Professor George Cahen’s point is straightforward: There’s only so much a student — particularly an engineering student — can gain from attending lectures or reading textbooks. Hands-on learning must be an essential part of the student experience at the Engineering School.
For more than three decades, Cahen, the director of experiential learning, has worked tirelessly 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 has found a committed ally in Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy, Jr. (ChE ’67, Darden ’69). After supporting experiential projects for a number of years, Lacy made a gift of $2.8 million that will dramatically strengthen the School’s experiential learning opportunities.
The Lacy gift is helping to fund construction of an experiential learning building, a large center dedicated to experiential learning in Rice Hall, and program support and equipment. The 20,000 square-foot building, opening during the spring semester 2013 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 says. “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.”
In fact, the impetus for Lacy’s own 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 says. “It was clear that they not only learned a lot, but also were excited by the experience.”
As Cahen points out, as much as students learn about engineering, they learn even more about themselves. The SAE 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 says. “It really helps them get a better handle on what they might want to do with their careers.”
Experiential learning also is 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,” Cahen says. “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 says. “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.”