatronics program. “A robot is a computer-controlled machine,” he said. “So is the engine in your car. Whenever we employ a computer to operate machinery, that’s mechatronics.”

As the only program of its kind in North Carolina—and one of only two accredited undergraduate programs like it in the United States—the program is a joint venture of UNC Asheville and North Carolina State University. While the former is recognized for its broad liberal arts education, the latter is known for producing scientists and engineers. Through the program, students earn a joint degree from both universities.

The result, Fahmy said, is a graduate who’s versed in mechanical and electrical engineering as well as computer science, with a good helping of liberal arts studies—in short, someone who has the technical skills to create new devices, and the communication skills to explain them to most anyone.
About 100 students have graduated with the joint degree, but the program is having a bigger impact than those numbers might suggest.

“The beauty of the whole thing is that our graduates are employed in the region, in these excellent firms,” said Fahmy. “Shortly before graduation I start getting phone calls from graduates, saying ‘We’ve got two positions for somebody that would be interested in modeling refrigeration systems or robotic control of material handling…Who do you know?’” 

The bulk of the engineering courses are taught by N.C. State faculty, while UNC Asheville faculty provide the liberal arts foundation. Many engineering classes are delivered live from Raleigh, with students in Asheville posing questions and participating in class discussions via videoconference. About one-third of the engineering coursework is taught on-site, while two-thirds is beamed from Raleigh. Fahmy himself is based in Asheville, though he is an N.C. State employee.

A robust mix of hard science and liberal arts, the 126-credit-hour curriculum doesn’t allow much room for electives in a student’s four years, Fahmy said. Though traditional-age students are in the majority, the mechatronics program attracts a substantial number of older students.

“It’s definitely a challenging program,” said Hallie Sheaffer, a 34-year-old senior from Asheville, who learned about mechatronics from a newspaper article. At the time, she was looking for a new career; she’d left a job teaching middle school band to become a real estate agent, just as the housing market nose-dived.

Jennifer Cory, 41, a junior, had a bachelor’s degree in history from George Mason University when she applied to the program. She’d worked in finance before staying home to care for her children. Then her husband lost his job. This time, she wanted to get a degree in a high-demand discipline.

“Engineering is a creative profession...We're the people who take things Michelangelo and Jules Verne dreamed about, and turn them into real-life hardware.” —David Erb, lecturer, Mechatronics program

The program’s track record was attractive: about 90 percent of graduates are employed before graduation; starting salaries average about $55,000.

“I realized that the jobs that were hiring were skilled jobs,” Cory said.

In fact, it was industry demand that drove the creation of the mechatronics concentration. Asheville-area manufacturers wanted a local source of engineering specialists. After conferring with industry representatives, university officials decided that Western North Carolina would be best served by a broad-based engineering program like mechatronics.

“We exist because local industry wanted us here,” said program instructor Dave Erb, now in his fifth year teaching in the program. Erb feels that graduates are an excellent fit for industry. “They’re trained to view the whole of engineering as one piece, and I think industry really appreciates that.”

Local employers took notice from the beginning. Jerry Krug, manager of advanced manufacturing at Meritor, said the program gives graduates an excellent set of diverse skills. The Michigan-based company, which makes parts for military suppliers, trucks and trailers and has facilities in Fletcher, N.C., has hired several graduates.

“Instead of having multiple disciplines involved in a project—typically you have a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a controls engineer—companies can rely on one individual with a mechatronics degree to handle all aspects of the project,” Krug said.

Inside the Mechatronics Labs

Local investment

Meritor, Eaton and other local manufacturing companies have rewarded the program with strong scholarship support as well as mentoring and guidance, even on senior projects.

“Having a local resource to train engineers in the area is a huge benefit to Meritor and other manufacturers,” Krug said. “In addition, a local candidate is more likely to stay in the area long-term.”
Increasingly, Fahmy said, students are receiving job offers from multinational corporations further away, such as BMW, Kyocera, and BAE Systems Inc.

Solid prospects are attractive to students such as Lazenby, who said he’d always enjoyed building things and figuring out how they worked. This fall, his class was building a cargo-sorting robot that picks up blocks from a loading zone and deposits them in specific sites.

In another class, Erb said, students build “sumo” robots—the object is for one robot to push another out of a circle. “What happens with projects is they love them,” Erb said. “They end up spending inordinate amounts of time because they love this work.”

A group of seniors is working this year on a fountain that interacts with people, using sensors to detect movement.

“If you raise your hand, the fountain will go up,” Erb said.

“It’s kind of an artsy project but with a strong mechatronics underpinning.”
Students also make time to mentor children from area schools. In October, Sheaffer and others helped middle school children build a Halloween robot. “That part is really fun,” Sheaffer said.

Folks often assume that the liberal arts and engineering are unrelated realms that don’t inform one another, Erb argued. But the truth might surprise you.

“People tend to think of engineers as serious, studious, humorless people. Certainly the serious part is true…but it’s not like brain surgery. When a neurosurgeon screws up, there’s only one corpse. But when an engineer screws up, a bridge falls down, the Challenger explodes, or 4,000 people in Bhopal, India die from gas poisoning. So there’s a demand for academic rigor that accompanies that.

“But engineering is a creative profession,” he continued. “We’re the people who brought you the automobile and the skyscraper and the airplane…we’re the people who take things Michelangelo and Jules Verne dreamed about and turn them into real-life hardware.”

“We are creating the artifacts that define the future.”

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