December 05, 2013
Three years ago, the National Academy of Engineering released its list of tough challenges to crack. To solve these issues, engineers are bringing in help from across the disciplines.
BY EVA KAPLAN-LEISERSON
But when the academy announced its 14 Grand Challenges for the 21st century in February 2008, the media largely ignored the list—despite the high-profile experts attached to the effort. Not a group that gives up easily, engineers since then have transformed the disappointing response into a rallying cry to launch initiatives uniting academia, industry, government, and entertainment. They're aiming not only to better solve some of society's toughest issues but also to use them to excite students about engineering.
The idea for the Grand Challenges project grew out of an earlier NAE list. In 2003, the academy published the book A Century of Innovation: Twenty Engineering Achievements That Transformed Our Lives and developed a Web site on the list of the greatest 20th century engineering achievements.
But Vest describes the initial announcement as landing "with a dull thud." USA Today published one small paragraph on the challenges, but they were mainly covered overseas.
Vest was disappointed with the media response to the challenges, especially in light of the heavy hitters who served on the committee. "I thought with the power of that group behind us, if we can't at least get a little article here and there, we really are in trouble," he says.
Yannis Yortsos, dean of the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, agrees. "We have not seen an article in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Washington Post that says engineering is pushing forward with this big dream or vision," he says. "It hasn't happened no matter how hard we've tried."
But where the media fell down, others picked up—particularly educators. Yortsos is part of a triad that calls itself "the three Greeks." He, engineering Dean Tom Katsouleas of Duke University, and President Richard Miller of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, were inspired by the Grand Challenges and saw them as "a great blueprint" to help engineering schools engage students, Yortsos says.
The three men planned two national Grand Challenge Summits, in 2009 and 2010, and helped launch five regional ones in 2010. The events brought together engineers, scientists, educators, policy leaders, researchers, executives, and students. They were not sponsored by the NAE but were endorsed by the organization.
Katsouleas describes the summits as very different in feel from a traditional engineering conference—more like a jam session than a concert. Panel discussions were sometimes discordant, with people hitting completely different notes and not meshing, the Duke dean explains. But other times, the voices resonated—for instance in the unanimous cry for educating students from elementary school to college to tackle the challenges.
Out of the first summit, held at Duke University in March 2009, came a three-way collaboration between Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University to create a new Ph.D. program combining pharmaceutical science and engineering. It will help with the challenge of engineering better medicines.
Another outgrowth of the first Grand Challenges Summit was the creation of a new Grand Challenge Scholars program. It encourages students to add five components to their traditional engineering experience that can help prepare them to meet the challenges: a Grand-Challenge-related research project, an interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship experience, a global dimension, and service learning. When they do so, the NAE adds a special designation on their transcript.
The program, proposed by Duke, Olin, and the University of Southern California and endorsed by the NAE, now includes almost 40 engineering schools nationwide. According to Vest, speaking at the second summit at USC in October, this program may be the most important impact of the Grand Challenge effort.
In addition, engineering schools have developed various prizes and awards relating to the Grand Challenges. A USC Viterbi School board member recently donated money to create an annual$50,000 entrepreneurship prize, which in its first four or five years will be awarded to students who create business plans related to the Grand Challenges, Yortsos explains.
Olin's Extraordinary Stories Student Awards, arising out of a foundation endowment in 2010, are given to applicants who complete science and engineering projects that address one of the 14 Grand Challenges.
And the National Academy of Engineering itself is teaming up with the Institute of Medicine on a competition in which college students will be asked to use a public database of health information to develop new mobile apps to improve health care. The best idea will win a cash award. Advancing health informatics is another Grand Challenge.
Elementary, middle, and high schools are not left out of the Grand Challenge effort. An NAE Grand Challenge K12 Partners Program links university colleges of engineering with elementary, middle, and high schools to help them conduct activities related to the Grand Challenges and provide resources and support.
Wilcox says the Grand Challenges serve as a "brilliant structure" for directing research. Because the NAE is a respected, unbiased organization, he says, their challenges have served to set a standard to bring together the best and brightest of the country.
"There aren't a lot of forums that call together academia, government, and industry around one set of goals," he says. "It's a really important structure for moving the dialogue forward."
At the company's annual symposium with more than 300 engineers and technologists, Wilcox asked groups of young engineers to present poster sessions on each of the Grand Challenges. Those engineers will also help Lockheed Martin examine how the company can use existing technology and systems development efforts to advance the challenges.
Wilcox believes that industry's voice needs to be louder in the dialogue. "It's ultimately industry that will take these technologies and systems forward to meet the Grand Challenges," he says. "So we need to step up our involvement." Lockheed is discussing with the NAE ways the company can help promote such action.
Vest says dialogue has opened up between companies and the academy. The NAE has recently formed a Grand Challenges Advisory Committee, chaired by Katsouleas, which includes industry representatives.
The NAE president would like to see pieces of the Grand Challenges appearing in industry advertising and the way companies think about their own R&D, although he notes the effort probably won't get credit. "I couldn't care less about that," he says. "The point is, can you get the excitement and messages out there?"
Visitors could try out 3D scanning and view how it's bringing together the virtual and real worlds, perform brain surgery on a computer-generated replica of a brain, and paint with 3D light. The exhibit aligned with the challenges of enhancing virtual reality and reverse engineering the brain.
Imagine It!, a nonprofit initiative from various STEM groups, universities, and individuals that produces videos, events, and Webinars to engage students' imaginations, included a section in its latest film on the Grand Challenges and interviewed Vest and Grand Challenge committee members.
And in February, the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences held a summit bringing together scientists, engineers, and educators with movie and television writers, directors, and producers to brainstorm using entertainment to teach science in the classroom. The NAE believes the Grand Challenges could play a part in those efforts as well.
In July 2010, the directors of the federal Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science Technology Policy released a memo on science and technology priorities for the fiscal year 2012 budget. It explained that agencies should pursue "transformational solutions to the nation's practical challenges" and "some of this research should be motivated by the 'grand challenges' of the 21st century, such as those identified by the National Academy of Engineering."
"So we're getting into important places," said Vest at the second summit. He stressed the importance of reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act, which grows the budgets of the National Science Foundation and other key agencies, enhances STEM education, and authorizes support for the energy-research agency ARPA-E. It also gives departments and agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions, which can help motivate innovative solutions.
America COMPETES resulted from the recommendations in the National Academies' report Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Reauthorizing the bill, which occurred in December, was just the first step. Funding for the various measures was still being hashed out.
And, while "things have a lot of parents," Vest believes he heard some Grand-Challenge-related rhetoric in President Obama's January State of the Union speech. The President called for the U.S. to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."
But Katsouleas believes engineers need to get more involved in government efforts. "I think policy is too important to be left to the politicians," he says. "We need to embrace it and engage it as engineers as well."
The NAE's new Grand Challenges Advisory Committee may help with that—for instance, in providing advice to funding agencies. Currently there aren't Requests for Proposals or funding opportunities as wide as the challenges, Katsouleas explains. "We need calls [for funding] that are broad enough to fund not just engineering but social scientists and humanists and business leaders," he says.
He wants the committee to nurture the movement without getting in its way, serving as an information exchange and keeping the Grand Challenges in the public eye without choking progress. One step it might take is to develop some kind of visual meters to show the progress on Grand-Challenge-related research, says Katsouleas.
There is still a long way to go on solving the challenges; the Duke dean points out that the original committee was charged with identifying opportunities for the 21st century, so the list has a 100-year horizon.
On some challenges, we're creeping ahead slowly but surely—making solar energy economical, for example. Others have many more years to go—such as providing energy from fusion.
But Olin's Miller believes that engineers are the natural facilitators for these conversations on a global scale. The October 2010 American Society for Engineering Education global colloquium in Singapore included discussion about the value of focusing on the Grand Challenges, he says. And Vest believes the global aspect of the challenges is something the advisory committee will discuss further.
As Katsouleas puts it, "what makes the Grand Challenges so important is that they are in essence what we need to be human."
Note: This article has been amended from the print edition to correct the name of the president of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
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