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Time Capsule

100 Years of Engineering at UVA

In 1916, the Cocke Hall electrical engineering laboratory was stocked with induction motors, current machines, transformers, an electric furnace and more.

Rufus Holsinger, Holsinger Studio Collection, UVA Special Collections

In the May 1916 Alumni News, the Engineering School of the University of Virginia announced a special winter term course in highway engineering. The course was offered “in recognition of the growing interest in Good Roads in Virginia.” Students would have access to facilities in Cocke Hall, including a wood shop, a metal shop, drafting rooms and survey equipment. Although the labs and shops look rustic today, they were considered state of the art in 1916.

“One hundred years ago, engineers were an offshoot of tradespeople. Take the wood shop: People took trades and added science and math to them. We were builders,” says Craig Benson, who is wrapping up his first year as dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Engineering has always been about translating math, chemistry, biology, physics, into practical solutions. That’s what engineers do. It’s a constant.”

Cocke Hall drafting room, 1916 Rufus Holsinger, Holsinger Studio Collection, UVA Special Collections
Rouss Hall physical laboratory, 1920 UVA Special Collections

Today, there’s a lot more problem-solving going on at the E-School than paved roads. Students and faculty are creating biological models for medical residents, using polyjet 3-D printers. They’re looking at heat transfer on the atomic level to make computers and electronics more energy efficient. They’re designing their own electric guitars. That back issue of Alumni News serves as both time capsule and benchmark of just how far the applied science program has come in 100 years’ time.

The 20th century was a period of “remarkable transformation for engineers,” Benson says. In 1935, the school moved from Cocke Hall to just-built Thornton Hall and enjoyed new labs and equipment. In 1955, the school established a modern graduate program, offering a doctor of science degree for the first time. At the start of the ’60s, UVA was one of the few schools in the nation to have its own nuclear reactor facility. (After the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster, student interest in nuclear engineering faded; the reactor was shut down in 1998.) In the 1980s, the school offered degrees in a number of interdisciplinary programs, such as biomedical engineering, systems engineering and computer science, with a focus on research throughout its programs.

The “most remarkable” thing to happen to the school over the past century was the advent of full undergraduate coeducation in 1970, says materials science professor George Cahen (Engr ’70, ’76). A few women had gone through the program, and a few women, such as Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, served on the faculty, but full coeducation “was a real kick-start” to improving the quality of the school, Cahen says. This year, about 32 percent of the school’s undergraduate students were women, as well as 28 percent of its graduate students. About 17 percent of the school’s faculty are women.

Another breakthrough: the emphasis on collaboration. One of the school’s newest buildings—Rice Hall, built in 2011—was created with interdisciplinary work in mind, Benson says: Its six floors are made up of computing, design and robotics labs, as well as open collaborative spaces where students from all departments work together at tables, white boards and 3-D printers.

And there’s still room for growth.

UVA’s Engineering School is smaller than other state schools’ engineering programs that consistently rank higher in U.S. News & World Report rankings, such as those at Virginia Tech and UC Berkeley. For example, Tech’s College of Engineering employs around 350 faculty members teaching roughly 10,050 students, whereas UVA’s Engineering School has around 150 faculty members teaching roughly 3,280 students.

But size and rank aren’t everything, says electrical engineering professor and former dean James Aylor (Engr ’68, ’71, ’77). He sees the smaller size of UVA’s Engineering School—and the potential for collaboration with 10 other schools on Grounds—as an advantage. “I think we can be more nimble. We need to collaborate because of the fact that we’re not as big; that’s an advantage to us. I think that will generate better research and more cutting-edge research.”

Engineering has come a long way from drafting tables and wood shops. Technology improves, people get smarter, Aylor says, “but you still have the same piece of the process where the human has to add value to the thing.”

And what about 100 years from now? “Increasingly, the problems that face our nation and the world are interdisciplinary,” says executive associate dean for research Pam Norris. People from engineering, ethics, business, medicine and the arts must come together to solve them, as they do on Grounds. “That’s what the world needs,” she says.

Biomedical engineering lab, 1984 UVA Special Collections
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering mechatronics lab, 2016 Stephanie Gross

Erin O’Hare is Virginia Magazine’s Assistant Editor.