U.S. Engineering Schools to Educate 20,000 Students to Meet Grand Challenges

April 17, 2015

President Barack Obama greets science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) leaders including National Academy of Engineering President C. D. Mote Jr. during the 2015 White House Science Fair, in the Map Room of the White House, March 23, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2015 -- In a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair today, more than 120 U.S. engineering schools announced plans to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped 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 (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.

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,” said Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and a co-leader of the initiative along with Yannis Yortsos, dean of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, 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.”

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. 

“Teaching engineering fundamentals in the classroom is important, but it’s not enough,” said Richard Miller of Olin College. “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.”