Engineers learn by doing. That is the reason Professor George Cahen often gives for championing experiential learning at UVA Engineering—and it is a lesson Cahen, now retiring after 40 years at UVA, himself learned as a boy growing up in Baltimore.
Together with his father, an aerospace engineer for the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin), Cahen tackled a number of projects that gave him his first inkling of the satisfaction to be had from bridging the gap between idea and realization. Together, they installed central air conditioning, a rarity at the time, flew model airplanes and built go-carts and motorized bicycles. When he was 12, Cahen and his dad built a cart and wagon that he used to tow his friends around their neighborhood.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Cahen says. “The value I place on experiential learning goes back to my time with my dad. He gave me a real sense of the power of engineering. I wanted to pass that on to our students.”
Cahen’s enthusiasm for breaking new ground made itself felt in other areas besides his advocacy of experiential learning. Along with Professor Emeritus Glenn Stoner, he started the Center for Electrochemical Sciences and Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. He was the founding director of the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, the first distance-learning program in Virginia to offer advanced engineering degrees. And he was instrumental in securing funds for the four buildings that reshaped the Engineering School for the 21st century—MR-5 for biomedical engineering, Wilsdorf Hall for materials science, Rice Hall for computer science and Lacy Hall, fittingly, for experiential learning.
An Advocate for Hands-on Engineering
Starting in the 1990s, Cahen began drawing on a discretionary account to fund student projects. “It bothered me that there were very few afterhours student projects,” he says. “Other schools had student groups entering competitions. I wanted our students to find out what they were capable of doing.” The word soon spread—and groups of students started knocking on his office door asking his support to build vehicles that could compete in solar car, Legend car and Mini Baja competitions.
To meet the demand, Cahen approached the School’s alumni and friends. In 2008, Linwood A. “Chip” Lacy and his wife, Connie, agreed to give $100,000 annually to support experiential learning, first for five years and then, as they saw the results, for 10. The Lacy gift has enabled Cahen to support more than 40 students groups and help departments around the School make hands-on learning the centerpiece of their curricula. The Lacys followed up by donating funds for Lacy Hall, which was dedicated in 2013, and the Anne Warwick Lacy Experiential Center that occupies its top two floors. This allowed Cahen to bring together programs scattered on- and off-Grounds in a single location.
But Cahen not only put experiential learning on a firm financial foundation. He actively mentored students on their projects, much as his father had done with him. And in doing so, he shared in their emotions. “One of my proudest moments was the first time we passed the scrutineering phase of the solar car competition,” he says. “The judges confirmed we had built the car to our design and that it was roadworthy. Given the rigor of these standards, it was incredibly gratifying for us all.”
But Cahen points out that the credit for these achievements lies with the School’s students. “Our students are incredible,” he says. “Our role is to present them with opportunities. To see students embrace a challenge and develop the knowledge and skills to meet it—my goodness, what could be better!”
Researcher, Administrator, Fundraiser
Cahen’s role in spreading the doctrine of hands-on learning throughout the School is but one part of a career that encompassed research, administration, fundraising and outreach. With Glenn Stoner, now a professor emeritus, he developed an innovative electrochemical process for disinfecting water. He and Stoner secured millions in funding for the project at a time when the School was not known for its research. Together, they have five patents on the process and the specialized electrodes required to conduct it.
In 1983, the School tapped Cahen to develop what is now known as the Commonwealth Graduate Engineering Program, which broadcast televised lectures to master’s students at locations around Virginia. Cahen worked with what is now the School of Continuing and Professional Studies to put the technology in place. He collaborated with the four other universities in this consortium to establish on-campus receiving sites and with industry partners to create receiving sites at their facilities. The state-wide program now offers 19 engineering degree programs and more than 100 courses. On the strength of this work, Cahen was named assistant dean for graduate programs. Most recently, he served as associate dean for undergraduate programs.
Cahen also proved highly adept at fundraising. As associate vice president of the Virginia Engineering Foundation (VEF), Cahen was part of a team that included the VEF, biomedical engineering faculty, and the University of Virginia Health System that convinced the Whitaker Foundation to help fund MR-5, now home of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He collaborated with Professor Emeritus William Jesser, then chair of Materials Science and Engineering, to secure a major gift from Cahen’s graduate school colleague, Gregory Olsen (MSE ’71), for Wilsdorf Hall. And he worked with his VEF colleagues to interest Paul Rice (EE’ 75) and his wife, Gina, in providing a lead gift towards a new home for the Department of Computer Science.
Cahen also has promoted science, technology and engineering activities for school children, with the hope that many of them will choose to study in those fields in college. He has directed FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics regional competitions for middle and high school robotics teams.
“Throughout my career, I’ve always enjoyed taking on new projects and new challenges,” Cahen says. “I learned at an early age that engineering would give me the mindset and skills to find solutions to problems wherever I found them.”