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For the community, by the community: Grand Challenges Scholars Program network prepares for a more collaborative future

Above: Grand Challenges Scholars Program leaders at Arizona State University are working with other GCSP network members to lead the transition to a new community consortium leadership structure and expand how it prepares students to better engineer a complex world. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU

Among the lessons learned from 2020 is just how important it is for the global community to work together to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

Applying that lesson, the National Academy of Engineering-endorsed Grand Challenges Scholars Program network is working to shape the future of the organization in a way that prepares students to address the global challenges humanity faces today. The GCSP, formed in 2008 after the NAE identified 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century, has been adopted by 74 U.S. universities and 19 international schools as a way to support the development of engineering students to achieve the NAE’s goals for a better future.

The GCSP leadership in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University is working with other longtime active GCSP network members from Bucknell University, Louisiana Tech University and the Olin College of Engineering to leverage NAE’s successful leadership of the international community to transition to a new community consortium leadership structure.

During this transition, ASU will be assuming all administrative responsibilities for the day-to-day operation of GCSP. The NAE will continue to provide recognition to graduating Grand Challenges Scholars during and after the transition.

“The Fulton Schools of Engineering recognizes the impact of the GCSP program on engineering and is proud of our program and its students. We are excited about working with other schools as we transition to a community-led GCSP network,” says James Collofello, a professor and vice dean of academic and student affairs for the Fulton Schools. “We hope to leverage ASU’s and the Fulton Schools’ experience and resources in digital learning to connect GCSP students and alumni across the GCSP network in novel ways.”

Similar goals spark change

ASU has participated in GCSP since 2011, and was the fourth school to join the GCSP network after the program’s three founding schools. ASU faculty, staff, students and alumni have been highly involved in the network’s annual meetings. Amy Trowbridge, director of GCSP at ASU and a senior lecturer in the Fulton Schools, has served on the GCSP proposal review committee.

In recent years, some of ASU’s GCSP activities to engage students at the Fulton Schools and throughout the GCSP network have been supported by the Kern Family Foundation, an organization that supports education to create value and teach an entrepreneurial mindset, especially for undergraduate engineering students.

When applying for their latest Kern Family Foundation grant, Trowbridge and the ASU GCSP had ideas to expand opportunities for student and alumni networks and create a platform for faculty members to share best practices.

It was great timing for the NAE, which was considering a shift of the GCSP network leadership toward its members and expansion of GCSP’s original mission to be “a community-led endeavor to generate intended impacts in engineering education and professionalism,” as stated in an NAE memo announcing the transition.

Thor Misko, program director at the Kern Family Foundation, helped connect ASU and the NAE as the GCSP leadership at ASU had already started thinking about the future of the network. The support of the Kern grant team and other Fulton Schools staff put ASU in a great position to help pilot the transition.

“It is always great to be able to connect two like-minded partners together that see opportunities to advance their goals,” Misko says. “Their partnership naturally emerged because they share a mission of graduating engineers with an entrepreneurial mindset. We are happy to support their initial exploration and look forward to seeing how the NAE, ASU and the GCSP communities collaborate to create an even more robust and impactful program moving forward.”

Now ASU is drawing on its resources and innovative approach to expand how it can prepare students to better engineer a complex world.

Engaging the community

Each of the 93 institutional members of the GCSP community operates largely independently while still supporting students’ development aligned with the GCSP goals and structure. To be named an NAE Grand Challenges Scholar upon graduation and be added to the NAE registry, undergraduates must complete a variety of competencies through curricular and extracurricular activities aligned with their institutional mission and vision.

“The GCSP network has been growing outward around the world, which is great. But I think that we need to strengthen the connections within the network for a more engaged community of passionate students, alumni and faculty,” Trowbridge says. “I see the transition team’s job as figuring out the best way to build a stronger network. A lot of people out there want to actively engage in the GCSP network, and we want to bring them together to build the future together.”

Keith Buffinton, a professor at Bucknell University who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, says it’s an exciting time for the organization, which is valued as an important agent of change in improving the global quality of life. 

“We have thousands of current GCSP students and alumni who understand the interconnectedness of societal, cultural and technological issues and are intent on making a difference in the world,” Buffinton says. “We have an opportunity to build upon this great success and move forward in creating new points of engagement both for the growing range of institutions that want to establish GCSPs and for the next generation of students who will make the world a better place.” 

The faculty members who are leaders in their own schools’ GCSPs have excellent ideas that could evolve and strengthen the network as a whole, says Katie Evans, the associate dean of strategic initiatives at Louisiana Tech University College of Engineering and Science who has been serving as chair of the GCSP proposal review committee.

“Insightful ideas from our institutions’ faculty members span the spectrum of local implementations to collaborations across time zones and continents,” Evans says. “Transitioning the GCSP network to a community-led effort creates opportunities and shared responsibilities for the faculty members to create an even more robust program that provides students with empowering learning experiences for many years to come.”

Yevgeniya V. Zastavker, an Olin College of Engineering professor and the college’s inaugural GCSP director who has been serving on the GCSP proposal review committee, adds, “This is a unique moment in the evolution of the international GCSP network that allows us to reflect on where we have been, assess where we may want to go, given the current socio-political and cultural shifts in global society, and plan the network’s next steps accordingly.”

Zastavker says the network must engage in necessary questions such as, “How do we intentionally support development of the GCSP network to be even more inclusive, diverse and equitable? How do we leverage the GCSP to create equitable learning opportunities for all students across the globe? How do we bring all voices to the GCSP table to support sustainable learning structures for the future global citizenry?”

Brainstorming the future together 

During this year of change, Trowbridge and the transition team worked to foster a greater sense of community by hosting a virtual GCSP Annual Meeting in November focused on a relevant theme: staying in the present, reflecting on the past and imagining the future. 

The two-day event included talks by the GCSP’s founders and longstanding steering committee members, student and alumni success stories, student project showcases, various networking sessions for students, alumni and faculty and the first GCSP networking session for industry. Most importantly, the event included community brainstorming sessions to generate ideas and goals for the future of the GCSP network. 

“We want to take ideas from the meeting this year to find ways to build bonds and provide opportunities to really be a network and learn from each other,” Trowbridge says.

New opportunities for students, alumni, faculty

“The original Grand Challenges, and the original GCSP, were developed by relatively small groups of people who identified the challenges and created the program based on their collective wisdom and experiences,” Buffinton says. “The future of the GCSP can now be molded and guided by a much larger collection of people with an even wider range of experiences to ensure that the GCSP remains appropriately focused, inclusive and timely.”

Ideas for opportunities that originated during the annual meeting all bring value to students participating in the program, including new student networks and more engagement between the GCSP network institutions. 

“What a beautiful opportunity to create supportive structures for our students’ development and get out of their way,” Zastavker says. “We may just witness the impossible.”

Faculty members can also share best practices on how to make their program components more successful and better support their students.

GCSP alumni in particular will receive more benefits. As ambassadors to the program in their new roles as graduate students and industry professionals, alumni help others learn about the program and understand its value, Trowbridge says.

With a strong alumni network, industry relations also grow. ASU piloted an industry workshop this year to better align the skills GCSP students learn and what’s needed in industry careers. And in the future GCSP network, industry will become more involved to better understand the value Grand Challenges Scholars bring as tomorrow’s leaders.

The transition team hopes to have a new leadership structure in place during 2021 that provides more opportunities for community members to get involved at various levels — from making decisions about the program as a whole to serving on advisory committees and promoting alumni and student networks.

“The GCSP community is excited about this opportunity to lead itself,” Trowbridge says. “We’re excited to put community leadership in place and continue to grow and strengthen the network.”

About The Author

Monique Clement

Monique Clement is a lead communications specialist for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. She earned her BA in journalism from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. For seven years before joining the Fulton Schools communications team, she worked as an editor and journalist in engineering trade media covering the embedded systems industry. Media contact: [email protected] | 480-727-1958 | Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

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