The Citadel plans to offer a bachelor of science degree in construction engineering, accepting applications in the spring and beginning classes next fall.

The new program won approval from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education on Thursday, a decision that marks a larger shift in the public military college's focus.

The Citadel School of Engineering has more than doubled its offerings in the past five years while increasing its enrollment by 50 percent.

Col. Ronald Welch, dean of School of Engineering, said the new program's emphasis on real-world construction will meet an obvious need. 

"The growth is everywhere. Cranes are everywhere. The industry has been asking me for five years, 'When are you going to give us construction engineers?' " Welch said.

Long known for its military training and its academic programs in business and management, The Citadel has ramped up its engineering offerings during the last five years.

The college currently offers undergraduate degrees in civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering. The College of Engineering also added three new graduate degrees and 10 new graduate certificates in 2016.

Some of the changes were big and expensive: New faculty members recruited from engineering programs across the country, a new fabrication workshop in a corrugated-metal outbuilding, a state-of-the-art autoclave for forging the sort of composite materials used in Boeing airplanes.

Others were less so, but also important, like winning intercollegiate bragging rights in a concrete canoe race.

Concrete canoe, Citadel engineering

Citadel senior civil engineering student Laura Russo (at center in baseball cap) inspects a concrete canoe that cadets are preparing for an annual competition. Paul Bowers/Staff

The Citadel's engineering students finished first at the 2015 American Society of Civil Engineers Carolinas Conference Concrete Canoe Competition, upsetting traditional powerhouses like Clemson University with a sleek canoe and an impressive show of athleticism. The Citadel notched first-place finishes again in 2016 and 2017, and the students are currently preparing their next vessel to defend their title in April at Duke University.

Laura Russo, an Air Force veteran and senior civil engineering student, is taking the lead on this year's design. Nicknamed Big Red, the canoe will bear The Citadel's classic insignias in recognition of its 175th anniversary.

"We're taking everything we learn in the classroom and actually applying it to something that seems fun," Russo said. "The goal is to make the boat float and to make it light enough that you can race it without making it, basically, a tank."

The Citadel has trained civil engineers, in one form or another, since its founding in 1842, Welch said. The college added an electrical engineering program as an outgrowth of its physics department in 1941.

It didn't add another engineering degree until the launch of mechanical engineering in 2014. That program has proven popular, with 330 students currently enrolled.

Some of the first students in the construction engineering program will be current civil engineering students who plan to make the switch next fall. Jake Gates and James Jennings, both sophomores, are among them.

Concrete cylinder tester, Citadel engineering

Citadel cadets James Jennings (left) and Jake Gates place a sample in a concrete cylinder tester on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Jennings and Gates are both sophomores in The Citadel's civil engineering program who plan to switch to construction engineering when the new degree program begins in the fall of 2018. Paul Bowers/Staff

Jennings, a Mount Pleasant native, said he toured Clemson and The Citadel when he was considering his college options. He said the largest class size he's had in a course for his major was just 30 students.

"I found that the engineering department at The Citadel was so much more personal," he said. "It seemed like the class structures were more driven for our success, and it wasn't necessarily a distant professor in a huge auditorium ... Although the cadet stuff is hard work, it seemed like it would be worth it in the end to be part of a program that cares about our own personal success."

Aside from graduating with a rare and sought-after degree, Welch said students who go through The Citadel's cadet program will have a competitive edge when they enter the workforce.

"Remember, these kids are coming out of here as leaders," Welch said. "They've had a chance to lead each other. They've had a chance to make mistakes doing that. They've learned from those, and that makes them stronger. They can land on a job and in a very short period of time become a leader on a project."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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