2017 National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting

Realizing the Vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering Depends on the Grand Challenges Scholars Program

53rd National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting
October 8, 2017


Welcome to this year’s annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering, and a special welcome to our new members and foreign members on your induction day. I hope last night’s dinner in the Great Hall was “one to remember” for you. That dinner experience remains permanently etched in my memory, which is one reason we do our best to create the magic of the evening for you. I also welcome our anniversary members, who received a personal invitation to this meeting on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of their election and every five-year interval thereafter. Your registration fee is waived, and your new class picture will verify for your admirers that you still pass for the 25-year-old surfer you once were. Spouses, families, and guests, you all are most welcome too and I do hope you enjoy the program and the opportunity to meet your friends from afar.

Each year this meeting provides an opportunity for us to talk about where we are going as an academy, to highlight an engineering theme that is quickly developing in the world, and to recognize distinguished NAE award winners. The winners of the Simon Ramo Founders Award, the Arthur M. Bueche Award, and the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education will be introduced later today, so I will suppress my natural inclination to gush over them now.

The theme for this meeting, autonomy on the land and sea and in the air and space, was chosen in part because autonomy is running away with us at the moment. This engineering system theme is highly multidisciplinary, multicultural, and global, relying on communications, artificial intelligence, sensors, virtual and enhanced reality, big data, information technology, security, and so forth. While our first thoughts on autonomy may turn to the transportation domain (cars, trucks, trains, drones, ships, aircraft, space, delivery services, traffic monitoring, bicycle rentals, Uber), this is just the beginning. The prominence of autonomy has leaped to the forefront because it moved from its creators directly to the marketplace, abruptly and powerfully jumping past all issues in between. It’s coming fast, coming big, and coming globally with unavoidably disruptive consequences. It is an exemplar of what we must come to expect from large-scale engineering systems in today’s connected world.

Speaking to us on autonomy this afternoon are Mr. Joichi Ito, a creator of diverse autonomous systems who is professor and director of the MIT Media Lab, and Dr. Patrick Lin, professor and director of the ethics and emerging sciences group at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, who will bring societal and ethical perspectives to the autonomy theme. Tomorrow morning’s forum engages a panel on the autonomy movement, each with particular expertise in one of the title area domainsland, sea, air, and space. The panel will present both an integrated view of autonomy opportunities and challenges and also views focused on each title area. Mr. Ali Velshi, of NBC News, will moderate the panel and handle questions from the audience.


As a brief review for later discussion, solutions to the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering[1] are necessary goals to realize the 21st century engineering vision:

"Continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, secure, healthy, and joyful”

The challenges are all global-scale engineering system challenges whose solutions will depend on the assembly of inputs from locales around the world. They are a movement that requires the participation of people from countries and cultures that are inspired by the vision. They are arguably the clearest and most compelling explanation of engineering for students and the public alike because they illustrate bothvast span of engineering and how engineering serves people and society. And they constitute the first global vision for engineering in history.

Since their publication in 2008, the Grand Challenges have spawned both a biannual series of Global Grand Challenges Summits hosted by the NAE, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the UK Royal Academy of Engineering to address them, and a Grand Challenges Scholars Program reparing students to address them, and engineering system problems like them, that is spreading like wildfire.


I would now like to open with my principal conclusion so that you can think about it during my comments. The principal conclusion of my remarks today is:

A necessary condition for achieving the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering is the successful global implementation of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

This conclusion is driven by the following observations:

  1. Students in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program are highly committed to the Grand Challenges for Engineering.
  2. Students have the capability to introduce the Grand Challenges for Engineering movement into their local communities.
  3. Students have the potential for leadership on the Grand Challenges for Engineering especially as they become professionals and volunteers.
  4. The solutions to the Grand Challenges for Engineering are mandated to serve all global communities and no viable alternative for fulfilling that mandate is apparent.

I will endeavor to illustrate why engaging global engineering youth is necessary to achieving the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering. First, the summit.

The 3rd Global Grand Challenges for Engineering Summit (http://ggcs2017.org/) was hosted jointly by the NAE, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Chinese Academy of Engineering here in Washington in July. It was the largest program in NAE history, with some 900 attendees, more than half of whom were university students from nearly 150 universities in the three countries. It required multiple venues here at the National Academy of Sciences Building, George Washington University, and the US Institute of Peace.

