Challenges Accepted

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Undergraduates Can Address Grand Challenges for Engineering

Boston University has been creating Societal Engineers – those who use the unique skill sets of the engineer to improve society – for more than a decade now, and the concept has resonated with students and alumni. Also about a decade ago, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) announced its Grand Challenges for Engineering, a set of 14 goals for improving life worldwide.

Starting this fall, BU College of Engineering students will have the opportunity to take advantage of this synergy in the new NAE Grand Challenges Scholar Program.

As Grand Challenges Scholars, students will have the chance to tackle a major societal challenge – such as carbon sequestration or cybersecurity – from a multi-disciplinary perspective and gain a designation on their degrees.

“There is real alignment between the goals of the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program and our long-standing commitment to creating Societal Engineers,” said College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen. “This program is designed to incentivize our students to use the power of engineering and the Grand Challenges competencies to advance society.”

Students’ commitment to working on technologies that will have a positive impact on the world has been duly noted in recent years, said Associate Dean for Educational Initiatives Thomas Little. “The essence of this program is to steer student learning toward big-ticket goals and find ways for motivated students to tailor their learning in association with these Grand Challenges,” he said. “The other element of the program is to reinforce the skills and discipline required to be effective in leading in the Grand Challenges. We really want to send students into the world with skills that will enable transformation in the Grand Challenges areas.”

Participating students will fulfill five competencies specified by NAE: talent; multidisciplinary engineering systems; viable business/entrepreneurship; multicultural; and social consciousness. Completing the NAE requirements to become a Grand Challenge Scholar can dovetail with a student’s BU degree and major requirements. Senior design projects, completing certain concentrations or minors, and study abroad are examples of some curricular offerings that would also fulfill Grand Challenges Scholars competencies. Work completed in some extracurricular activities, such as the Imagineering Competition or Technology Innovation Scholars Program, could also count.

A student in interested in clean energy technologies as a way to reduce carbon emissions might be matched with novel materials research in a summer lab internship, work in a technology startup using algae to convert sunlight into fuel, or do a senior design project to study how batteries could be used to balance smart electricity grids for future smart cities.

“Completing degree requirements and NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program competencies will take careful planning,” Little noted. He suggests that students begin the program no later than sophomore year.

Informational sessions and other outreach activities will be begin in the fall, Little said, and students will be expected to take the initiative and apply to the program. A faculty committee will review applications, admit students, approve or reject specific competency proposals, and participate in the evaluation process.

“The NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Program gives students the opportunity to work on these problems and profoundly help humanity if we can solve them,” Little said. “We anticipate a lot of student interest.”