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Grand Challenges Scholars Program, National Academy of Engineers (NAE)

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The National Academy of Engineers (NAE) Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) supports challenges to conquer the greatest engineering challenges of the 21st century. Using input from across the country, the NAE identified 14 areas in need of engineering solutions in the 21st century. Within these 14 areas, the GCSP developed a combined, co-, and extra-curricular program that is intended to prepare the next generation of students to address the challenges within society. The GCSP is an outcomes-based program that is designed to inspire a movement within the participant's local ecosystem. The goal is to pilot innovative educational approaches for engineering students and encourage students to engage with a diverse group of their peers from across the globe to solve the challenges that are crucial for the survival of generations to come.

The NAE Committee on Engineering's Grand Challenges has identified 14 areas awaiting engineering solutions in the 21st century:

  1. Making solar energy economical
  2. Provide energy from fusion
  3. Develop carbon sequestration methods
  4. Manage the nitrogen cycle
  5. Provide access to clean water
  6. Restore and improve urban infrastructure
  7. Advance health informatics
  8. Engineer better medicines
  9. Reverse-engineer the brain
  10. Prevent nuclear terror 
  11. Secure cyberspace
  12. Enhance virtual reality
  13. Advanced personalized learning
  14. Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

6-minute video discusses the different aspects of the 14 areas in need of engineering solutions. Finding solutions to the Grand Challenges will positively affect life socially and economically. 

The NAE also hosts the Vest Scholars program which is aimed at international collaborations and the Global Summit Student Day that brings together students from each of the participating organizations (currently the United States, the United Kingdom, and China) for a design competition.


Our next generation of engineers requires more diverse knowledge than ever before. The purpose of NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program is to make engineering students ready to solve the grand challenges that our society currently faces. The Grand Challenges Scholars program is looking at these ambitious tasks:

  •  Create new capabilities
  •  Provide pragmatic solutions for basic human needs
  •  Develop new entrepreneurial opportunities
  •  Reinvent human interactions
  •  Transform systems thinking
  •  Be the architects of a sustainable society
  •  Be mindful of unintended consequences
  •  Connect technology with society

The Five Competencies of Future Engineers

The five components of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program that will prepare future engineers include:

1. Project or research activity engaging a GC theme or challenge. Working to solve the NAE Grand Challenges is the motivation for the GCSP. Each GC scholar must participate in a substantial team or independent project relating to a Grand Challenge theme or specific Grand Challenge problem. 

2. Interdisciplinary curriculum. Bridging engineering to other disciplines is essential for solving the NAE Grand Challenges. An “Engineering-Plus” curriculum should be devised that prepares engineering students to work at the boundary between an engineering and non-engineering disciplines, such as public policy, international relations, business, law, ethics, human behavior, risk, medicine and the natural sciences. However, this must be more than simply double majoring or picking up a minor in a non-engineering discipline. Examples that span these disciplines with a coherent theme are Energy and the Environment, Sustainability, Uncertainty, Optimization, etc. 

3. Entrepreneurship. Implementing innovation is central to technology development. Each GC scholar must participate in a curricular or meta-curricular component on the process of translating invention and innovation into market ventures. This may be either risk-taking ventures for business or introducing technology for not-for-profits that scale global solutions in the public interest. 

4. Global dimension. Global awareness is necessary for working effectively in an interdependent world. Students may participate in a curricular or meta-curricular component that instills elements necessary to develop innovations in a global economy or address ethical issues of global concern. Domestic activities that stress global or cross-cultural implications may satisfy this component.

5. Service learning. Working for the benefit of others is the foundation of a civil society. Students may participate in a curricular or meta-curricular component that deepens their social awareness and to heighten their motivation to bring their technical expertise to bear on societal problems. Programs such as Engineers Without Borders, or Engineering World Health may be adapted to satisfy this component.

Global Impact

As an outcomes-based program, the global dimension is one of the driving competencies. The purpose of this pillar is to push students to understand and learn within a multicultural environment. The long-term plan is to replicate this program across the globe because in order for it to achieve success, it has to be a global and engaged group of diverse students.

