NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program

  • William Park
    Georgia Institute of Technology, 2018, B.S. Mechanical Engineering

    "I have been interested in helping and supporting developing countries where even simple modern technology can significantly raise the quality of their lives. During my GCSP project in Costa Rica for two months, I noticed all the knowledge and ...

  • Suveena Thanawala
    University of Southern California, 2019, B.S. Computer Engineering & Computer Science

    “Through being a part of the GCSP, I gained exposure to human-computer interaction research, and how it can be applied to personalizing learning. The program helped me find a challenge that intrigued me, and I gained technical skills and ...

  • Willa Zhao
    University of Southern California, 2017, B.S. Computer Science/Business Administration

    “GCSP has helped guide the way I think about interdisciplinary studies. With a Computer Science background and interest in investments, I see a huge growth opportunity within money management. As the focus on investments increases combined ...

  • Chee Shing Tan
    Taylor’s University, Malaysia, 2019, B.S.E. Chemical Engineering

    “My GCSP journey was nonetheless challenging but fruitful. As a nature lover, it hurts me every time to see human activities disrupting the ecosystem. I was determined to make a difference to this situation by partaking in this scholars ...

  • Chad Liu
    Duke University, 2013, B.S. Biomedical Engineering

    “With GCSP's support, I had the opportunity as an undergrad to mathematically model a tumor's response to radiation treatment, and this experience inspired me to pursue a path of quantitative cancer research. My Ph.D. thesis at ...

The NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, created in 2008, presented an aspirational vision of what engineering needs to deliver to all people on the planet in the 21st century. In just 15 words, the vision it calls for is:

“Continuation of life on the planet,
making our world more sustainable, secure, healthy, and joyful.”

The vision is about serving people and society, including everyone on the planet, and it is a century-long initiative. After a year and thousands of public inputs, the NAE Grand Challenges (GC) committee published its report with the 14 goals required to deliver this vision in the coming century.

These, taken together, are arguably the clearest and most compelling description of engineering for the public, students, researchers, and engineers alike. Rarely has an idea captured the imagination of a profession, policymakers, and the general public like the Grand Challenges. The NAE has sparked a global movement driven entirely by the idea expressed in this vision, and not by financing, for there has been none. This is a very big idea – the first global vision for engineering in history, and possibly the first global vision for any profession.

After a decade since publication of the Grand Challenges for Engineering Report, and three Global Grand Challenges Summits held in London (2013), Beijing (2015) and Washington (2017), the momentum of this movement continues to accelerate. Interest remains especially high among young people who are moved by the vision that articulates engineering as serving people and society. While it is not possible to predict how far this interest will grow, the increasing levels of activity after a decade since the release of the report indicates that extensive expansion will be possible with investment and focused coordination.

Grand Challenges Scholars Program

Currently, engineering education programs in every country prepare students for careers in the culture of the home country, and the US is no exception. At the same time virtually all engineers agree that engineering in the 21st century is global. All engineering students graduating today will work globally, even if they do not believe so at the moment, and hence that it is important to prepare students graduating today for global engagement and the mindset to work anywhere in the world in the 21st Century.  

Engineering schools around the nation and the world, and even K-12 programs have adopted the NAE Grand Challenges to inspire practical projects for their students. The GCSP was proposed at the inaugural Summit on the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering at Duke University, by the deans of the three founding GCSP schools Duke, Olin and USC. In 2009, the NAE moved to endorse this definition of a new engineering education supplement to any engineering program that adds global awareness and social skills with a focus on the Grand Challenges to broaden the reach of undergraduate study in engineering to the global community. This educational supplement is called the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP).

In this GCSP, the NAE does not dictate an engineering curriculum to any university. The GCSP simply identifies five competencies that a student must achieve to prepare them to address the Grand Challenges for Engineering found globally. Each adopting university defines its supplemental approach to educating its students about each of the five competencies during its undergraduate engineering degree program framework. In brief, the five student competencies in the GCSP are:

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


Addressing any of the Grand Challenges naturally spans multiple disciplines, and because Grand Challenge problem solutions are implemented in different parts of the world, students are prepared to think in international terms, and to develop globally relevant perspectives and skills. Anecdotally, the GCSP attracts students because it prepares them for real and urgent problems that need solutions; it is a basis for realistic experiments, homework and problem challenges in the field during their undergraduate years; and it offers a clear view to future jobs that matter and the opportunities in engineering that await them.

For the GCSP to be implemented at a university, the program must serve two masters: the student and the local university. It must be clear and focused on the value for the student. For the university, it must not impose added administrative requirements affecting its engineering program. Each university must have the autonomy to create its supplemental GCSP using its strengths and resources to instill the five competencies. Basing each program on student achievement in the five student competencies only while not altering the existing engineering program is the critical feature that allows program acceptance by both students and universities anywhere in the world.

All five competencies are normally not present in engineering curricula. However, taken as a supplement to an engineering program, the competencies are what is required to transform a national engineering program into a global one. Universities apply to the NAE to participate in the GCSP by describing their intended program and how the five competencies will be realized by their students. Each university selects its students, educates them, evaluates their achievement in the five competencies, and determines how it will recognize them on completion of their program. Each university is responsible for all aspects of its program (other than its agreement to ensure student achievement in the five areas of competency). Home institution control is the key to implementing the GCSP supplement into any engineering program.

Note that the only connection between the GCSP and the GC is through the Talent Competency.Accordingly, the GCSP is principally a bridge that efficiently moves a national program to a global one with a social consciousness emphasis.

As of April 2018, 122 universities in the US have either operational Grand Challenges Scholars Programs (49) or programs in development (73). Internationally, 33 universities have either operational programs (7) or programs in preparation (26). The numbers of both international and domestic programs have increased by a factor of 3 in the last year and the expansion shows no sign of slowing. Early goals for the numbers of domestic and international Grand Challenge Scholars Programs are set at 200 for each, which includes more than half of the ~300 US engineering colleges. The Grand Challenge Scholars Program has also moved into community colleges, like Montgomery College in Montgomery County for example, and in K–12 school curriculums in school districts around the country, like Thomas A. Edison High School in Fairfax, VA, which frames its science, math and engineering education around the Grand Challenges. This is a remarkable level of interest in a program has spurred a grassroots educational movement driven entirely by the idea of this vision for engineering. No organization has provided financial support or other inducements for the program. However, US philanthropists have been inspired to endow individual Grand Challenges Scholars programs at their alma maters.

NAE’s Role in the GCSP

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program has been inspired by the NAE but is not controlled by the academy. The GCSP of each university, college and school is independently drawn to the idea of this program, often by its students.Each institution is responsible for its program. Each university selects its students, educates its students, determines their achievement of the competencies, and determines how it will recognize their achievement. The President of the NAE also sends a personal letter of congratulations to each achieving student.

The NAE is a facilitator of these university programs, an aid to universities during their program initiation and development, a convener that facilitates mutual collaborations among programs, and a convener of a program community among the diverse, independent university programs.  With adequate resources, the NAE will extend this network and assist individual students directly and facilitate broadening experiences for students to deepen their understanding of the five competencies.

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