Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program: Integrating Liberal Arts and STEM

In 2006, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a committee of eighteen of the biggest names in engineering—including former US secretary of defense William Perry and Google cofounder Larry Page—to examine the toughest issues facing the world in the twenty-first century.

Figure 1. The Fourteen Grand Challenges

space4.fw_.pngTwo years later, the committee created a list of fourteen “Grand Challenges” organized around four broad themes: sustainability, security, global health, and joy of living (see fig. 1).

Realizing that higher education plays a vital role in preparing future engineers to tackle these challenges, three campus leaders—Richard Miller, president of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering; Tom Katsouleas, former dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering (now provost at the University of Virginia); and Yannis Yortsos, dean of the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering—worked with the NAE to launch the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) in 2009.

The only firm GCSP requirement is that participating students achieve five core competencies:

  1. Talent: mentored research/creative experience on a Grand Challenge-like topic
  2. Multidisciplinary: understanding multidisciplinarity of engineering systems solutions developed through personal engagement
  3. Viable Business/Entrepreneurship: understanding, preferably developed though experience, of the necessity of a viable business model for solution implementation
  4. Multicultural: understanding different cultures, preferably through multicultural experiences, to ensure cultural acceptance of proposed engineering solutions
  5. Social Consciousness: understanding that the engineering solutions should primarily serve people and society reflecting social consciousness

“The emphasis on higher education as purely technical job training is problematic,” said Alison Wood, assistant professor of environmental engineering and director of the GCSP program at Olin College, one of the first three institutions to implement an operational GCSP program. “Even for students who are pursuing very technical degrees, there are elements of a liberal arts education that are critical to their development as students, as scholars, as professionals, and as people. And GCSP is a vehicle for injecting those elements into an engineering degree.”

Tackling the Grand Challenges at Olin College

Located just outside of Boston in Needham, Massachusetts, Olin College has less than four hundred students, all undergraduates and all engineering majors. Despite its technical focus, Olin has always been committed to delivering students the kind of well-rounded, multidisciplinary education often found at liberal arts institutions.

“Grand Challenges was a natural fit for Olin because what GCSP is about—integrating skills and mindsets like interdisciplinarity and social consciousness into a STEM or engineering education—is already built into Olin’s educational philosophy,” Wood said.

From the start, Olin’s GCSP program has been a “student-run, student-led, student-driven, student-centered program,” said Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, inaugural director of Olin’s GCSP program (now director of the Research Institute for Experiential Learning Science at Northeastern University). With Zastavker acting as a mentor, students developed the ideas, vision, and implementation plan in the initial program proposal, and a student steering committee continues to work closely with Wood to implement the program.

The program is open to all students, who can work with faculty mentors and other GCSP students to find opportunities within existing courses and assignments across the curriculum. For example, in a software design course that most Olin students take, GCSP students could focus their assignments and projects on GCSP themes and competencies.

However, the competencies also reach all Olin students through the required core curriculum. Students do hands-on research projects from the day they walk in the door until graduation, Wood said, and in User-Oriented Collaborative Design, a sophomore-level engineering course, students learn basic ethnographic research skills and apply them to the principles of user-centered engineering design. Every student must also have a concentration (similar to a minor) in an arts, humanities, social sciences, or entrepreneurship field. A required entrepreneurship course, Products and Markets, examines value creation theory and how to connect customers with the products students hope to make.

Every senior at Olin takes a year-long capstone course, working collaboratively with other students and community partners on an extended project. While most Olin students complete capstones through existing partnerships with local industries, about 30 percent of Olin students take an alternative capstone, Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship, in which students develop a plan, fundraise, and work with community partners to enact their vision.

One GCSP student worked with a team of other students to research infant warming systems for premature babies, which are prohibitively expensive for much of rural Southeast Asian. The team designed a safe and effective infant warmer that can be built and deployed at much lower cost than existing options. Another GCSP student's team worked with a Mississippi community to create a mobile classroom in a trailer that travels across the area to help local high schoolers design and build innovative projects, including a four-stringed guitar. This trailer provided the local teenagers “some creative opportunities, some hands-on making opportunities, as well as the constructive social opportunity of coming together with like-minded young people from their own community,” Wood said.

Experiences like these, where Olin students interact with people from other backgrounds, is key to achieving the multicultural and social consciousness competencies, Wood said. “Embedding yourself in a culture that's unfamiliar to yourself is very powerful, and going abroad is one way to do that. But the student who worked with the group in Mississippi is a great example of how you can stay right here in the United States with people who speak the same language you do but whose culture and lived experiences are so different from yours.”

Throughout the GCSP experience, faculty mentors guide students in deep reflection, using portfolios to make connections between various GCSP courses and projects. These portfolios often explore “those questions that we all tend to ask ourselves very intensely around the age of twenty-one, twenty-two, or twenty-three: Where am I going next? Who is the person I'm going to be in the world? And we want to provide support for that questioning,” Wood said. “In a perfect world, we would have all of our students doing that kind of deep, intense reflection, and one of the reasons I love GCSP is it might, over time, be a vehicle for us to do that for all of Olin’s students.”

Using student feedback about GCSP experiences, the program continues to evolve. Olin is developing a course-tagging system to make GCSP opportunities more visible, and GCSP is expanding the robust (but currently informal) faculty-student mentorship model by piloting for-credit workshops for first-year students and a practicum to support seniors completing capstone research projects.

