Olin College Commits to 21st Century Grand Challenges Initiative

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Olin College of Engineering is one of more than 120 engineering schools that announced plans to educate a new generation of engineers who will be equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century. The letter of commitment was presented to President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on March 23, 2015.

Olin College

“Solving our planet’s Grand Challenges requires engineering expertise, but they won’t be solved by engineers alone.

Olin College of Engineering is one of more than 120 engineering schools that announced plans to educate a new generation of engineers who will be equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century. The letter of commitment was presented to President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on March 23, 2015.

These "Grand Challenges," identified through initiatives such as the White House Strategy for American Innovation, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, include complex yet critical goals such as engineering better medicines, making solar energy cost-competitive with coal, securing cyberspace, and advancing personalized learning tools to deliver better education to more individuals.

The goal over the next ten years is to train more than 20,000 formally recognized “Grand Challenge Engineers” who will be prepared to lead the way in solving large-scale, global problems.

More than a quarter of the nation’s engineering schools are now committed to establishing programs to educate engineers to take on the Grand Challenges. President Richard Miller is a co-leader of the initiative, along with Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and Yannis Yortsos, dean of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering.

“Teaching engineering fundamentals in the classroom is important, but it’s not enough,” said Miller. “Solving our planet’s Grand Challenges requires engineering expertise, but they won’t be solved by engineers alone. Doubling down on even more hard sciences and math will not help. Instead, we need to incorporate new elements into engineering students’ education to give them both the skillset and the mindset needed to become leaders in addressing societal challenges.”

Grand Challenge Engineers will be trained through special programs at each institution that integrate five educational elements: (1) a hands-on research or design project connected to the Grand Challenges; (2) real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors; (3) entrepreneurship and innovation experience; (4) global and cross-cultural perspectives; and (5) service-learning.

The training model was inspired by the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP), established in 2009 by Olin College, Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, and the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering in response to the NAE’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century. There are currently 20 active GCSPs and more than 160 NAE-designated Grand Challenge Scholars have graduated to date. Half of the graduates are women—compared with just 19 percent of U.S. undergraduate engineering students—demonstrating the program’s appeal to groups typically underrepresented in engineering.

Examples of GCSP participants working on Grand Challenges include: Olin’s Luke Metz, who is engineering computerized writing aids to advance personalized learning; Alex Caven at the State University of New York (SUNY), who is involved in efforts to provide access to clean water in Haiti; Michaela Rikard, who is working on engineering better medicines at North Carolina State University; and Allison Kindig at University of Iowa, who is creating sustainable engineering projects in developing countries.

“The NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering are already inspiring more and more of our brightest young people to pursue careers that will have direct impacts on improving the quality of life for people across the globe,” said NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. “Imagine the impact of tens of thousands of additional creative minds focused on tackling society’s most vexing challenges. ‘Changing the world’ is not hyperbole in this case. With the right encouragement, they will do it and inspire others as well.”

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Anne-Marie Dorning
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