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Engineering in an Unpredictable World: The Global Challenges Summit

Will AI and other transformational technologies change humanity for the better? Can the world sustain 10 billion people in 2050?

In September, the 2019 Global Grand Challenges Summit (GGCS) brought 900 inspirational world leaders and the next generation’s engineers, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs and policymakers to London to put their minds to tackling pressing challenges facing the world today.

The two questions above were the themes of the GGCS this year and were put forward by Royal Academy of Engineering, in collaboration with National Academy of Engineering and Chinese Academy of Engineering. All three academies are working toward the goal of addressing these big questions and are beginning to integrate Sustainable Development Goals put forth by UNESCO as a way of bringing their members together in conversations about the challenges facing humanity today.

“We need to come together as a global society to understand the problem space before we can come up with possible solutions,” says Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, associate professor of Physics at Olin and the inaugural director of Olin’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP). Zastavker, along with the Olin College President Rick Miller, current Olin GCSP director Alison Wood, assistant professor of Environmental Engineering, and Olin student Charlie Owen, attended the event to join other changemakers to build creative global interdisciplinary collaborations.

Zastavker has attended the last three Summits, including acting as a mentor in the Student Collaboration Lab at the London Summit, an event that took place in the days leading up to the summit. Charlie took part in this event as one of the student collaborators.

The Student Collaboration Lab is a team innovation hackathon that provided participants with an opportunity to design and propose a for-profit business venture that focuses on solutions to the Grand Challenges and/or Sustainable Development Goals. The students, who worked in mixed international teams with two students from each the U.K., China, and United States in each team, worked day and night to develop their ventures. In addition to taking classes, they were tasked with preparing a business plan, a poster presentation and a three-minute pitch. The Lab culminated in a pitch-off, where judges, including President Miller, selected winning teams to present their proposals at the main Global Grand Challenges Summit.

Zastavker advised or co-advised three teams at the event. One of these teams, EmPads, won every single pitch-off. Students in this team came up with “a frugal innovation with the vision of empowering women.” More specifically, EmPads’ aim is to provide sanitary pads to women in rural India. Currently, 43 million menstruating women in India can’t afford to buy feminine hygiene products at market price. Meanwhile, millions of tons of disposed clothing from the fast fashion are sent to developing countries every year. EmPads aims to lengthen the utility life of these disposed textiles by manufacturing and re-purposing them into sanitary pads.

Zastavker was passionate about mentoring this team. “This project strongly resonated with me because of my own experience growing up in Ukraine, as a young woman,” she says. “Having these issues be discussed on a global stage in front of the three national academies is a gargantuan step toward a healthier future of humanity, all of humanity.”

At Olin, the Grand Challenges Scholars Program is embedded into the College’s learning continuum milieu that extends beyond the formal curriculum to include informal experiences that “help students grow into their identities, participate in a community of practice and find a role for themselves in fulfilling Olin’s mission of doing good in the world.”

Professor Zhenya V. Zastavker speaks to a student in class

“It’s natural for us here at Olin to think about the ways in which we support development of this kind of engineer, although we have a lot to work on still,” says Zastavker. “The next question is how to engage other institutions in these conversations, and how we can prepare the next generation of human beings with technical skills, empathy and compassion who can help us pave the way towards addressing Grand Challenges, Sustainable Development Goals, and many other challenges that are yet to be defined.”