The profession of engineering has been, true to its Latin root ingeniare, about invention. For the past one hundred years, about as long as most college of engineering programs have existed, the list of the most important engineering achievements is dominated by devices: planes and spacecraft, cars and agricultural machines, lasers and PET scanners, to name a few from the National Academy of Engineering Greatest Achievements report.
Almost a decade into the new century, another NAE committee addressed the new engineering grand challenges and came to a much deeper unfolding of invention: Their list includes making solar energy economical, preventing nuclear terror, advancing health informatics, clean water and reverse engineering the human brain. None of them are just devices. Nearly all address complex social issues that require innovative technology and a systems approach to solve but cannot be solved in a vacuum. They will also require engineers to shape public policy, transfer technical innovation to the market place, and to inform and be informed by social science and the humanities. These are challenges to “change the world,” and many of them are inherently global.
By a fortunate coincidence, engineering students of this generation have the “right stuff” to address them. Judging by the survey results of the recent NRC report Engineer of 2020, this generation of students is surely motivated by puzzle solving – but more importantly, by a desire to change the world.
The National Academy of Engineering endorses the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program. Engineering skills and leadership are essential to meeting the great challenges facing humankind. This program will build a cadre of young men and women who not only have the necessary engineering skills but also the cross-disciplinary knowledge, entrepreneurial spirit, global perspective and sense of mission needed to serve and lead this country.
Charles Vest, President, National Academy of Engineering