Universities commit to educating the next generation of engineering leaders

National initiatives to address Global Challenges includes RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering in letter sent to President Obama

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A. Sue Weisler

Kate Gleason College of Engineering

Rochester Institute of Technology’s Harvey Palmer, dean of its Kate Gleason College of Engineering, was among the engineering college representatives who made the commitment to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle the Grand Challenges, some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century.

In a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama at the White House Science Fair on March 23, more than 120 U.S. engineering schools announced plans to support initiatives such as the White House Strategy for American Innovation, the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges for Engineering, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and to include complex yet critical goals such as engineering better medicines, making solar energy cost-competitive with coal, securing cyberspace, and advancing personalized learning tools to deliver better education to more individuals.

Each of the 122 signing schools has pledged to graduate a minimum of 20 students per year who have been expressly prepared to lead the way in solving such large-scale problems, with the goal of training more than 20,000 formally recognized “Grand Challenge Engineers” over the next decade.

Palmer, in his message to President Obama, stated that the engineering college intends to develop a National Academy of Engineering Grand Scholars Program. One element of the program will be the integration of liberal arts into the engineering curricula.

“At RIT we strongly believe that many of today’s societal challenges cannot be solved by technology alone, demanding that students educated in technical disciplines acquire a strong integrative liberal arts education to complement their technical skill set,” he said in his statement, adding that these students will be engineers who understand the important social, cultural, economic, ethical and political context in which they will work to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

More than a quarter of the nation’s engineering schools are now committed to establishing programs to educate engineers to take on the Grand Challenges. Grand Challenge Engineers will be trained through special programs at each institution that integrate five educational elements: a hands-on research or design project connected to the Grand Challenges; real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors; entrepreneurship and innovation experience; global and cross-cultural perspectives; and service-learning.

“We are excited to be a part of the Grand Challenges,” said Palmer. “It builds on our curriculum that already includes senior design projects that challenges students to solve real-world problems posed by industrial partners.”

In fall 2014, RIT’s engineering college launched a new doctoral program, a Ph.D. in engineering. It had similar focus of addressing big-picture, societal problems, particularly four application domains of transportation, energy, communications and health care. Students will address these areas through the lens of national and global perspectives, in some instances by review of the strategic plans for the U.S. departments of transportation, energy and health and human services. Throughout the program, the students will also consider how their solutions and information could be turned into products or services.