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Thornton Stacks, a Student Study Space, Set for Facelift Thanks to Jefferson Trust Grant

The University of Virginia’s Engineering Student Council recently received a grant of $50,000 from the U.Va. Alumni Association’s Jefferson Trust in support of a project to transform “Thornton Stacks” into a collaborative working space for engineering students.

When Thornton Hall was built in the 1930s, the high-ceilinged, 3,200-square-foot space at the top of the stairs housed the library of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. By the time Victoria Guarino arrived at the University, however, the books had been removed and the room had been redesigned to house a computer lab with 120 workstations and desktop computers.

While the “stacks” were relocated more than 25 years ago, everyone still refers to the space by its historic name. Now, however, even the computers are gone, leaving Thornton Stacks in an even more ambiguous state: no longer a library, no longer a computer lab, but still a place where students come to team up and study.

As a member of the Engineering Student Council, Guarino, now a fourth-year systems engineering student, has been on a mission to make over this space for two years. Her vision is to make Thornton Stacks a more comfortable place for students to work and to incorporate a design that will allow students, teaching assistants and faculty to collaborate more effectively. This year’s grant application was successful thanks in large part to her efforts.

“Students still use Thornton Stacks as a common study space,” Guarino said. “Since E-Council advocates on behalf of students, we all felt very passionately about this remaining a common area for us.”

Tentative plans, developed in consultation with students, include maintaining some of the historic architectural features – large arched windows along one long wall, stained wood pediments and crown molding – while updating things like window treatments, carpeting, furnishings and lighting. The work stations will also be removed, replaced by comfortable seating arrangements and collaborative work spaces.

The ability of Thornton Stacks to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation is among the most important aspects of the renovations for Guarino, and one that was most attractive to the Jefferson Trustees. Modeled after the workspaces in the top floor of Clemons Library, the partitioned “pod” areas planned for the space will be equipped with LCD TV screens and whiteboards. They will provide much-needed space for groups of engineers from all disciplines to gather around tables for conferences, small-group presentations and discussions.

This ability to work collaboratively is an essential skill for modern engineers, according to Guarino. “Engineering is not so much about building things anymore. It’s about making sure that the people you’re working with understand how to use your products and what your vision is. Students need to learn how to share their ideas and talk to each other and start working together because this is what engineers in the working world have to know how to do.”

The project, expected to be completed over the summer, is estimated to cost about $300,000. When it originally put forth the idea two years ago, the Engineering Student Council voted to allocate $15,000 of its own funds to the project, hoping to inspire alumni to support it. With the success of their Jefferson Trust grant application this year, Guarino is confident the remaining funds will be forthcoming. (Read more about the 2013 Jefferson Trust grants.)

“Dean Aylor has been supportive of this project the whole way through,” Guarino said. “I know he’s had pressure to turn this into classroom space, but the administration, especially in the Engineering School, realizes that this is very important to us.”

This was the Engineering Student Council’s second attempt to convince the Alumni Association that the Thornton Stacks project was worthy of funding. Last year, however, Jefferson Trust priorities did not include “bricks and mortar” projects such as this. Guarino is especially grateful that those priorities changed this year.

 “This has been my baby,” she said. “And our fourth-year class is one of the last classes that really remembers what Stacks was like when it had all the computers. So this was a very big thing for us to see happen before we graduate. I’m really excited about it and grateful to the Jefferson Trust and the U.Va. Alumni Association for helping to make it happen.”

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