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Olin Helps Take the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) in a New Direction

At Olin, part of educating engineers is preparing them to be world-changers. This takes shape in different ways, including helping students consider the civic role that they can play in sustaining society and the planet. At Olin, one of the ways in which the concept of civic engagement is embodied in its Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP). This nationwide program was inspired by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) 14 Grand Challenges in 2008 to encourage institutions of higher education to support young engineers’ development in a way that allows them to use their careers to make the world “more sustainable, secure, healthy, and joyful.”

Olin College GCSP students interact with guests on campus.

Olin’s GCSP helps students leverage their educational experiences and participation in the Olin community, as well as in serving the larger community. 

Olin was one of the three founding institutions to carry this vision into practice 13 years ago. Yevgeniya (Zhenya) V. Zastavker, professor of Physics and Education at Olin, was Olin’s inaugural GCSP director and has helped shape the international GCSP ever since, including as a member of the NAE national steering committee since 2014. The program has since been adopted by 74 universities in the United States and 19 international schools. Each of these schools creates its own approach to encouraging its students to develop knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors that help them achieve the vision for the original NAE GCSP, with each school determining how to select student scholars for their program. At Olin, the GCSP is embedded in the college’s culture in ways that include and extend beyond the formal curriculum.

Expanding the definition of Grand Challenges

In 2021, the GCSP will be embarking on a new path. The NAE is handing its formal leadership of the program over to the GCSP network of schools themselves. The coalition of schools will lead its own growth and envision what the new program will look like, going forward.

Zastavker is one of the academics co-leading this effort. She’s looking at this change as an opportunity to reassess how to best prepare students to address the global challenges humanity faces today. The original Grand Challenges were written in 2008, and “are ready to be reevaluated with the new global challenges in mind,” says Zastavker.

With her three co-leaders ­– Amy Trowbridge (ASU), Katie Evans (LA Tech), and Keith Buffinton (Bucknell) – she’s been talking about integrating the existing engineering Grand Challenges with the ideas imbedded in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), which include addressing challenges of poverty, social justice, and inequality. “The social scientists have identified a set of their own grand challenge, which are resonant with both the NAE GCs and UN SDGs,” she says. (See for example, Springer Nature Grand Challenges Programme or the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare’s Grand Challenges for Social Work). “As a network, we are aiming to find ways of more explicitly integrating these ideas into the new GCSP Network’s design and implementation. This means we need to bring on board everyone – mathematicians, social scientists, humanitarians, engineers – to address the issues standing before humanity.”

This outlook is in line with Olin’s vision to foster a culture of engagement in engineering that prepares the next generation of graduates to be personally and professionally responsible to the common good. “We are supporting students – global citizens who happen to have engineering talents – to be prepared to solve ethically challenging, interdisciplinary problems that don’t have neat solutions,” says Zastavker.

Connecting likeminded students and institutions

Expanding the GCSP focus to include broad “human” challenges beyond the scope of the original 14 Grand Challenges is the approach Zastavker’s successor as Olin GCSP director, Alison Wood, Ph.D., and her co-creator of the GCSP coursework, Robert Martello, Ph.D., have taken to recent innovations in Olin’s program. Wood explains that “program developments have aimed to engage students with the idea of grand challenges and personal challenges, helping them connect their personal goals with their contributions to society.” “Our student population’s needs, desires, and motivations shift quickly,” says Zastavker. “We need to create a holistic way for them to be in this space regardless of their specific interests, so they feel better prepared to graduate and step out into the real world ready to help.”

Another benefit of the international program’s new direction, says Zastavker, is bringing together coalitions of students, faculty, and alumni within the overall network structure. Students and alumni have been coming to GCSP annual meetings for years and have been asking to be connected with one another to learn with and from each other, for example. “It’s my personal mission to activate all of the ways to bring various institutions together to talk to each other and support each other so we’re not working in silos,” she says. “’I’ve always felt that this program has the potential to change minds and hearts, and I believe that we have an incredible opportunity to step onto the international stage and show how engineering education can be thought of in new ways.”