Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) Turns 15

USC Viterbi Staff | February 20, 2024

Annual meeting celebrates the successes and future of the now global humanitarian engineering program

Olgha Qaqish, Nora Sandoval, Kamau Jamal Abercrombia, Yannis C. Yortsos, Jenna Carpenter, Kelly Goulis and Najm Meshkati stand behind a birthday cake for the Grand Challenge Scholars Program anniversary

From left to right: Olgha Qaqish, Nora Sandoval, Kamau Jamal Abercrombia, Yannis C. Yortsos, Jenna Carpenter, Kelly Goulis and Najm Meshkati

This century will be the century of complexity–said many years ago, Bill Wulf, the late former President of the National Academy of Engineering, whom USC Viterbi Dean Yortsos referenced in his keynote address at the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) annual meeting last week at USC’s University Park Campus. Yortsos, who in 2022 was co-awarded the National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize for his co-founding of the GCSP, suggested that it was the perfect vehicle to wrestle with the pervasive complexities and grand challenges of our times.

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program, now expanded to more than 100 engineering schools worldwide is an outside-the-curriculum program for engineering undergraduate students –it involves a commitment to engage with one of the National Academy of Engineers’ fourteen Grand Challenges, which include addressing security, sustainability, health or life enrichment, and cultivating mindsets of advanced research, interdisciplinarity, innovation and entrepreneurship, cultural understanding and societal impact.

“The Grand Challenges Scholars Program epitomizes the quintessential engineering student of our times-one who will address the Grand Challenges of today, which with the increasing intertwining of technology and humanity, require both competence and character, thus the emergence of trustworthiness,” said Dean Yortsos.

For the 90 student representatives who attended–the annual conference presented an opportunity to learn how to enhance their own GCSP experience and those of their peers. Students heard from experts about various topics including how to communicate about their projects via storytelling, how to build community, including with alumni of the program, as well as how to assess and position projects for impact.

David Gerber, Daniel Druhora, Brad Cracchiola and Burcin-Becerik Gerber talk about their class and documentary Lives Not Grades

David Gerber, Daniel Druhora, Brad Cracchiola and Burcin-Becerik Gerber talk about their class and the Emmy-winning documentary Lives Not Grades











Female attendee is standing in front of Grand Challenge Scholars Programs attendees to comment

The GCSP turned 15 this year and was celebrated not just for its expansion to other universities but for the staying power of the mindset it cultivated–a sentiment echoed by the conferences attendees and speakers.

Group photo of approximately 90 students attending the Grand Challenge Scholars Program take a group photo on the stage at the ballroom at Tutor Center

Approximately 90 students attended the Grand Challenges Scholars Program annual meeting.

Professor Olgha Qaqish who directs the GCSP program at North Carolina State University, noted the critical role that the Grand Challenge Scholars Program has had for motivating burgeoning engineers. Regarding first-year undergraduate engineering students, she says, “They’re altruistic. A lot of students come in with this drive that they want to have impact as engineering students, and the first two years we tend to lose them because they’re in a lot of the prerequisite courses that have nothing to do with engineering.” But the GCSP, notes Qaqish, plays a key role in bridging curricula, practice and impact.

Dr. Garrison Tull speaks at the podium during the Grand Challenge Scholars Program Annual Meeting

Dr. Garrison Tull gives the keynote address at the Grand Challenge Scholars Program Annual Meeting

Keynote speaker Renatta Garrison Tull, Vice Chancellor of diversity, equity and inclusion at UC Davis, stated that this type of purposeful learning presented by the GCSP should be accessible to all. “Everyone deserves the chance to engage,” she said, and to be involved with humanitarian work. She encouraged the audience to invite more people to address problems–versus keeping such experiences elite, noting that diversity improves innovation.

Also speaking at the GCSP annual meeting was Duke University and GCSP alumnus Andrew Mang, for whom the GCSP had a lasting effect. Mang took forward his projects to develop an entity to help secure access to clean water in East Africa and later, started his own sustainability consulting company. He noted how experience changed him. “The GCSP helped me explore many different ways of approaching grand challenges. I was able to identify my strengths and passions and have continued to use that knowledge since graduating more than a decade ago. The interdisciplinary experience I gained through the program taught me how to work with people in different roles and from different backgrounds, and the community I’ve found through the Network has always encouraged me to keep thinking big.”

The GSCP Network is now formally housed at USC under USC Viterbi Admission and Student Engagement office and Senior Associate Dean Kelly Goulis.

Goulis said, “We are proud to have hosted this conference and look forward to expanding the Grand Challenges Scholars and supporting the network for the next 15 years and beyond.”

Next year’s conference will be held at North Carolina State University.

Happy Birthday, Grand Challenge Scholars Program!!!

Published on February 20th, 2024

Last updated on February 21st, 2024

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