USC Viterbi School of Engineering Dean Yannis C. Yortsos is helping to lead an initiative that could educate a new generation of engineers.
In a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair on March 23, more than 120 U.S. engineering schools announced plans to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century.
These “Grand Challenges,” identified through initiatives such as the White House Strategy for American Innovation, the National Academy of Engineering 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.
“We’re poised to transform the landscape of engineering higher education,” said Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and a co-leader of the initiative along with Yortsos and Richard Miller, president of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. “The tremendous response suggests we’ve tapped into something powerful — the very human element connecting engineering with students who want to make a real difference. I think we’re going to see these Grand Challenge Engineers do just that.”
Leading the way
Each of the 122 signing schools has pledged to graduate a minimum of 20 students per year who have been specially prepared to lead the way in solving such large-scale problems, with the goal of training more than 20,000 formally recognized Grand Challenge Engineers over the next decade.
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.
We’re poised to transform the landscape of engineering higher education.
Grand Challenge Engineers will be trained through special programs at each institution that integrate five educational elements:
- A hands-on research or design project connected to the Grand Challenges.
- Real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors.
- Entrepreneurship and innovation experience.
- Global and cross-cultural perspectives.
“Teaching engineering fundamentals in the classroom is important, but it’s not enough,” Miller said. “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 skill set and the mind-set needed to become leaders in addressing societal challenges.”
The training model was inspired by the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP), established in 2009 by Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Olin College and USC Viterbi 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.
“The idea of giving back is so important, and we’re actually learning how to do that,” said Lyssa Aruda, a Grand Challenge Scholar at USC, who is working on making solar energy economical. “I think that’s probably the reason most of us choose engineering in the first place — to have the opportunity to give back to people.”