The NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program

In 2007 the National Academy of Engineering, with support from the National Science Foundation, convened a panel of leading thinkers from academia, policy, and business with the charge of identifying a small number of grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century. Their extraordinary list of 14 representative challenges (Box 1) spans the need for sustainability, health, security, and joy of living.

Box 1

The challenges are remarkable because they both convey in very human terms what engineering is and will be about, and clearly show that these concerns are global in nature (e.g., manage the nitrogen cycle), necessarily connected to behavior and policy as well as business (e.g., make solar energy economical), and tap into social consciousness (e.g., provide clean water).

We view the NAE Grand Challenges as a call to action—for the profession and, more specifically to this article, for engineering education.

What’s Different about the Grand Challenge Scholars Program

The NAE Grand Challenge Scholars program ( was announced at the first NAE Grand Challenges Summit in Durham, North Carolina, in 2009.1 It is designed to prepare engineering undergraduates with the skills and mindset to tackle the challenges over the course of their careers. It is now under way at 13 leading universities (Box 2).

Box 2

In addition to the engineering requirements for their degree, students who complete the program create a portfolio with the following five components:

  1. Global education experience
  2. Service learning
  3. Entrepreneurship
  4. Broad general education, including behavior, economics, and policy
  5. Hands-on research or project related to one of the Grand Challenges

Upon completion participating students receive the designation of NAE Grand Challenge Scholar on the transcript from their home institution with the imprimatur of the NAE.

It is worth noting that the Grand Challenge Scholars program leverages and complements existing research and programs in modern engineering education pedagogy. Indeed, most top engineering schools already offer some or all of the five components listed in some form or another. What, then, is the value of bringing them together in this program? That there would be an answer was not certain to us when the initiative was conceived but student response so far indicates that there are several answers to the question “Aren’t engineering schools already doing this?” First, the Grand Challenge Scholars program compels students to stretch to do all five rather than a few of the components. Second, it is one of the few programs that recognizes in the transcript the value (demonstrated through research and experience) of out-of-classroom learning. Third, and more significantly, the overwhelming feedback is that the process of creating their portfolio, as much as the experiences themselves, helps students appreciate the value of those experiences. They gain a better understanding of how everything they have been doing in their undergraduate work comes together to prepare them to face their careers and important societal challenges.

Evidence of Impact

In 2008, the NAE report Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering urged a reframing of what engineering involves to connect with a new generation of students, not to mention the public at large, who are more motivated than ever to change the world and to help people. The Grand Challenges and Scholars program respond directly to that call in a most powerful way.

In 2009, an independent survey conducted for the organizers of the first NAE Grand Challenges Summit measured the responses of several demographics to questions about the importance of engineering relative to medicine, business, and law before and after the respondents heard a brief description of the NAE Grand Challenges. The results were dramatic. After hearing the description, the respondents who rated engineering as more important/more interesting than the other fields increased from 40 percent to 54 percent, and the number who rated it much more important/interesting rose from 18 percent to 27 percent. Moreover, the increases were largest among women and underrepresented groups.2 As a further data point, at one of our institutions (USC), since the recruitment materials for high school seniors was modified to include the Grand Challenges the enrollment of women in the entering class has risen to 38 percent. The Grand Challenge Scholars program then continues to foster that interest once the students are on the college campus.

All of the Grand Challenge Scholars programs have in common the five components above, but differ in their implementation. At Olin College, the development of a comprehensive student portfolio integrating the five Grand Challenge elements (and often other elements involving projects of various kinds) is the primary method of implementation of the Scholars program. Other engineering schools offer freshman seminar or overview courses that incorporate the Grand Challenges.

In most cases, admission to the program is highly selective and takes place later in the undergraduate career. At USC, for example, portfolios of candidates for the distinction Grand Challenge Scholar are submitted for selection and recognition at graduation. At Duke, students attend information sessions in their sophomore year and apply in their junior year; financial support (about $5,000 per student) is provided primarily for the hands-on component, thanks to an endowment from generous donors.3

Incorporating the Grand Challenges in K–12 Education

At a 2010 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, engineering deans were polled for their views as to whether and why Grand Challenges for Engineering should be introduced at the K–12 level. The majority (65 percent) responded that teaching about the challenges in K–12 was important for educating and motivating the public to be a part of their solution. About a third (31 percent) responded that the most important reason to teach the Grand Challenges was to increase the interest in and pipeline for engineering. (Only 4 percent responded that the Grand Challenges were not important to or were too hard for K–12 students.)

Later that year a program aimed at bringing the Grand Challenges to K–12 education ( was announced, at the Regional Grand Challenge Summit in Raleigh, North Carolina, cohosted by Duke and North Carolina State University (NCSU) under the leadership of NCSU Engineering Dean Louis Martin-Vega. Dubbed the NAE Grand Challenges K–12 Partners Program, this national effort attempts to address the two priorities reflected in the deans’ survey. It translates the five components of the Grand Challenge Scholars program to a pedagogy appropriate for K–12 students, creating a resource for teachers with ideas for lesson plans that tie to Common Core and state standards. It also connects undergraduate Grand Challenge Scholars to area schools where they can bring the excitement of the challenges and their own experiences to school children.

Another novel application of the Grand Challenges in K–12 pedagogy is being employed with success at a new magnet high school in the Wake County Public School System on the NCSU campus. The Grand Challenges are infused throughout the curriculum. For example, the challenge “provide clean water” involves an integrated engineering and social studies project comparing water quality at two watersheds in North Carolina. Students perform hands-on water filtration studies and examine the geological and political factors that result in very different water quality in each case.

Expanding and Moving Forward

There have been efforts to broaden the use of the Grand Challenges approach to disciplines beyond engineering. For example, discussions are under way to explore the possibility of creating a Grand Challenge Scholars program for business and liberal arts majors at Babson College and Wellesley College.

Internationally, the NAE recently partnered with the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) to sponsor a follow-on to the US summits and identify the need and opportunities for global cooperation to address the Grand Challenges. That meeting took place in London, March 12–13, 2013. To support research and the role of graduate students, eight universities active in Grand Challenges education announced a PhD scholarship program, called the Charles M. Vest NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering Scholarships (the Vest Scholarships for short; The Scholarships are intended to be something like a reverse Rhodes Scholarship; they provide resources for a PhD student from abroad to study for a year at one of the eight schools, working with faculty on a Grand Challenge topic and then returning to their home institution to complete their degree. The hope is that the scholarships will (1) enrich the participants through their overseas experience, (2) enhance global collaborations that will lead to Grand Challenge solutions, and (3) form a network of scholars, with a common determination to tackle the world’s most difficult and important problems, on which the students will draw throughout their careers.

In summary, the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century are a powerful framing of what the field of engineering is and will become, one that excites and engages young people and the public alike. Moreover, they are an opportunity to “change the conversation” about engineering and to enhance engineering education to give students at all levels the skills and mindset to solve them.


NAE [National Academy of Engineering]. 2008. Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering. Washington: National Academies Press.


1 Information about the Grand Challenges Summit Series is available online at

 2 The survey results are available online at

 3 These donors are Susie Simon and the Niarchos Foundation. It is worth noting that the Niarchos Foundation supports social causes and the arts primarily, and originally did not see a connection between its mission and an engineering school. After learning about the NAE Grand Challenges, foundation representatives were enthusiastic that this kind of program is exactly in line with the foundation’s mission.

About the Author: Tom Katsouleas is Vinik Dean of Engineering at the Duke Pratt School of Engineering. Richard Miller is president of Olin College of Engineering. Yannis Yortsos is dean of the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering.