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NIU commits to 21st century engineers

March 23, 2015

WhyEngineeringNorthern Illinois University is one of more than 120 U.S. engineering schools that announced plans to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century in a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama today.

These “Grand Challenges,” identified through initiatives such as the White House Strategy for American Innovation, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering, and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, 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 specially 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.

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.

“The fields of engineering and technology will continue to play a critical role in advancing the economic viability of our nation. Our country is fortunate to have the academy produce talented graduates from quality programs to advance the process of innovation,” said Promod Vohra, dean of NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology (CEET). “CEET-NIU continues to be a major catalyst of economic development in the region by being engaged, responsive and relevant.”

Grand Challenge Engineers will be trained through special programs at each institution that integrate five educational elements: (1) a hands-on research or design project connected to the Grand Challenges; (2) real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning with clients and mentors; (3) entrepreneurship and innovation experience; (4) global and cross-cultural perspectives; and (5) service-learning.

The training model was inspired by the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP), established in 2009 by Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, Olin College, and the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering in response to the NAE’s 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century.  There are currently 20 active GCSPs and more than 160 NAE-designated Grand Challenge Scholars have graduated to date.  Half of the graduates are women—compared with just 19 percent of U.S. undergraduate engineering students—demonstrating the program’s appeal to groups typically underrepresented in engineering.

In a letter to the president, NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology committed to developing and nurturing Grand Challenge Engineers in the 21st century to meet societal needs and provided the following examples of its commitment:

  1. Experiential learning that includes interdisciplinary cooperation in public policy, biomedical engineering, engineering law, science and business, as well as distance learning by offering both graduate and undergraduate engineering online degrees;
  2. Design: A National Science Foundation grant to establish a certificate program in nanotechnology which helps students design state-of-the-art electronic sensors, water purification, and solar panel technologies for the benefit and betterment of mankind;
  3. Entrepreneurship & Innovation: NIU was among 20 award recipients nationwide in 2011 to accelerate growth of the Rockford Area Aerospace Network, which brought together higher education, economic, workforce and leadership development to encourage the growth of new aerospace businesses, increase expertise throughout the supply chain, and help train a high-tech workforce;
  4. Global and cross-cultural perspectives gained through reciprocal study agreements with universities in India, China, South Korea, Columbia, Europe and Malaysia that promote involvement with globally complex issues for students studying abroad, as well as global business partnerships to increase the reach of NIU’s footprint;
  5. Humanitarian engineering projects including Engineers without Borders, a student group that has worked in Africa on water filtration projects with research grant money, and Light Up Africa, a project developed by an NIU engineering student; and
  6. Promotion of STEM education to students everywhere, as young as middle-school age, to continue the supply of highly qualified engineers well into the 21St century.

“The NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering are already inspiring more and more of our brightest young people to pursue careers that will have direct impacts on improving the quality of life for people across the globe,” said NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. “Imagine the impact of tens of thousands of additional creative minds focused on tackling society’s most vexing challenges. ‘Changing the world’ is not hyperbole in this case. With the right encouragement, they will do it and inspire others as well.”