The Grand Challenges Scholars Program Network, a Reimagining of 21st Century Engineers, Moves to USC

| September 29, 2023

The national program, adopted by nearly 100 universities, was co-created by USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos

Grand Challenges Scholars Program Class of 2022

The 2022 graduates of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and Dean Yortsos.

They are an exceptional group of burgeoning engineers who have been compared to “the 300” of ancient Sparta with their potential to change the course of our civilization. They are the Grand Challenges Scholars, among the best and brightest engineering students found anywhere.

They are committed to leveraging their engineering competence and character to take on some of the biggest issues facing humanity, the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Challenges. These include securing cyberspace, advancing personalized learning, reverse-engineering the brain, engineering better medicines, providing access to clean water and making solar energy economical.

Co-founded in 2009 by USC, Duke University and Olin College, the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, or GCSP, has expanded to nearly 100 universities nationwide. In 2022, its four creators won the prestigious Bernard M. Gordon Prize, the nation’s most celebrated award for engineering education.

Dean Yannis C. Yortsos (Courtesy/USC Viterbi)

“I always look at the Grand Challenges Scholars Program as sort of the blueprint for engineering education of the future,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos, a co-recipient of the Gordon Prize. “It tells people that we are here to solve big problems that have significant societal impact.”

USC and the GCSP Network

Now, the GCSP Network is coming to the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

After spending several years overseen by the National Academy of Engineering in Washington D.C. and then Arizona State University, the Grand Challenges Scholars Program Network moved to USC. Yortsos said the overarching goal of bringing the coordinating office to Troy is to establish a 501(c)3 organization that will help run the program in the future. This will contribute in sharing best practices; tightening the connections among participating universities; developing a website; tracking alumni; and adding new signature events.

Yortsos also said the time might be right to modify the Grand Challenges themselves to make them more relevant to today’s world. Additionally, he and other GCSP leaders believe that the program should more explicitly incorporate ethics into its pedagogy.

As part of the move, USC Viterbi will create a stand-alone nonprofit, a so-called 501c3, that would operate the GCSP network. Doing so, Yortsos said, will make it easier for the GCSP network to be administered by a global coalition. Meanwhile, USC Viterbi will support the network, as well as the transition to an independent coordinating entity, seeded with prize money from the Gordon Prize.

“It’s an exciting time now that we have some funds available to create something that brings all this together and helps us create a self-sustaining entity that can grow even further,” Yortsos said. “We want to create the 2.0 version of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program.”

Senior Associate Dean Kelly Goulis (Photo/USC Viterbi)

Added Kelly Goulis, USC Viterbi’s senior associate dean for admission and student engagement who will serve as interim chair of the Grand Challenges Scholars Network: “The opportunity to really have a seat at the table and create something that’s sustaining for generations to come is, I think, really exciting.”

Rick Miller, president emeritus at Olin College, GCPS co-founder and co-recipient of the Gordon Prize, said he thought USC would make an excellent steward for the important program.

“With USC and Dean Yortsos in the lead, the potential is enormous to expand the global participation in the GCSP by an order of magnitude,” he said. “The Grand Challenges Scholars Program could become the globally dominant educational program in the preparation of the next generation of youth committed to sustainability, security, health, and human flourishing in all disciplines.”

GCSP at USC Viterbi

As one of the co-founders, USC Viterbi has long emphasized the importance of GCSP, which encourages the development of five mindsets among participating undergraduate engineering students, namely: undergraduate research; interdisciplinary collaboration; innovation and entrepreneurship; cultural and global understanding; and societal impact and relevance. GCSP, Yortsos said, aligns with USC Viterbi’s commitment to “change the conversation about engineering, engineering education and the ‘face’ of engineering, who we are, what we do, and what we look like.”

USC now graduates about 50 GCSP students annually. To date, 280 Trojans have successfully completed the program.

According to Goulis, in recent years USC Viterbi has introduced several new programs to make it easier for students to fulfill GCSP requirements. The Center for Undergraduate Research in Viterbi Engineering (CURVE) Fellowship matches undergraduates with research labs to give them hands-on experience early in their studies. USC Viterbi has just incorporated a two- to three-week overseas experience as part of its signature Advanced Writing and Communication for Engineers class, allowing participating students to address one of the Grand Challenges.

Consistent with the dean’s belief that GCSP must evolve and adapt to better position tomorrow’s engineers for success, USC Viterbi has reimagined its Engineering Writing Program. The new Engineering in Society Program emphasizes technology ethics, community service and communication.

“We should be preparing students not only with outstanding technical competence, which we already do, but also with outstanding character, both of which together spell trust,” Yortsos said. “USC Viterbi aspires to create trustworthy engineers, a vision that fits perfectly with the evolution of the GCSP in today’s world of extraordinary accelerating technology and its impact on humanity and society.”


Published on September 29th, 2023

Last updated on September 29th, 2023

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