The transformation of the University of Virginia’s historic Thornton Stacks into the modern collaborative workspace unveiled in late November was itself a collaborative project.
Victoria Guarino, a 2013 alumna and a member of the Engineering Student Council, was the first to have a vision of the stacks as a place for collaborative learning. She was instrumental in the council securing a $50,000 grant from the U.Va. Alumni Association’s Jefferson Trust to move the project forward. This year, a $300,000 gift from Steven and Karen Raber enabled the School of Engineering and Applied Science to proceed with the renovation.
At the recent dedication ceremony, the space was named in honor of James H. Aylor, dean of the Engineering School. He announced last spring that he will return to the school’s faculty when his second term ends later this year.
The James H. Aylor Student Collaboration Center – an elegant space with a 16-foot ceiling and nine windows overlooking Darden Court – has already been through a number of transformations, each one reflecting changes at the Engineering School as well as in the profession itself.
When Thornton Hall was built in 1934, the room housed the Engineering Library. As the collection grew, the library moved to Clark Hall, though the name “Thornton Stacks” was left behind. The room was subsequently outfitted as a computer lab, but as more and more students began carrying laptops, the workstations were removed, and it became a large study hall.
While preserving the neoclassical character of the space, the renovated room takes its cue from the study areas in Rice Hall. It now features four meeting rooms set off by glass and aluminum partitions along the inside wall. Equipped with monitors and white boards, these meeting rooms are now a hub for group projects. The rest of the room is equipped with small desks and tables, providing additional space for students to study or work quietly together. The room will be open 24/7. Other changes – new window treatments and carpeting for instance – were cosmetic, but the school chose to replace the existing lights with LED fixtures to reduce energy consumption.
Thornton Stacks’ reincarnation as a collaborative space meshes exactly with Steven Raber’s vision of the kind of skills engineering schools should be providing. Raber has had a long and successful career, both at companies like IBM and Compaq and as an entrepreneur, and said that knowing how to collaborate effectively is in many respects as important as subject matter knowledge.
“Large, complex systems don’t get built by individuals,” he said. “They are built by teams.”
The Rabers chose to invest in the Engineering School because they value the experience their daughter Katherine, a 2012 alumna, had as a student.
“America needs more engineers,” Raber said. “The program here does a very good job of preparing students to be a success in engineering or in any field they choose.”
They welcomed the opportunity to honor Dean Aylor as well. “Without overstatement, we can honestly say that Jim has made a significant difference in our children’s and consequently, our family’s lives. Honoring him in this small way is our way of saying thanks,” he said.
The renovation is also an effort to bring students back to the historic heart of the school.
“As we’ve grown, departments have moved into more specialized facilities on the Engineering School grounds,” Aylor said. “The new study areas have allowed us to move Thornton Hall back to the center of the engineering curriculum, helping us prepare students for the kind of collaborative engineering that’s practiced today.”