The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will be the newest institution participating in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, an initiative supported by the National Academy of Engineering to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century.
The Grand Challenges Scholars Program, implemented at fewer than 100 universities nationwide, is a curriculum-integrated, co-curricular and extracurricular program with five competencies designed to prepare the next generation of students to address society’s grand challenges. Once accepted into the GCSP, each institution creates its own program for implementing the competencies.
The UTC GCSP will begin in the fall 2023 semester as a partnership between the College of Engineering and Computer Science and the Honors College—with participation from the other colleges on campus.
“This will be the first college- or department-specific honors program on campus beyond the Honors College,” said UTC Honors College Dean Linda Frost, “and I believe this is the first Grand Challenges anywhere that’s an actual collaboration between an Honors College and a College of Engineering.”
According to the GCSP website, an international group of leading technological thinkers were asked around 15 years ago to identify the Grand Challenges for improving life on the planet in the 21st century.
These 14 Grand Challenges, which range from making solar energy economical to securing cyberspace to providing access to clean water, were announced in 2008 and fall into four themes: sustainability, health, security and joy of living. The GCSP was then established to incentivize engineering programs to focus on these big-picture issues.
Frost has been involved with bringing the GCSP initiative to UTC for several years, along with—among others—College of Engineering and Computer Science Dean Daniel Pack, Guerry Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Daniel Loveless and UC Foundation Professor of Mechanical Engineering Cecelia Wigal.
Frost was introduced to the program at a national conference, saying she was fascinated after learning directly from undergraduate students about the types of projects they were involved in.
“I love the Grand Challenges model and find it extremely interesting,” Frost said. “You can tell that engineers put it together because it’s sustainable, and while it’s driven by engineering, it’s very interdisciplinary.”
Students participating in the GCSP will have to demonstrate competency in each of the five Grand Challenges requirements, including:
- Mentored research and creative endeavors
- Understanding multidisciplinary engineering systems solutions developed through personal engagement
- Comprehending entrepreneurship through the viability of business models for solution implementation
- Recognizing different cultures through multicultural experiences to ensure cultural acceptance of proposed engineering solutions
- Understanding that engineering solutions should primarily serve people and society, reflecting social consciousness
Frost said she can envision undergraduate research on subjects like water quality, solar energy economy and cybersecurity, saying that Chattanooga is a great place to do these projects because “there are a lot of things happening in Chattanooga that make this an even better bet for this kind of program to be successful.”
“It’s that interdisciplinary approach which is what this is all about,” Frost said. “The students shape their undergraduate experience in such a way that it all feeds into their culminating work—whatever their senior project is. At UTC, it will be an honors thesis and it will be focused on the Grand Challenge that they chose.
“It’s great in terms of faculty/student interaction, and what’s cool for us here at UTC is that we already have two fabulous directors in Cecelia Wigal and Daniel Loveless. Both of them have done really important work on campus and both are fabulous with students.”
Each student gets to create their own path; for instance, a student on a mechanical engineering track might work with a faculty member in entrepreneurship—and get a minor in that field.
“If we think about the big problems humanity is facing, they’re not discipline-focused; they’re multidisciplinary,” Loveless said. “It’s all about collaboration. There’s not a department for sustainability. Certainly, we tackle those problems and have our disciplines in engineering.
“But this is, in my view, a way to create a connection for students to see how what they’re doing matters for the betterment of humanity. This program brings people together to help illustrate to students a path to connect what they’re learning and studying—and makes it something bigger.”
One of the tenets of the new program is that it will enable students to make a visible impact on their world as part of their degree programs by providing research opportunities and support to UTC faculty whose research interests coincide with the Grand Challenges.
“If they can see the big picture they will make those connections,” Wigal said. “This Grand Challenges program allows them to build how they want that experience and what they want to learn. It helps them build that experience and become immersed in that learning.
“To see all the opportunities on the campus, have faculty be a part of the student experience, and then see how our students can be involved in the community to expand their experiences—that’s so exciting to me.”
Community involvement is essential, Loveless said. Part of the requirement for students is that “there’s some sort of community engagement at some level right through this program.”
“Community engagement, internships, things like that. Through that, they’re touching some topical challenges,” Loveless said. “From our point of view, it’s a rewarding part of the experience. We’re conduits for them in helping them realize their potential, so we’re here to help them make those connections and help them identify what opportunities exist—and make those happen.
“This program is all about bringing people together to help students see a path to connect what they’re learning and studying toward something bigger. This is a way for us to connect across campus to our community, provide a path for students to embrace those challenges, and see how they’re doing in their curriculum and activities as a college student matter in the big picture. That’s the way I see it.”
Added Wigal, “For faculty, you really get to know the students and help them find their path. I’m so excited to learn about what’s out there, see what the students get excited about and see what they can bring.”