Through the partnership of the NAE (National Academy of Engineers - United States), The RAE (The UK Academy of Engineering), and the CAE (Chinese Academy of Engineers) to host the Global Grand Challenges Summit, the global nature of Grand Challenges is being realized. Overtime, more colleges of engineering from across the globe will join this movement. As the global vision of GCSP is realized, the radical shift within engineering education will begin to occur.

The Program

The 14 Challenges

The 14 engineering challenges of the 21st century

  1. Advance Personalized Learning:A growing appreciation of individual preferences and aptitudes has led toward more “personalized learning,” in which instruction is tailored to a student’s individual needs. Given the diversity of individual preferences, and the complexity of each human brain, developing teaching methods that optimize learning will require engineering solutions of the future.
  2. Make Solar Energy Economical: Currently, solar energy provides less than 1 percent of the world's total energy, but it has the potential to provide much, much more.
  3. Enhance Virtual Reality: Within many specialized fields, from psychiatry to education, virtual reality is becoming a powerful new tool for training practitioners and treating patients, in addition to its growing use in various forms of entertainment.
  4. Reverse Engineer the Brain: A lot of research has been focused on creating thinking machines—computers capable of emulating human intelligence— however, reverse-engineering the brain could have multiple impacts that go far beyond artificial intelligence and will promise great advances in healthcare, manufacturing, and communication.
  5. Engineer Better Medicines: Engineering can enable the development of new systems to use genetic information, sense small changes in the body, assess new drugs, and deliver vaccines to provide health care directly tailored to each person.
  6. Advance Health Informatics: As computers have become available for all aspects of human endeavors, there is now a consensus that a systematic approach to health informatics - the acquisition, management, and use of information in health - can greatly enhance the quality and efficiency of medical care and the response to widespread public health emergencies.
  7. Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure: Infrastructure is the combination of fundamental systems that support a community, region, or country. Society faces the formidable challenge of modernizing the fundamental structures that will support our civilization in centuries ahead.
  8. Secure Cyberspace: Computer systems are involved in the management of almost all areas of our lives; from electronic communications, and data systems, to controlling traffic lights to routing airplanes. It is clear that engineering needs to develop innovations for addressing a long list of cybersecurity priorities
  9. Provide Access to Clean Water: The world's water supplies are facing new threats; affordable, advanced technologies could make a difference for millions of people around the world.
  10. Provide Energy from Fusion: Human-engineered fusion has been demonstrated on a small scale. The challenge is to scale up the process to commercial proportions, in an efficient, economical, and environmentally benign way.
  11. Prevent Nuclear Terror: The need for technologies to prevent and respond to a nuclear attack is growing.
  12. Manage the Nitrogen Cycle: Engineers can help restore balance to the nitrogen cycle with better fertilization technologies and by capturing and recycling waste.
  13. Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods: Engineers are working on ways to capture and store excess carbon dioxide to prevent global warming.
  14. Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery: In the century ahead, engineers will continue to be partners with scientists in the great quest for understanding many unanswered questions of nature.

What is Unique about GCSP

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program teaches engineers very important skills in learning how to deal with the biggest problems facing our society. This program is different because it explicitly defines the most relevant problems to our public and allows students across campus to participate. Students are able to collaborate with other engineers that are active in the scholarship program.  Not only will this program teach engineering students the skills necessary to solve problems, but it will also raise awareness around the most important worldly challenges and will inspire young engineers to tackle those challenges. The Grand Challenges Scholars Program is also working towards implementing a program for K-12 that will equip students to become engineers. 

Randy Atkins, Founder of the 14 Grand Challenges for the National Academy of Engineers says, "This provides students with a vision of what they can do with engineering and how they can change the world."

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is interested in seeing the program across many different campuses across the country. Check out this article to see what Washington has to say about the NAE!

