From the Ground Up

WNEU Creates New Civil and Environmental Engineering Program

Student Emily Lynch, seen here with Kenneth Lee

Student Emily Lynch, seen here with Kenneth Lee, says she’s always been fascinated by bridges, and ultimately decided to make civil engineering a career.

When asked about the factors that drove Western New England University’s decision to create its new Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Ken Lee summoned some telling numbers.

The first were from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is projecting an employment growth rate of 19% for civil engineers and 22% for environmental engineers — one of the fastest-growing subspecialties within the broad realm of civil engineering — between 2010 and 2020.

Another number — and probably the one fueling those BLS projections — comes from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which, when assessing the nation’s aging infrastructure, projects that $71 trillion in infrastructure investments will be made by 2030.

“Everything we make in civil engineering has a lifespan,” said Lee, chairman of the new department, in an article announcing his appointment in the university’s alumni publication, the Communicator. “Buildings and bridges are crumbling, and transportation systems need overhauling. We need plenty of engineers to plan, design, analyze, develop, organize, and manage retrofits and new construction projects.”

Couple these projections with the university’s desire to grow its well-regarded College of Engineering, and civil engineering, with a strong focus on environmental engineering, was the logical path to take, said S. Hossein Cheraghi, dean of the College of Engineering.

“We want to grow, and one of the best ways to do that is with new programs,” he said, adding quickly that existing offerings are also being expanded. “And when we looked at different programs and at statistics from the Department of Labor in terms of future opportunities for employment, we realized that civil engineering made the most sense for us.”

He told BusinessWest that talks on such an expansion were initiated about three years ago, and they culminated with a program launched last fall with 13 students.

Emily Lynch is one of them.

A Connecticut resident, she said that, while growing up, she became fascinated by bridges — “I would drive over them and just be awestruck,” she explained — and by her junior year had decided to make civil engineering a career.

“I liked math more, but I didn’t want to make that my livelihood,” she went on. After being alerted by her guidance counselor to the new program at WNEU, she made that school one of three options — Wentworth in Boston and the University of New Haven were the others — and eventually decided to became part of the inaugural class at the Springfield campus. “There’s supposed to be a huge jump in demand for civil engineers in the years to come; I want to be part of that.”

Creation of the Civil Engineering program is one of the primary drivers of a planned expansion of Sleith Hall, home to the College of Engineering, said Cheraghi, noting that plans call for 8,600 square feet of new space, as well as renovations and upgrades to the entire building.

Work on the two-story addition, projected to cost between $12 million and $13.5 million, is expected to begin this summer, he went on, adding that the new area will house laboratory space for the new program, as well as labs for Biomedical Engineering, classroom space, and a computer lab. The project also includes building-wide HVAC improvements, the installation of a new sprinkler system, and technology improvements.

S. Hossein Cheraghi, dean of the College of Engineering

S. Hossein Cheraghi, dean of the College of Engineering, says the new civil engineering program will help “internationalize” the WNEU campus.

“The addition of new programs and growth in existing programs in the College of Engineering is driving the need for additional space,” said Cheraghi, noting that the school also added a doctoral program in Engineering Management and has seen increasing enrollment in its existing engineering programs — biomedical, electrical, industrial, and mechanical.

For this issue and its focus on engineering and the environment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the university’s new Civil Engineering degree and what it means for both the school and those currently enrolled in the program.


Bridging a Gap

When asked why he left a teaching position at UMass Lowell to come to WNEU, Lee broke into a wide smile.

“Opportunities to lead a new program, especially a civil engineering program … those are quite rare today,” he said, adding that he was looking forward to the many challenges involved with getting such an initiative off the ground, from hiring faculty to recruiting students to setting the tone academically. “This is a very exciting career opportunity.”

It came about, said Cheraghi, because the School of Engineering, and the university as a whole, has set some ambitious goals for continued growth, and civil and environmental engineering represented both the most glaring area of need and the best opportunity for expansion, given those projections from the BLS.

The new program also fits nicely into a recently developed strategic plan for the university, one component of which is the goal of greater “internationalization” of the campus and thus the student population.

“We want to bring more international students to our campus,” he explained. “And this is one of the most important programs for developing countries. There is a global need for civil engineers.”

Meanwhile, an analysis of the regional market revealed that there was a need for — and thus room for — another civil engineering program.

Departments exist at UMass Amherst and UConn, said Lee, and there is an associate’s degree program at Springfield Technical Community College. A two-year degree opens some doors to employment, he went on, but a baccalaureate or graduate degree offers access to many more opportunities.

Cheraghi told BusinessWest that the new program will play a large role in helping the College of Engineering continue its pattern of growth and reach ambitious targets for enrollment. Indeed, the Engineering department had 320 students in 2009, boasts 475 at present, and would like to be at 600 within five years, he said, adding that these numbers clearly indicate the need for the planned expansion of Sleith Hall.

While the Civil and Environmental Engineering initiative is new, Lee said, the university has a long history of excellence in engineering, and this will certainly help draw people to what’s called the CEE program. WNEU’s comparatively smaller class sizes and its so-called ‘theory to practice’ approach to engineering education, which provides hands-on experience that enables students to hit the ground running as they enter their chosen careers, are also effective selling points.

These were some of the factors that helped prompt Lynch to eventually choose WNEU. She’s still wrapping up her freshman year, but already has designs on what she wants to do professionally.

“I’m leaning toward the structural side of civil engineering — building roads and bridges and fixing the many that are crumbling,” she said. “I really want to fix our infrastructure.”

Students in the program will focus on the latest advances in the design, construction, and maintenance of today’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, buildings, airports, tunnels, dams, water-treatment and supply networks, and environmental systems, said Lee, adding that students will study the many areas of civil engineering, from structural engineering to geotechnical engineering.

The WNEU program is somewhat unique, he went on, because of its separate environmental engineering concentration. Students who take that route will get a civil engineering degree, which provides great flexibility, he explained, but also a strong focus on issues involving water — from treatment to renewable energy.

Another unique aspect of the program will be the incorporation of ‘green’ engineering techniques and sustainable materials, he said.

“Until recently, efficiency and environmental impacts have not been major parts of the equation,” he told the Communicator. “But now, when you design a building, you want it to be as energy-efficient as possible and use as little water as possible.”

Original projections for the program’s first year were for 10 students, said Lee, adding that, without much (if any) advertising, 13 were chosen from roughly 75 applications. And both of those numbers project to go much higher for year two, with perhaps 140 applications and possibly 20 to 25 students admitted. The goal is to reach 100 students in the program by the time the first class graduates in 2016.

One popular route could be transferring into the program from STCC after completion of the two-year program there, he noted, adding that WNEU can begin accepting transfers when members of the inaugural class reach their junior year.

The university is set to hire a second faculty member for the program for year two, said Lee, who was the first, and add two more for the start of the 2014-15 academic year.


On the Right Road

Assessing his career shift and decision to both teach and administer WNEU’s new engineering program, Lee said he believes he’s in the right place at the right time.

And the same can be said of the 13 students in that program’s inaugural class and those who will enroll in the years to come.

Indeed, the projections made by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Bureau of Labor Statistics would seem to provide ample evidence that he’s right.

Time will tell if WNEU’s large investment will prove worthwhile, but already there are signs that the university is building momentum — in more ways than one.


George O’Brien can be reached at

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