The summit series (the 1st was in London in 2013, the 2nd in Beijing in 2015) facilitates collaborations to address the Grand Challenges, maintains the focus on the Grand Challenges vision, and, importantly, is an opportunity to inspire students and next-generation engineers to engage with the Grand Challenges for Engineering. The thematic focus of this year’s summit was sustainability, health, security, and joy of living, as well as education and public engagement. Topics included virtual reality and artificial intelligence, engineering and health care, climate change, and reverse engineering of the brain.

The program was divided between expert presentations on progress toward addressing the Grand Challenges and dynamic ways to engage student interest and participation. For the students, there were poster and business plan competitions, a podcast competition on “How to Change the World,” and extended Q&A opportunities with the speakers and sponsors. And student presentations on their experiences in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program highlighted the transformational impacts of this program on their education and, the highest accolade of all, on their choice of engineering career. I encourage you to visit the summit website[2] where the presentations can be viewed, and to read about the very impressive student competition winners.[3]

In addition, in a collaborative arrangement with NAE member Dean Kamen, the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge robotics competition (FIRST stands for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”; http://first.global/fgc/) drew high school student teams representing 157 countries in an Olympic Gamesstyle, national team competition. The contest asked participants to take on one of the Grand Challenges—namely, providing access to clean water.

I sincerely appreciate the most generous sponsorship of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and Shell Oil Company that made this summit possible. We also received substantial support from NAE members G. Wayne Clough and Ming Hsieh. I cannot thank them enough for making this unique global summit a transformational success.


Because the vision for the Grand Challenges for Engineering and their solutions are global, fulfilling that vision requires engaging people all over the world. Given the interest young engineers have expressed in the challenges, including their participation in our three summits, engaging them in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program has the best potential for galvanizing them to work on the challenges globally. This is a principal goal of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program as well as the key to achieving the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering. A second, broader goal is to prepare students for the multicultural, multidisciplinary, socially conscious global engagement needed for 21st century engineering, through an educational supplement that is adaptable to any university engineering education program.

In creating a Grand Challenges Scholars Program, two questions are of primary importance, one for the students and one for the universities. For the students, what supplement to a traditional engineering program would stimulate their interest in and preparation for the vision and goals of the Grand Challenges for Engineering and problems like them? For the universities, to prepare students for global engineering initiatives, what could universities everywhere implement easily that concentrates on highly valued program outcomes (student competencies) while leaving the program details to each university? In this way each participating university determines which students it will admit to its program, how it will nurture each student competency, whether student achievement merits certification as a Grand Challenges Scholar, and how it will recognize its students who merit certification. Beyond agreeing to and certifying student achievement in the competencies, each university controls its own program. The National Academy of Engineering also recognizes those students who merit certification.

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program was introduced in 2009, just one year after the Grand Challenges for Engineering report, to answer brilliantly these two questions. It enhances students’ competencies in five areas that are not usual elements of an engineering curriculum. The competencies are:

  • Research/creativity – Mentored research or creative experience on a Grand Challenge-like topic; talent competency
  • Multicultural understanding – Understanding of cultures, preferably through a multicultural experience, to ensure cultural acceptance of proposed solutions; cultural competency
  • Multidisciplinarity – Understanding of multidisciplinary engineering system solutions, developed through engagement; multidisciplinarity competency
  • Viable business/entrepreneurship – Understanding, preferably developed through experience, of the necessity of a viable business model for solution implementation; business competency
  • Social consciousness – Understanding that solutions should serve primarily people and society, reflecting social consciousness; service learning promotes social consciousness; social consciousness competency

Comments on the Value of the Five Competencies

Engineering talent is the coin of the global realm. Every country, company, university, and organization I encounter seeks engineering talent, especially engineering talent needed in high-demand initiatives. Some countries recruit talent using incentives, and some take opportunities to the talent by creating centers at home and abroad, and some do both. Even China, which graduates more bachelor-degreed engineers than the United States, European Union, and Japan combined, assertively recruits talent in engineering to meet its projected needs.

