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Wrapping Up the NAE Grand Challenges Summit



The National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Summit, a two-day event recently held at Duke University, brought together more than 900 leading engineering, science, humanities and social science scholars to articulate the challenges and opportunities of the science, technology, and policy related to each Grand Challenge and proposed solutions. The Grand Challenges are a call to action and serve as a focal point for society's attention to the most important opportunities that challenge our quality of life.

The summit's speakers featured an array of national engineering leaders and thinkers, including:

  • Charles Vest, NAE president
  • Robert Socolow, Princeton University
  • Robert Langer, MIT, recipient of the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize
  • Tom Byers, Stanford University?
  • Donald MacLean Kerr, principal deputy director, U.S. National Intelligence
  • Jeff Hawkins, founder, Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience

Closing remarks which summed up the event were delivered by Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean of Engineering at the University of Southern California.

At a rather unsuspecting time, a mere one year ago, the National Academy of Engineering articulated 14 engineering grand challenges. While financial clouds were still far in the horizon, these challenges were centered on important societal and human needs. Professor Socolow brilliantly categorized them yesterday:

Sustainability, Health, Vulnerability, The Joy of Living

When the clouds brought the global financial storm last Fall, these needs moved from a perhaps abstract subtext to the center of gravity of today's reality, one very real to everyone, everywhere.

Engineering schools across the country warmly embraced the NAE grand challenges. This first Grand Challenges Summit was intended to light a fire to this growing, almost liberating, enthusiasm. If the tremendous response of our students is any indication, I would say that the torch was lit, it is burning brightly, and it will surely spread all over the country.

I was asked to summarize the meeting in five minutes. I don't think I can do justice in such a short time to the deep and challenging conversation we experienced, with multiple threads and multiple ideas, each one more special than the other. Instead, I will simply state what I learned:

Lesson 1. A definition of the modern engineer (engineer 2.0?), with apologies to Rick Miller:

I will borrow from President Vest's spectacular summary. The modern engineer is:

  • Engineer (in the traditional sense: I would say Engineer 1.0)
  • Leader
  • Innovator
  • Entrepreneur

Passion was also mentioned often in the meeting. What a welcome addition to the engineering attributes.

Lesson 2. The new canvas on which engineers now paint:

I will characterize it as

Engineering + {subject}

This evolution is manifested steadily, most spectacularly in health: engineering+health; engineering+biology. And earlier today: engineering+law. It is an essential part of the NAE Grand Challenges.

Indeed, Engineering +, as in enabling other disciplines, is now the norm.

And if I may make a side note, it is in this very context that one should see the letter "E" in STEM K-12 education (namely, engineering as enabling, encompassing and integrating, rather than as another vertical silo, as is math and science).

Can Engineering +, as envisioned by the NAE Grand Challenges, help us get out of our deep financial crisis? Is it too much of a stretch that one can map almost one-to-one the federal stimulus initiatives to the NAE Grand Challenge Themes of: urban infrastructure, IT+health, green technologies, K-12 education? Perhaps it is a distant echo, but an echo nonetheless, and a hopeful one at that.

Lesson 3. The importance of policy-making and public awareness in advancing the solution to the challenges:

Sustainability, Health, Vulnerability; even the Joy of Living depend greatly on government policies, regulations, and federal funding priorities. These can dramatically alter the progress to the solution of the Grand Challenges. Informing and interacting with the politicians and the public and educating the citizenry are paramount for this task.

This is the theme of engineering + social science: one that deals with human nature, brings about constantly changing complex systems, and makes life interesting -- and one in which we have been the least successful. The current global crisis underscores its vast importance. We must face it in earnest. We must become policy brokers.

Lesson 4. The need for a new engineering education paradigm.

The enabling role of engineering in transforming society is the principle behind the proposal for the new educational model, presented earlier, the Grand Challenges Scholars program that will prepare engineers to become world changers. You saw first-hand some of them already here, even if they don't know it yet.

This combined curricular and extra-curricular program will embody Engineering +. It is envisioned to also serve as a pilot of innovative educational approaches that may eventually become the mainstream educational paradigm for all engineering students. We are ready to implement it on a pilot basis at Duke, Olin and USC.

What is next?

First, we solicit your comments and ideas. On-line communication will be established and continue. We will also prepare a formal assessment of the meeting and of next steps, with the help of Dr. Ragusa, Research Professor of Education at USC.

I think that we all see the NAE Grand Challenges as a big-picture road map for education and research. Surely, there are other important technological challenges that are closely related- but I think the big tent described by Professor Socolow has plenty of room for them all.

In a sense, this Summit was a conversation on what is "hot" in the big picture of "engineering the solution of key societal problems" at the beginning of the 21st century. It also introduced a somewhat different form of a meeting, one more closely resembling a TED conference -- where participants are exposed to a kaleidoscope of ideas beyond their own narrow subject area. And it produced a concrete proposal for tinkering with our undergraduate engineering education.

We believe that these elements are worth repeating in the near future, perhaps one or two years from now, perhaps with the support of the federal agencies (hint, hint). Potentially, they should be enhanced with new ones, such as:

  • Internationalization: Ensuring that solutions have global applications.
  • Other forms of engineering +, notably for solving other important societal and global problems (e.g. poverty, world conflict comes to mind).
  • Engagement with policy makers, social scientists, and the media (particularly, new media).

The Davos Economic Summit is attended by hordes of media. We would like to make this event the Davos of Engineering. We can even produce snow, as we showed yesterday!

Bringing the awareness agenda to the forefront of mainstream attention will not be easy -- but it will be a necessary battle worth winning.


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