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Engineering education goes above and beyond

June 16, 2010

Cultivating ‘Renaissance engineers’ to tackle the world’s most critical challenges

Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering are among the first of several leading engineering schools to adopt an undergraduate education program guided by goals set forth in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering.

In 2008, the Academy identified 14 “Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century,” detailing technological progress that engineers must help achieve to improve quality of life throughout the world.

The NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program combines course studies with extracurricular opportunities designed to prepare students to join the next generation of engineers with the specific skills to help meet many of modern society’s most critical needs.

ASU’s engineering schools join those at other top-ranked universities and colleges as NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Program partners – including Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, The Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering near Boston, the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, Louisiana Tech’s College of Engineering and the University of Tennessee College of Engineering.

Going beyond technical knowledge

Six engineering students have joined the program at ASU. Plans are to enroll an additional 15 to 20 students each academic year.

Grand Challenge Scholar students will be given guidance in selecting the courses of study that best educate them in the areas of engineering relevant to the NAE’s Grand Challenges goals.

They also will have opportunities outside the classroom to conduct research, attend professional conferences, learn the basics of developing market ventures, and put their education to use in community service projects. 

An overriding aim is to produce “renaissance engineers” who have knowledge that spans across multiple disciplines. So the program strives to provide students an education beyond engineering, science and technology. They will also be schooled in many of the fundamentals of business, public policy, law, ethics, social sciences and the humanities.

Upon graduation, the students’ names will be added to an official NAE Grand Challenge Scholars Registry.

“It’s an endorsement by the academy that will make these students more attractive to employers, or to leading graduate schools where they may want to pursue advanced studies,” said James Collofello, associate dean of Academic and Student Affairs for ASU’s engineering schools.  He’s also the program director for the schools’ Grand Challenge Scholars Program.

“This will certify that these students have received an education that provided them entrepreneurship and leadership training, along with skills tailored to creating innovative ventures in a global economy, and bringing a global perspective to confronting our major technological problems,” Collofello said.

Looking for leadership potential

ASU’s engineering education goals closely reflect the objectives of the academy’s Grand Challenges, said Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

“The NAE was developing its Grand Challenges at about the same time that we began realigning engineering education to better prepare our students for the job market and the technological challenges the world will face in the coming decades and beyond,” Meldrum said

These include such objectives as engineering better medicines and more advanced tools for scientific discovery, improving urban infrastructure, providing energy from fusion, defending against threats of nuclear terrorism, securing cyberspace, making solar-energy generation more economical and developing innovations in personalized learning.

For the scholars program, Collofello said, “We will be looking for students who have the potential to be successful engineers from a technical standpoint, but who also possess the drive and motivation to be involved in community service, lead student organizations, pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, and want be engaged in these global-scale challenges in their careers.”

Gaining global perspective

ASU junior bioengineering major Elysar Mougharbel, a graduate of Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee, is intrigued by the Grand Challenge to "reverse-engineer the brain.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by how the brain works,” she said. The NAE sees unlocking mysteries about brain functions holding significant promise for advances in pioneering artificial intelligence and treating human brain disorders.

Mougharbel said she hopes a focus on this area of study through the Grand Challenge Scholars Program will give her a solid preparation for a career in medicine or neural engineering.

She’s also attracted to the program “because I like the approach of getting a global perspective on what engineers can do to solve big problems,  and I like the focus on making a positive impact on society through your work. I think that raises the level of my education in a way that will help open doors in whatever career I go into.”

Her academic performance so far has earned her a student-worker position in the SensoriMotor Research Group Lab at ASU, assisting in neurological research.

Outside of the lab and classroom, Mougharbel works with ASU’s Success Coaching program in which experienced students counsel their peers to help them achieve their academic goals.

She’s also the vice president of Circle K International, a student organization affiliated with Kiwanis International, the community service and leadership development organization.

Striving for extraordinary

ASU junior mechanical engineering majors Billy Walters and Josh Winterstein, graduates of Arizona Lutheran Academy in Phoenix, say the range of learning opportunities offered by Grand Challenge Scholars Program lured them to join.

“It’s really cool how [the NAE] is giving these direct challenges to engineers” to help solve the world’s biggest problems, said Walters, who grew up in Glendale.

“That’s why I decided to become an engineer, to think about the big picture and do something beyond the ordinary,” he said.

Walters also is attracted to the emphasis on entrepreneurship. He is working toward a degree that will include a minor in business and is considering pursuit of a master’s of business administration degree in the future.

The program’s community service focus fits into his current pursuits.

He is working with the ASU student chapter of the international Engineers Without Borders, which helps communities in developing countries build modern infrastructure systems.

He’s also involved in the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program at ASU. It enables students to collaborate with local nonprofit groups on civic and environmental improvement efforts.

Winterstein, whose family lives in Mesa, is involved in a project to develop website tools to help manage a national program, called Recycled Rides, that restores old and damaged cars and donates them to needy families.

“I think the training in community service and entrepreneurship you get [in the scholars program] is going to help us stand out” among engineering graduates, he said.

By completing a degree program certified by the NAE, Walters said, “I think employers will recognize that you have been educated to think about how to solve complex problems, that you know something about the business side of things and you also have hands-on experience collaborating with people to solve problems and meet real needs.”

The National Academy of Engineering
The NAE is an independent, nonprofit organization that advises the federal government through the National Research Council (NRC), providing leadership and expertise for numerous projects focused on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. It also conducts independent studies to examine important topics in engineering and technology. The NAE is a member of the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine.

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University serves more than 4,000 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students, providing skills and knowledge for shaping careers marked by innovation and societal impact. Ranked nationally in the top 10 percent among accredited engineering programs, the schools engage in use-inspired research in a multidisciplinary setting for the benefit of individuals, society and the environment. The school’s 200-plus faculty members teach and pursue research in areas of electrical, chemical, mechanical, aerospace, civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, as well as bioengineering, computer science and engineering, informatics, decision systems, and construction management. The schools of engineering also work in partnership with the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and faculty work collaboratively with the Biodesign Institute at ASU, the School of Sustainability and the Global Institute of Sustainability.

Deirdre Meldrum,
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-2147

James Collofello,
Associate Dean
Academic and Student Affairs
Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering
(480) 965-3733

Joe Kullman,
(480) 965-8122 direct line
(480) 773-1364 mobile