Global Grand Challenges Summit Series

The goal of the Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) is to change the way students become educated. 
  • Enhance student interest in engineering and science.
  • Increase the visibility and importance of engineering and science to society.
  • Underscore the importance of recognizing that engineering education must be coupled to policy, business, and law and must be student-focused. 
  • Enhance student interest in engineering, science and technology entrepreneurship.
  • Foment future collaborations of interested scientists, engineers, policymakers and researchers in business, law, social sciences, and humanities needed to successfully address these complex societal issues.
During the summit, scholars break out into focused sections that tackle components of the Grand Challenges. Within these sessions, scholars engage in discussions, pitch competitions, keynote speakers, and ideation sessions. 

2013 London Summit

The 2013 London Summit was planned and hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering from March 12-13, 2013. 
The Summit focused on the following breakout sessions: 
  • Sustainability
  • Health
  • Education
  • Enriching Life
  • Technology and Growth
  • Resilience
A full list of speakers can be found here.
The programme for the summit can be found here

2015 Beijing Summit

The 2015 Beijing Summit was planned and hosted by the Chinese Academy of Engineering from September 15-16, 2015. 
The Summit focused on the following breakout sessions: 
  • Sustainability
  • Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure
  • Health
  • Joy of Living
  • Energy
  • Education
  • Security and Resilience
A full list of speakers can be found here.
The programme for the summit can be found here

2017 Washington DC Summit

The 2017 Washington DC Summit was planned and hosted by the US National Academy of Engineering from July 18-20, 2017. 
The Summit focused on the following breakout sessions: 
  • Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence
  • Engineering and Healthcare
  • Sustainability
  • Reverse Engineering the Brain
  • Education/Public Engagement
  • Security and Resilience
A full list of speakers can be found here.
The programme for the summit can be found here.
Photos and Videos from the summit can be found here

Impact Achieved For Students and Campus

Founding Grand Challenges Campuses:

Additional campuses currently involved with the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program:

How to Get Involved

Bring it to your Campus

Interested in the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program? Student or faculty members can contact NAE by going to the website and submitting the required application. All engineering or non-engineering students are welcome to participate in this scholars program as well.

  1. Join the GCSP Community online!
  2. Have the Dean of your College, or a representative of the dean, submit the online application form
  3. Students are able to pick one of the 14 grand challenges as long as it is aligned with the 5 GC curricular components
  4. After the online form is submitted, you will then prepare a full operational document for submission
  5. The Steering Committee will review your application and provide feedback (most applicants typically make one revision). When the Steering Committee approves your operational document, you become an official member of the NAE GCSP family!

Already on your Campus?

If it is already on your campus: You can find out if your campus already has Grand Challenges here: Using this link you can find the faculty sponsor for your university, and see updates on what projects they have or are currently tackling.

History of the Program

In an effort to shift the paradigm of engineering education, Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, and the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering developed the Grand Challenges concept. In 2009 the NAE began endorsing the program, allowing it to grow internationally as it has today. 

In addition to endorsement by the NAE, former President Barack Obama was presented with a letter of commitment to growing the program to include 122 engineering schools internationally. At this time, GCSP has been implemented in over 40 universities worldwide. 

Alumni of the Program

  • Ellen Chisa

Vp of Product, LolaOlin College of Engineering, 2010

  • Edgar De Leon 

Lean Intern, Memorial Health System

University of Southern California, 2016

  • Amara Ijeoma Uyanna

Strategy and Operations Consultant, The Releaf Group Development Associate, UT Austin

Lousiana Tech University, 2016

 See more here:

Contact Information

Project Director

Randy Atkins
Project Director
National Academy of Engineering
(202) 334 - 1508

Communications/Media Associate

Maggie Bartolomeo
National Academy of Engineering

Mailing Address for all locations

Keck Center of the National Academies
500 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001

Grand Challenge Scholars Committee

Important contacts for the administrative committee of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program can be found here.

Student Contributors: Jessica_Aldrich, Michael Thuis, Tamika Daniels