Engineering is the empowering discipline of our time, creating unprecedented advances for sustainability, health, security, and quality of life in our rapidly advancing technological environment. And this role for engineering can only increase because of advancing technological tools, opportunities for making advancements, scientific progress, societal needs, and increasing numbers of engineering systems. Engineering education today must prepare the talent needed for 21st century engineering.

Engineering education today should also be preparing engineering students for opportunities beyond those in their homeland. It should be preparing them to engage in engineering globally through foreign engineering experiences in multicultural, multidisciplinary, socially conscious initiatives. I feel strongly that in this century, all engineers from every country must be prepared for serious global engagement, even if the idea may seem remote at the moment. Change is accelerating, globalization continues to expand, and preparation for this reality will be invaluable today and inevitable subsequently.

Spread of the Grand Challenges Scholars Programs

In 2015 more than 100 US engineering deans signed a letter to President Obama committing to launch Grand Challenges Scholars Programs and prepare at least 20,000 Grand Challenges Scholars over the next decade. Last year 29 US programs were operational and 6 were under review. Now 56 US universities have operational programs or programs under review, and another 33 are exploring programs that total increase is almost a factor of 3. Based on this strong interest, about 200 domestic programsmore than half of the engineering colleges in this countrywould be a reasonable US target.

In addition, Grand Challenges Scholars Programs are operational or being formed at 19 foreign universities, where one year ago the number was just 2. The number of foreign university programs should actually exceed the US number to extend the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering globally.

Interest in the program among students is high, so continued growth, often driven by the students themselves, is realistic. Participation in the program by students from fields outside engineering is expected and determined by each university.

The program has also been incorporated in K12 curriculums and in after-school programs in a dozen school districts.

Points to Note about the Grand Challenges Scholars Program

  1. The Grand Challenges Scholars Program is a bridge from a national program to a global one that prepares students to undertake multicultural, multidisciplinary engineering system issues to serve people and society. The talent competency can link the program to areas beyond the Grand Challenges for Engineering.
  2. The program’s expansion has been driven largely by student interest and leadership. In a number of instances, students have created the program and then recruited a faculty mentor.
  3. Participating students are the link to the young engineering communities around the world who will carry the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering forward globally.
  4. The Grand Challenges for Engineering inspire engineering careers among students from diverse backgrounds, especially women and underrepresented minorities, who constitute more than half of the students in the program, although they account for about a quarter of the US engineering student population.


While there have been indications of this for some years, this past year has shown clearly that we are experiencing the time of the young engineer. As I mentioned, more than half the attendees at this year’s summit were university students and the event inspired their interest in the Grand Challenges for Engineering. One sophomore, Mr. Benjamin Secino from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, wrote to me afterward and said: “the message I took from the lectures was one of fascinating progress and ongoing opportunity. Thank you for framing the Grand Challenges in a light that inspires the hundreds of students at the summit to work on long-term solutions. The [summit] is exactly what we need to inspire the current generation of engineering students to solve the problems of the world they will be graduating into.” His understanding of the summits’ vision and goals, and his excitement about them, are truly inspiring for this old professor.

From the beginning, the challenge of the Grand Challenges for Engineering has been fulfilling their vision for the planet, requiring solutions that serve all people and societies. The solutions depend on the locale of their implementation—some, like access to clean water, can vary significantly within short distances. The vision of the Grand Challenges can therefore be met only by an assembly of solutions each serving a particular locales, that together serve all people. Each locale needs access to engineering talent to ensure effective realization of the vision of the Grand Challenges.

As the Grand Challenges Scholars Program continues to expand nationally and globally, the bridges for solutions to Grand Challenges for particular locales will be built by the young engineers who participate in the program. Scholars Programs will share information, implement solutions to the Grand Challenges communicated by others, and collaborate with others to reach out around the world. Some scholars will start companies. Many will have grand ideas. And so the assembly of talent and leadership, and the reach of assembled local solutions, will piece-by-piece span more of the globe as the Grand Challenges Scholars Program continues its expansion. That is why this program is the key to fulfilling the vision of the Grand Challenges for Engineering in this century.

Stay tuned.



[1] The 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering (http://engineeringchallenges.org/): 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.

[3] https://www.nae.edu/MediaRoom/20095.aspx