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Rose-Hulman Joining Engineers in Meeting the Grand Challenges

June 3, 2013

          Engineers Without Borders
  HELPING HANDS: Members of the Engineers Without Borders student chapter helped bring a medical clinic and a sanitary system to citizens of Batey Santa Rosa in the Dominican Republic as an international humanitarian project. (Photo by Faculty Advisor John Gardner)

Until freshman Beth Reinert helped teammates design a makeshift skylight as a low-cost lighting alternative for poor households in Kenya, she assumed the only way engineers could have a positive impact on the world was to go into biomedical engineering.

The Introduction to Design course project—a 2-liter plastic jug filled with water and a bit of bleach that, when wedged into a hole drilled into a roof, diffracts light equal to a 50-watt light bulb—was just one of the ways Reinert was sold on the world-changing power of engineering in a course led by Assistant Professor Ashley Bernal, PhD.

“The work I’ve done in Dr. Bernal’s class has shown me that there are so many ways that mechanical engineers can get involved in humanitarian aid to improve the quality of life of others,” says the student.

That’s music to the ears of the National Academy of Engineering, that in 2008 identified affordable solar energy as one of the top engineering challenges for the 21st century, and Bernal, one of several Rose-Hulman faculty members who have woven those challenges into their coursework to prepare the next generation to tackle them on a global scale.

NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering grew out of an academy project heralding the greatest achievements in the 20th century. Thanks to inventions like airplanes and computers, our world is vastly different today than it was a century ago, says Randy Atkins, NAE’s director of the Grand Challenges project.

“So we thought, ‘What are the game changers for the next part of the next century?’”

After posing that question to a dream team of high-profile technological thinkers, including Google co-founder Larry Page and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, NAE identified 14 Grand Challenges that range from providing access to clean water to reverse-engineering the brain to preventing nuclear terror (see list below). “All [of the Challenges] will improve the quality of life in our nation and the world,” NAE President Charles Vest stressed to reporters at the time.

What’s more, the challenges would serve as a Sputnik moment for the next generation after decades of fruitless efforts to turn out more homegrown engineers. Rose-Hulman has accepted the challenge, seeing its role as an institute that nurtures these “world changers.”

“We’re trying to create an awareness of these problems, motivate students, and provide them with skills so they can be a part of the solutions,” says Philip Cornwell, PhD, Rose-Hulman’s vice president for academic affairs. “To me the value of the Grand Challenges is that they put these problems in a larger societal complex. Our primary emphasis is on student development. They will become the problems-solvers of the world,” he adds.

The call to action has sparked considerable enthusiasm among educators and the next generation of engineers. More than a dozen engineering colleges have adopted an NAE-endorsed Grand Challenge for Engineering Scholars program that combines an interdisciplinary curriculum and extracurricular activities to prepare engineering students to become world changers.

Inspired by the Scholars program, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Sean Moseley, PhD, has spearheaded Rose-Hulman’s efforts to incorporate the challenges into the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. “I liked the ideas of providing context to all the technical things we teach,” he says. For example, a lesson on heat transfer can be applied to designing a less-polluting cooking system for a community that needs one. In teaching engineering, Moseley states, “We tend to focus on details and what the numbers should be at the end. Sometimes we lose the perspective of why we care.”

In her professional and technical communications course, English Professor Julia Williams, PhD, asks student teams to make presentations on one of the Grand Challenges that affects them. Last year, one team focused on the clean water challenge, mining the personal experience of a student from Tennessee whose younger sister had become ill from contaminated well water.

“It can be easy for students to think that the Grand Challenges deal with challenges outside of U.S.,” says Williams, “They need to see challenges within a more local context. [Yet] if they understand problems close to home, they can take that knowledge with them and extrapolate it globally.”

Challenges Presentation              
Learning About Others’ Needs: Freshman mechanical engineering students examined how to help people in Kenya through providing low-cost, efficient energy devices in an Introduction to Design course this spring. (Photo by Dale Long)
 

Williams’ class draws from a mix of academic majors, forcing students to work in multidisciplinary groups. This is essential to addressing the complex issues involved in each challenge. As Atkins puts it, “The Grand Challenges won’t be solved by engineers alone.”

To that end, Bernal has partnered with Scott Kirkpatrick, PhD, assistant professor of physics and optical engineering, and English Professor Anneliese Watt, PhD, to offer an intensive, multidisciplinary research project on solar energy this summer. Open to all majors, the 10-week Summer Grand Challenge course will focus on making solar energy affordable and practical for Kenya and other developing countries. The program is a pilot, but Bernal sees a future in which the other 13 Grand Challenges shape summer courses.

Williams has already seen signs that students are attracted to Rose-Hulman because of programs like this. “Not every student comes in wanting to change the world, but I do see more of them with a plan to do that kind of work,” she says.

Moseley thinks graduates exposed to these sorts of experiences have a leg-up. “I’d like to think that [our] grads are better prepared to solve these problems as a result of the things we’re doing on campus,” he says.

Ultimately, Moseley hopes the Grand Challenges will change the perception of engineering. “I’d like high school students to think of engineering as having just as much of an impact on people as doctors. Instead of an individual, we’re helping a lot of people at once.”
 

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The Grand Challenges

For Engineering

Here are the Grand Challenges for Engineering as determined by a committee of the National Academy of Engineering:

  • Make solar energy economical
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration methods
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Reverse-engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Advance personalized learning
  • Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

www.engineeringchallenges.org

 

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QUOTE OUTTAKES:

“To me the value of the Grand Challenges is that they put these problems in a larger societal complex. Our primary emphasis is on student development. They will become the problems-solvers of the world.”

      - Phillip Cornwell, PhD, Vice President for Academic Affairs
 

“I’d like high school students to think of engineering as having just as much of an impact on people as doctors. Instead of an individual, we’re helping a lot of people at once.”

      -Sean Moseley, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering
 

“It can be easy for students to think that the Grand Challenges deal with challenges outside of U.S.…[Yet] if they understand problems close to home, they can take that knowledge with them and extrapolate it globally.”

      -Julia Williams, PhD, Professor of English