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World's 'grand challenges' come into focus for engineer students

Published on Tuesday, March 31, 2015

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Freshmen engineering students will be given a piece of aluminum foil, a coffee filter, a cup and a plastic container. They will try to purify water that has been tainted with a mixture of pollutants.
 

Clemson University Photo

Freshmen engineering students will be given a piece of aluminum foil, a coffee filter, a cup and a plastic container. They will try to purify water that has been tainted with a mixture of pollutants.

 



Enlarge photo

The water demonstration and others will be happening across campus on Wednesday as Clemson University’s Grand Challenges Scholars try to recruit the next crop of students for the program.

Clemson University Photo

The water demonstration and others will be happening across campus on Wednesday as Clemson University’s Grand Challenges Scholars try to recruit the next crop of students for the program.

By PAUL ALONGI

Clemson University

The research that Amanda Farthing is doing could help earn her an industrial engineering degree from Clemson University, but her work is also part of a much bigger picture.

Rather than focus on engineering alone, an increasing number of students at Clemson and across the nation are thinking about other pieces of the puzzle that need to be in place to solve the globe’s most complex challenges.

Inventions have to be taken to market, so entrepreneurial skills are critical. As developing nations rise, engineers will be needed abroad. Some engineers could be called upon to help shape public policy.

The College of Engineering and Science is sharpening the focus on those skills across the board, but the spotlight is starting to brighten on one program in particular.

Twelve students, including McCartney, make up the first group from Clemson to be part of the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program.

The idea is to get some of the nation’s brightest engineering students to focus on the 14 “grand challenges” identified by the academy in 2008. The challenges range from making solar energy economical to providing access to clean water.

Clemson’s scholars will meet with freshmen engineering students across campus on Wednesday in hopes of recruiting a new crop of students to the program.

The recruitment push comes little more than a week after a letter was presented to President Obama at the White House Science Fair. In the letter, more than 120 U.S. engineering schools pledged to educate a new generation of engineers equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society.

Among the signatories was Clemson’s Anand Gramopadye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science.

“The next generation of engineers needs a broad skill set to solve the challenges society faces in an increasingly complex and interconnected world,” he said in a written statement from Clemson.

“Engineers must work across disciplines, think globally and have entrepreneurial skills. They need to apply their classroom lessons to the real world, and they need to understand how their technical expertise can serve the greater good. All these values are encapsulated the in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program.”

Students must fulfill five components through coursework and extracurricular activities to graduate as Grand Challenges Scholars.

The components are: hands-on project or research experience, interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship, global dimension, and service learning.

Farthing, a sophomore, is well on her way to meeting the requirements.

She took wind speed readings in Haiti to help evaluate whether energy could come from wind turbines. Farthing also studied inequality in South Africa and swung through Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Switzerland to learn about how the European Union works.

She is now looking into a research project that would examine the cost of solar energy in South Carolina. The grand challenge she chose was making solar energy economical.

“The program gives more of a purpose to my education,” Farthing said. “I’m here to do more than just get a degree. It shows how my education can apply after I graduate and how what I’m learning here can make a difference.”

The grand challenge Andrew McCartney has selected is managing human-induced changes in the global nitrogen cycle.

He uses the Palmetto Cluster supercomputer to crunch numbers and is starting to think about publishing his findings so that others can benefit from his work.

McCartney, a junior from Fort Mill, said the program has enabled him to bounce ideas off students who are focusing on various branches of engineering, which gives him a fresh perspective on the research he does with faculty advisor Rachel Getman.

“The lines of the engineering discipline become blurred when you’re working on the same problem,” McCartney said. “You aren’t confined to one method. You think of different ways to tackle the challenge.”

McCartney and Clemson’s other Grand Challenges Scholars are now on the hunt to find the next crop of recruits.

When they visit freshman General Engineering classes on Wednesday, they will illustrate the need for clean water by showing how tainted water can be purified and how ultraviolet light can be used to power a small motor that turns a fan.

Clemson’s chapter of the program is overseen by Leidy Klotz, an associate professor of civil engineering.

Klotz said students who graduate as Grand Challenges Scholars have a credential that will make their resumes stand out but that other factors drive them to the program.

“These are the kids who want the most impactful opportunities,” he said. “They are the ones who want to change the world.”

Most students who participate in the program begin in their freshman or sophomore year. Participants must hold at least a 3.2 grade point average.

The program was endorsed in 2009 by the National Academy of Engineering. Nineteen schools are now listed as members.

To learn more about Clemson’s chapter of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, visit here.

For more about the program, visit here.

 

 

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