The University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science got its start as the School of Civil Engineering in 1836. It was the first engineering school in the south and the fourth university-level engineering school in the nation after West Point (founded in 1803 and developed into a school in 1817); the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy (founded in 1821 and renamed Lewis College and then Norwich University); and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (opened in 1824 and reorganized as a recognizable school of engineering in 1929).

Charles Bonnycastle and William Barton Rogers initiated the Engineering School at UVA. Rogers in 1864 would become founding president at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. UVA's Engineering School struggled and became dormant for a time until the post-Civil War era brought to Virginia renewed interest in engineering.

Among the post-Civil War students was William Mynn Thornton, who went on to work for 50 years to lay the groundwork for what has become today’s Engineering School. Under Dean Thornton (1905-1925), programs grew from civil and mining engineering to include mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.

After World War II, the Engineering School began to emphasize graduate study and research. Led by Dean Lawrence R. Quarles (1955-1973), the School established graduate degree programs in biomedical engineering, nuclear engineering, materials science, applied mathematics and systems engineering.

Under Dean John E. Gibson (1973-1983), graduate programs extended to include studies of policy and information management.

Under Dean Edgar A. Starke Jr. (1984-1994), Thornton Hall and the Engineering School complex were renovated and construction of the materials science building and fundraising for a new chemical engineering building was completed. Dean Starke worked to establish the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund, which provides funds for equipment replacement. Dean Starke also established the Center for Diversity in Engineering during his tenure and launched televised graduate programming for working engineers both in and outside of Virginia.

Dean Richard W. Miksad (1994-2004) continued the shift toward stronger research and increases in interdisciplinary collaborations. During his tenure, the biomedical engineering department blossomed; there was increased support for junior faculty, enhanced industry contacts and fundraising for two new buildings: MR5, a biomedical and biomedical science building, and Wilsdorf Hall. He worked to create more flexibility in the undergraduate program and in the summer of 2002 he launched the Science and Technology Policy Internship Program, which allows students to serve in policy-making offices in Washington, D.C. He also established an Engineering School family-leave policy that was groundbreaking for the University of Virginia.

Under Dean James H. Aylor (2004-2015), the Engineering School continued to grow. He established the International Programs Office in 2007 to facilitate the process of international studies for Engineering School students. Construction of Wilsdorf Hall was completed in 2006, and the School opened the new Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering building in 2011.

Dean Craig H. Benson (2015-2021) led a significant period of growth and transformation for UVA Engineering, energizing faculty, staff, students, alumni and supporters with a strong vision for making the world a better place by creating and disseminating knowledge and educating future engineering leaders. Under Benson's leadership, the School had strong growth in the research program, the faculty, graduate student enrollment, experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students and initiatives to advance diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dean Jennifer L. West is the School's 14th dean, effective July 1, 2021, with a faculty appointment in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. West comes from Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, where she served as the associate dean for Ph.D. education and the Fitzpatrick Family University Professor in Biomedical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Inventors, and she is the first woman to lead UVA Engineering in the School’s history. She has earned numerous awards for teaching, research and mentorship, and her students have become leaders in academia and industry.