Outside the Classroom

In 2003, we shared the story of Jacoby Davis, ’04, at the time a rising senior from North Carolina who spent the summer on the Cooper River studying an invasive vine called the Ludwigia hexapetala. As The Citadel magazine celebrates its 20th anniversary, cadets continue to find real-world applications for their academic pursuits. Like Davis, Elijah Holder, ’23, could be found stepping outside the classroom, asking important questions to find valuable answers for the world.

Holder wants to understand how things work, which is why the Warsaw, Indiana, native chose to major in electrical engineering. “When most people look at a computer, they think, there’s a button to push, and it turns on,” said Holder. “I always wanted to know how it turns on. What’s happening behind the scenes with those circuits?”

For Holder, engineering is not just a list of classes to pass. The four-year scholarship recipient and president of the Engineering Honor Society wants not only to understand the world around him but to ensure others do as well. “People took time to explain things to me as a kid, and that is what really got me interested.”

Holder said his team’s senior design project was more complicated than most. Leading a project called the Rocket-Based Atmospheric Sampling System, the budding Naval nuclear submarine propulsion officer set out to become an advocate for nuclear energy.

The five-person team, which included three veteran students and an Army contract cadet in addition to Holder, designed a payload that can be launched up to 10,000 feet in the air in order to analyze the atmospheric conditions. The goal? A grassroots effort to keep power plants, as well as corporations, accountable for their impact on the environment. Additionally, the payload can be released over a meltdown site like Chernobyl to help save lives. “They didn’t know the radiation was spreading,” said Holder of the 1986 nuclear disaster site.

The aim is not simply to detect disaster, but also to put people at ease when the atmosphere is safe. “It’s a watchdog effort. If we do things correctly, we can use these tools for the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario.”

Holder believes nuclear energy has great potential, if only the public were better informed about its benefits. “Conventional green energy options, like wind turbines and solar panels, take up a lot of space. With nuclear power, you can get 100 times more energy out of the same area. Nuclear submarines never have to refuel, except for food.”

Each member of Holder’s design team contributed a wide range of skills and experience to the project. “One of the best aspects of this project is the interdisciplinary nature of it,” said Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department Head Mark McKinney, Ph.D. “The joint work from mechanical, electrical and computer engineering students really highlights the true nature of engineering: that it takes coordination between many different disciplines to succeed.”

The rocket itself, said Holder, required the skills of mechanical engineer Manny Malar, ’22, whose senior design team built a rocket the year before and has served as the go-to expert for Holder’s team. “Rockets are complicated things. Manny is putting on the very sensitive elements—they need to be just right,” said McKinney. “Every member of this group is exceptional in his or her own right. The group represents a true cross section of our amazing students in the ECE Department, and they have done a remarkable job on an incredibly challenging project.”

Holder is passionate, not just about nuclear energy or his class project, but about making engineering accessible to all. “One skill that many engineers lack is communication with people who are non-technical. To communicate in a respectful way that allows other people to understand me is important. Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs would never have been able to carry out their visions without these skills,” said Holder. “I’ve tried to become a better communicator.”

Holder says he has learned a great deal about teamwork through this project, and, of course, how critical communication can be. “I would like to incorporate that knowledge into my leadership as an ensign in the Navy. I think this experience will really help me understand how to delegate tasks and communicate with people.”