Engineering Buildings Provide Hands-On Learning Experiences

Reprinted from Unbound, the Engineering School magazine.

A pair of key construction projects has been noisily percolating in the University of Virginia engineering quadrant over the last several years.

The larger one, with a much heralded completion last November, is the six-story, $76.3 million, 100,000-square-foot Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering Building at the corner of Stadium and Whitehead roads. Designed by the Pittsburgh firm that also designed the flagship Apple store on Fifth Avenue in New York, the newest addition to the School of Engineering and Applied Science serves as the core locale of information technology engineering at U.Va. Its opening coincided with the 175th anniversary of the Engineering School.

And coming next fall is the Student Projects Building, a four-story, 20,000-square-foot, $4.2 million building, to be shared with Facilities Management.

Both projects incorporate a tangible commitment to experiential learning at the Engineering School, thanks in part to the gifts of Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy Jr., a graduate of the Engineering School and the Darden School of Business and longtime advocate of experiential learning. His $2.5 million gift to the school included construction of the new Lacy Engineering Lab in Rice Hall, support of the new Student Project Building and the projects themselves, all of which offer students expanded experiential learning opportunities and critical new workspace.

“Since the elimination of high school shop classes, young people come to us with very few hands-on skills,” said George Cahen, professor of materials science and engineering and director of Experiential Programs and Engineering Outreach. “A lot of our students have never soldered or used a drill. As engineers, they need more than a classroom education.”

National and international competitions and popular programs, such as the Department of Energy’s Solar Car, the Virginia Genetically Engineered Machine, the international service learning project constructing a water purification system in Cameroon, and the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Mini Baja event, are at the heart of experiential learning at U.Va.

“I’ve always said that projects like Baja are a great experience to be involved in,” said Nicolle Anderson,  a 2012 graduate in mechanical engineering who was vice president of the Mini Baja car team. The 10-member team built a gas-powered dune buggy from scratch for two racing competitions this year, cutting, fitting, notching and welding the frame together themselves. Often, Anderson said, students reuse the same frame design every year, but for her senior thesis she re-evaluated the front frame design.

While certain frame thickness requirements ensure safety, Anderson looked for ways to put the rear bracing in the front of the car. “I had to find a way to decrease the weight or at least maintain it," she said. She succeeded and shaved off a critical three pounds by switching out the existing large tube members for thinner ones, cutting the weight of those members almost in half while maintaining the required strength of the vehicle.

“When you work on a real project, you have weekly design presentations, you understand why you need a Gantt chart, how to use a time table to lay out your entire project, and you’re really excited about it because you’re building the products engineers build and it’s so much fun," she said.