Engineering professor George Cahen’s point is straightforward: A student – particularly an engineering student – can learn only so much from attending lectures and reading textbooks. Hands-on learning is an essential part of the student experience at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
For more than three decades, Cahen, director of experiential learning, has worked to expand the school’s facilities for hands-on learning and to encourage student-led initiatives like Team Belize, a water purification project, and the Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine team, which focuses on synthetic biology.
He found a committed ally in Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy Jr., who is an alumnus of both the Engineering School and the Darden School of Business. After supporting experiential projects for a number of years, Lacy made a $2.8 million gift that will dramatically strengthen the school’s experiential learning opportunities.
Lacy’s gift is helping to fund the construction of an experiential learning building. The 20,000-square-foot building, during the spring semester across from the Slaughter Recreation Center, will be known as Lacy Hall in his honor. The Ann Warrick Lacy Experiential Learning Center, named after Lacy’s mother, will occupy the top two floors of the building. The bottom two floors will be used by Facilities Management.
“The Engineering School’s emphasis on experiential learning is a significant differentiator, both for the school and the University as a whole,” Lacy said. “I see Lacy Hall as a way to expand the program and strengthen the school’s ability to recruit top-quality undergraduates. And by showcasing what our students can do, it will also underscore the value of experiential learning and hopefully attract additional support.”
The impetus for Lacy’s support for experiential learning came from listening to students give presentations about their projects. “They talked about taking on a challenge, finding an approach with potential and implementing it,” he said. “It was clear that they not only learned a lot, but also were excited by the experience.”
As much as students learn about engineering from such experiences, they learn even more about themselves, Cahen said. The SAE (formerly Society of Automotive Engineers) Mini Baja car competition, for instance, gives students the opportunity to see themselves in different roles. They can bend pipe, use CAD and simulation packages to design the suspension, or keep the books.
“Through experiential learning, students begin to figure out what part of the process brings them real joy,” Cahen said. “It really helps them get a better handle on what they might want to do with their careers.”
Experiential learning is also valuable because it gives undergraduates a rare opportunity to take on a major project and see it through to completion. “Our students have wonderful ideas,” he said. “One of the great advantages of Lacy Hall is that it will offer them a facility with state-of-the art tools where they can collaborate with other really smart kids, to realize their idea.”
Cahen is careful to emphasize, however, that the thrust for greater experiential learning is just one part of a greater Engineering School initiative to offer undergraduates more high-impact, challenging and formative experiences. These include study abroad, community service and undergraduate research.
“Our students are among the brightest to be found anywhere in the nation,” he said. “By engaging them in meaningful challenges that test their ingenuity and broaden their experience, we give them the skill set they need to fully apply their talents, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of society.”
— By Charlie Feigenoff