New Breed of Scholars to Tackle Grand Challenges

March 3, 2010

Two years ago, a group of Duke University engineering undergrads traveled to Uganda in an Engineers Without Borders project to address some of the most pressing needs of a small community. Among other projects, they planned to help villagers connect to the outside world through the Internet and to improve the ability of local coffee growers to process their beans.

Sounds like a fairly straightforward job for engineers.

But the students quickly realized that there were more challenges to overcome than just the technological. In order to create a viable, self-sustaining situation  the students found they had to contend with a host of non-engineering issues.

During that summer, the students devised a way to connect to the Internet through a wireless phone network. To ensure that the villagers could pay the monthly phone bill, they negotiated a deal with the service provider and created an Internet café that soon not only paid the bill, but became profitable.

The group also wanted to demonstrate how coffee growers could shell their beans cheaply using a form-made sheller made out of concrete. What they discovered was that the growers’ main issue was economic. These fledgling engineers responded by organizing growers so they could more cheaply get their product to Kampala and thus increase their profits by cutting out the shipping middlemen.

For Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, this scenario is a microcosm of diverse skills that engineers of the future will need in order to succeed. In a way, the Ugandan experience is an inspiration for the development of an innovative national approach to training young engineers-to-be called the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars program, endorsed by the National Academy of Engineering. The first group of such newly-empowered students will graduate this spring.

“The way those students responded to the real-world situation was the inspiration for a new approach to preparing the next generation of engineers to face the most urgent issues facing the world today,” Katsouleas said. “In addition to their engineering education, students will need a well-rounded experience that includes entrepreneurship, global outreach, service to the community and a host of non-engineering skills. In the end, that is what engineering is all about – solving the world’s problems.”

Duke’s Grand Challenge Scholars program, the first such program to be rolled out in the U.S, will likely become a template for similar such programs at engineering schools across the country. The national program sets the vision for the ‘Grand Challenge’ educational experience. In the spirit of this vision, universities wishing to offer the program then propose their own version—one that best leverages the unique connections, relationships and opportunities they have to offer their students.

To make this vision a reality at Duke, Susan Simon, wife of the late Pratt Board of Visitors Chairman Steve Simon, gave an endowment to initiate the program and fund ten scholars per year in Duke. The first ten scholars to graduate – the class of 2010 -- will be known as the Inaugural Class of Simon Grand Challenge Scholars.

“The generous support of the Simon family will ensure that we can provide the richest array of activities and educational experiences for our students,” Katsouleas said. “Part of our responsibility at Pratt is to prepare our students to keep up with the changing demands of society. This new program is an important way to fulfill that mission.”

Last year Duke hosted the national first-of-its-kind NAE Grand Challenge Summit in response to a report by the National Academy of Engineering that outlined the 14 most daunting problems facing the world today. Duke officials, along with partners at the Olin School of Engineering and the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, began devising strategies for incorporating into their education programs an appreciation of, and a desire to solve, those challenges.

In a short time and with the National Academy of Engineering’s enthusiastic support, the national program is now up and running. In fact, representatives from more than two dozen U.S. engineering programs will gather in Boston this spring to learn from Duke and other leaders more about the program and what it would take to implement it at their school. While each school will devise a plan tailored to its own circumstances, five elements will be common to all: research, an interdisciplinary approach to a problem, entrepreneurship, global outreach and community service.

At Duke, to become a Grand Challenge Scholar, students must demonstrate proficiency in the five areas by producing what organizers are calling a “portfolio.” A final thesis will tie together all the elements of the portfolio. All Grand Challenge Scholars will earn a designation on their transcripts that they successfully completed this rigorous course of independent study.

“This a way of inspiring students to begin to think about and work toward the problems we all face,” said biomedical engineering professor Monty Reichert, who along with Martha Absher, associate dean for education and outreach, were instrumental in putting the program together at Duke.

“We’re not necessarily looking for someone with a perfect grade point average, but someone who has the passion to engage in this important work,” Reichert continued. “Duke in general is well-suited for this kind of endeavor, with its plethora of unique opportunities and with a student body that takes a broad view of its educational experiences.”

While the current graduating class had already completed many aspects of their portfolio through such programs as EWB, Engineering World Health, Pratt Scholars and DukEngage, it is expected that students will begin to think about the Grand Challenge Scholars program early in their academic career and begin organizing and building their portfolios.

“We expect quite a diverse group of applicants,” Absher said. “This will not be one type of student – it will run the gamut from the entrepreneur, the researcher to the community servant. Students with all these interests fit with the Grand Challenge Scholar umbrella. This is a very competitive program, so we’re looking for strongest and most dedicated students.”

Below are listed the class of 2010 and 2011, with their faculty advisor and department.


Matthew Baron – Lori Setton (BME)
Vyshak Chaundra – Romulo Fuentes (NEURO)
Jason Chen – David Katz (BME)
Adam Grasch – Earl Dowell (MEMS)
Margaret Hoff – David Schaad (CEE, EWB)
Xiao Li – Joseph Izatt (BME)
Jamie Lou – Ann Lazarides (MEMS)
Will Patrick -- David Schaad (CEE)
Jai Singh -- David Schaad (CEE, EWB)
Patrick Ye – Robert Malkin (BME< EWB)


Anna Brown – Mark Dewhirst (BME)
Jarod Dunnmon – Earl Dowell (MEMS)
Ben Gagne – Donald Bliss (MEMS)
Francesco LaRocca – Joseph Izatt (BME)
Trisha Lowe -- David Schaad (CEE, EWB)
Niru Maheswaranathan – Craig Henriquez (BME)
Lyndsey Morgan -- David Schaad (CEE, EWB)
Eng Seng Ng -- David Schaad (CEE, EWB)
Trevor Reid – April Brown (ECE)
Eric Thorne – Gary Ybarra (ECE)