America’s Students Step Up to the Challenge

On the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable “grand challenge” declarations in history—President Kennedy’s call for a commitment of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth”—I want to congratulate America’s Grand Challenge Scholars. These undergraduate engineering students have organized their research, coursework, and extracurricular activities to find solutions to some of the most important problems facing the Nation in the 21st century.

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program was inspired by the National Academy of Engineering’s 2008  promulgation of 14 “grand challenges"—global problems whose solutions could vastly improve people’s lives, such as providing access to safe drinking water, dramatically lowering the cost of solar energy, enabling personalized learning, and developing computers capable of emulating human intelligence.  President Obama also featured grand challenges in his national innovation strategy.

Since 2008, 11 schools have joined the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, and another 31 are on track to do so.  Students in the program pursue independent research projects, complete an interdisciplinary curriculum, gain entrepreneurial skills, and participate in service-learning activities such as Engineers Without Borders.

For example, Louis Reis, who received a dual degree in Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering from Louisiana Tech University, made “engineering better medicine” the focus of his Grand Challenge Scholars plan.  Through summer research internships sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Louisiana Board of Regents, as well as his senior capstone project, Louis developed scaffolding for growing corneal cells, designed a blood glucose monitoring system, and created a mobile DNA analysis system.  Louis took his idea for a first-line continuous glucose monitoring system all the way to a second-place finish in Louisiana Tech’s Tog Dawg Business Plan Competition, and is now in the process of obtaining a patent and applying for a grant from the Small Business Innovation Research program.  In recognition of his Grand Challenge Scholars-related and other activities, Louis has received a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Louisiana Tech University in the fall.

Other 2011 Grand Challenge Scholars from Duke University and Olin College pursued projects to restore urban infrastructure, improve technology for wind and solar energy, create educational software for middle school students, and develop low-cost cancer diagnostics for developing countries.

This year, 14 students are graduating as Grand Challenge Scholars.  However, if we are to find solutions to the many complex problems we face, America needs thousands of students participating in this program. So in addition to expressing my gratitude to Grand Challenge students—past, present, and future—I want to thank the universities, companies, philanthropists, and funding agencies that are supporting the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, and urge others to join this worthy effort.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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