Students to solve global engineering challenges as Grand Challenge Scholars

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Chemical engineering student Nicole Bernstein and bioengineering student Nick Frazzette are leaders in a new program that will allow students to take the skills they learn in the classroom at Penn State and solve real-world engineering challenges across the globe.

Bernstein and Frazzette are the first students in Penn State’s implementation of its own Grand Challenge Scholars Program -- a combined curricular and extra-curricular program with five components that are designed to prepare students to be the generation that solves the grand challenges facing society in this century.

Penn State’s program is based on The National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program that identifies 14 grand challenges in engineering that students can help solve.  Additionally, challenges identified by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the White House Strategy for American Innovation are included in the scope of the program.

In March, the College of Engineering formalized its participation in a letter presented to President Barack Obama where the college and peer institutions committed to establish special educational programs designed to prepare undergraduates to solve “Grand Challenges” -- complex yet achievable goals to improve national and international health, security, sustainability and quality of life in the 21st century.    

The College of Engineering, specifically, has committed to graduate at least 40 undergraduates and 10 graduate students per year as Grand Challenge Scholars by 2019.

Penn State’s program is going to build upon existing programs in the college, as many students are already working on solutions to some grand challenges in engineering -- even some that are slightly outside of the scope of the 14 that the NAE has set, Bernstein said. Such programs include the Engineering Leadership Development and Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) Programs.

Bernstein and Frazzette are working with Mike Erdman, Walter L. Robb Director of Engineering Leadership Development; Tom Litzinger, director of the Leonhard Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Education and assistant dean for educational innovation and accreditation in the College of Engineering; and Khanjan Mehta, director of the HESE program. Together they are jumpstarting the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, setting goals and recruiting students.

As part of their participation in shaping the program, Bernstein and Frazzette, both Schreyer Scholars, were chosen to go to The Second Global Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing, China, in September.

The students spent their time at the conference learning more about what the grand challenges are, how people are addressing them and what students are doing with their programs at other universities, Bernstein said.

Frazzette said the summit had seven sessions of speakers that focused on the global challenges that engineers face, and each had a presenter from the United States, England and China to provide different perspectives.

“The really cool thing is that not all of them were engineers,” Frazzette said. “In fact, probably only half of them had explicit training in engineering, so it was interesting to see how different disciplines can play together and how people still overcome engineering challenges by not being engineers or by working with engineers.”

Bernstein said it was fascinating to learn about the relatively unknown technology that is going to be making a huge difference in some of the global challenges in the future and the impact it will have.

“These people were talking about very depressing topics -- climate change, ocean levels rising, polluting our atmosphere,” she said. “But each of these people were very optimistic in the sense that there is something we can do to solve these problems.”

In order to be recognized as a Grand Challenge Scholar, students will be required to submit a portfolio demonstrating how they have achieved each of the five elements of the program: a project related to a Grand Challenge theme, interdisciplinary teamwork, entrepreneurship, global engagement and service learning. The portfolio details how their work reflects these elements, how the work impacts the world, the value they are bringing through these projects, and how they are addressing global challenges, Bernstein said.

Frazzette said his goal for the program is to take advantage of developing a global perspective. “It is a very rewarding and educating experience seeing these new perspectives and constantly being challenged to push yourself,” he said.

Last Updated November 03, 2015