This kind of assessment and adaptation is critical to the long-term success of GCSP programs. “The student population who created Olin’s initial program in 2009 was very different from the current population,” Zastavker said. “The programs on each campus need to be adaptable and dynamic to respond to the needs and values of all its constituencies, specifically students.”

Bridging STEM and the Arts and Sciences at Lawrence Technological University

In ten years, GCSP has grown rapidly—programs are now operational or in development at over 150 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. Each fall, faculty and staff from many of these institutions come together at the GCSP annual meeting to discuss best practices and troubleshoot problems.

Olin College continues to benefit from its “nice reciprocal relationship” with other GCSP institutions, Wood said. “To some degree we are leading the way as one of the pioneers of GCSP, but we're also learning quite a bit from our partners.”

One partner is Lawrence Technological University, a private university just outside Detroit, Michigan. Jason Barrett, chair of the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Communication, first learned about the Grand Challenges as part of a 2015 Teagle Foundation grant to expand GCSP by recruiting humanities and social sciences faculty from STEM-focused schools.

“It was very clear to me from the very beginning that [GCSP] was not going to be a program just for engineers alone,” said Zastavker, who has been a member of the NAE's GCSP Steering Committee since 2011. “Grand Challenges are human challenges which cross all kinds of boundaries, so we need everybody—we need political scientists, we need humanists, we need artists, we need designers, and we need engineers—to help us solve those problems.”

Though Lawrence Tech is still finishing the GCSP proposal process, they have been running a “Grand Challenges” curriculum since 2016, making them one of the few GCSP-affiliated programs to allow students from any major—including humanities, arts, or STEM fields—to earn GCSP certification on their transcript.

“We intentionally designed the curriculum so that arts and sciences majors work collaboratively on projects with STEM and engineering majors,” Barrett said.

Like Olin College, Lawrence Tech’s GCSP program is open to all faculty or students. As part of her role on the NAE GCSP steering committee, Zastavker mentors programs like Lawrence Tech through the proposal process, paying close attention to GCSP admission policies (like GPA requirements) that prevent students from having equal access opportunities. “The hope is that GCSP is going to be yet another tool that will allow institutions to diversify their engineering, scientific, or STEM population,” she said.

All first-year students take a one-credit Research Pathways course that introduces the fourteen challenges. Throughout the semester, students create a research poster that imagines what they will research for their senior capstone.

“We're asking students, ‘What are you interested in? What's your field? And how is it related to these paradigm-shattering, technological, cutting-edge grand challenges?’” Barrett said.

One first-year nursing student imagined that she could develop a new design for female catheters. Her poster won a College of Arts and Sciences research fair and later won one of Lawrence Tech’s coveted Presidential Undergraduate Research Award, a rare honor for a first-year student. As she looks forward to completing other GCSP courses leading to her capstone, she has been researching her design at a local hospital and working with venture capitalists at “Tech Town Detroit,” an entrepreneurial hub that Lawrence Tech runs downtown.

“She's been down there developing this idea and talking with real people about where investment money could come from,” Barrett said. “And all of this started from her first two weeks on campus when I did a classroom presentation on the Grand Challenges.”

Because students must meet very strict requirements for their senior research projects, students are more likely to engage directly with GCSP through special sections of general education courses in communications, literature, history, and philosophy. Faculty members volunteer to teach a GCSP section, and other faculty members help them integrate a STEM perspective. For example, one philosophy course investigates the engineering principles needed to design a perfect republic in Plato’s Republic, and a literature class connects Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to global health by exploring cultural reactions to disease and physical abnormalities and the line between machines and humanity. Entrepreneurial Design Studio, a required second-year engineering course—sees students from across all majors collaborating to create products for a metro Detroit organization.

Juniors and seniors also take a humanities seminar that integrates an ongoing research project from a STEM field. For example, the biomedical engineering and philosophy departments morphed a generic ethics class into a course on live human experimentation.

In the future, GCSP hopes to grow into one of the many prestigious research programs on campus that design things like concrete canoes or motorsports vehicles. “If you leave Lawrence Tech as one of the star players on the solar car team, there are any number of firms in metro Detroit that want you to be their first interviewee for a job, and so we have to make the Grand Challenges a similar kind of program,” Barrett said.

To do this, GCSP is leveraging various research opportunities, including an ongoing partnership between the psychology department and Panasonic to research how lights on dashboards affects peripheral vision and attention. The Department of Arts and Sciences is also building partnerships with companies in China to create research abroad opportunities for GCSP students. Such hands-on, research-intensive experiences often lead directly to internships and “fantastic” starting careers, Barrett said.

GCSP also helps students build their social consciousness as they engage with the local community through programs in K–12 schools and summer robotics camps. The College of Arts and Sciences has also adapted the Research Pathways course as a one-credit dual-enrollment opportunity for local high school students.

“Not only are these [high school] students possible future Lawrence Tech students, but this is our contribution in metro Detroit to enriching the K–12 education system, which needs everybody's help,” Barrett said. “We are preparing the pipeline for students who are going to end up in STEM programs by getting them to think about how the liberal arts inform their interests, but also for liberal arts majors, who aren't going to come to Lawrence Tech, so they understand the importance of STEM and the technological parameters of their interests.”