The Grand Challenge for Science and Math

Students may resist geek studies. But they'll flock in for the opportunity to change the world

It could have been a Final Four basketball game for Duke. The university's students clamored for tickets, professors canceled classes, and organizers fretted over getting twice as many applicants as spaces. But this was a different kind of March Madness. The furor was over an engineering conference held at Duke on Mar. 2-3. Despite a snowstorm, 700 students from around North Carolina slogged through the snow to attend a conference they hoped would set them on the path to changing the world.

The Grand Challenges Summit was a conference to discuss the most important challenges facing society and how engineering and science can help solve them. Debates have raged for decades about the lack of interest in science and engineering among U.S. students. After witnessing the students' reaction to this summit and their determination to attend in the face of Mother Nature's best efforts to dissuade them, I couldn't help but wonder whether the reason why we struggle to entice undergraduates into engineering is lack of effective motivation, rather than lack of interest. Ask a student to be an engineer and they might blink at you. Ask them to better the world with science and they jump up and down.

Last year, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) convened a panel of technology and engineering luminaries. The group included a wide range of acknowledged innovators from the private sector and academia including Google (GOOG) founder Larry Page, noted inventor Dean Kamen, the inventor of the first synthesizer Ray Kurzweil, and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Mario Molina from the University of California, San Diego. The goal of the panel was to create a slate of Grand Challenges for scientists and engineers.

The challenges ranged from the obvious (providing clean water, engineering better medicines) to the slightly wacky but still fascinating (reverse engineering the human brain). All the challenges were the stuff science geeks drool over, and the publicity around the challenges created a huge buzz in the science community.

Encouraging Students' Passion for Science

After seeing the excitement the Grand Challenges created, NAE President Chuck Vest brought together a number of prominent engineering deans from around the country to discuss how to turn the challenges into a more organized effort. Vest observed that many of the great engineering and technological challenges of today require not only brilliant engineering but also an understanding of social sciences, social policy, business, even the humanities and arts. For example, creating a product to cheaply purify water must also take into account cultural mores, distribution logistics, and the existing water sales mechanisms and supply infrastructure in developing countries in order to be successful.

That discussion led to plans for the first Grand Challenges Summit. Duke University's dean of engineering, Tom Katsouleas, teamed up with the engineering deans from the University of Southern California and the Needham (Mass.)-based Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering to put together the program during the first week of March. The impressive speaker list included Palm (PALM) founder Jeff Hawkins, who has gone on to become a world innovator in human memory research; Moira Gunn, a former NASA researcher and leading technology journalist; and MIT professor Robert Langer, who has been issued or has pending 600 patents in biomedical research technologies. As part of a special student program, younger participants had their own speaker track and helped design an affordable system to test heart defibrillators in resource-constrained hospitals in the developing world.

Demand for the event was so high that Duke had to make special arrangements to accommodate everyone, including setting up live Webcasts over the Internet.

And the summit seems to have unleashed exactly the type of passion required to make the world a better place through science. After all, it is the students who, over the course of their scientific careers, will most likely be the solvers of the Grand Challenges. Take the case of Katrina Wisdom, a Duke freshman who is interested in aerospace engineering. Katrina wants to help develop lighter, more aerodynamic aircraft and spacecraft, which consume less fuel and are more environmentally friendly. At the conference she got to meet other undergrads who share her passion, as well as some of her science heroes. "It was amazing. I would not have missed it for the whole world," says Katrina. When she graduates and begins to build the plane of the future, perhaps the conference will have helped her with interesting ideas, useful contacts, and the type of perspective required to solve a Grand Challenge.

Time for a Scientific Renaissance

Such enthusiasm fills me with a deep sense of optimism. It is one thing for students to choose engineering over finance by necessity as the finance sector implodes. It's entirely another to have students so excited about engineering and science that they are willing to sit in an overflow room to watch video monitors of onstage proceedings. The sentiment of the students I spoke to reminds me of another era of science, harking back to the U.S. space program when NASA was trying to put a man on the moon and the whole country was pulling for it. Science was sexy, chic, and essential.

Today, the world faces more problems than perhaps at any point in recent history. The economy is collapsing. Greenhouse gases threaten to turn the earth into a giant steam room. Scarce natural resources such as food, water, and oil have already become international flash points as the developing and developed worlds jockey for position to sustain or improve their standards of living. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. In other words, if there ever was a time for a Scientific Renaissance, now is it.

Science can't fix all problems and it certainly won't provide fixes to every single one of the Grand Challenges in our lifetimes. But even solving one or two of these challenges could make the world a measurably more livable place for everyone. And those achievements would be worth far more to all of us than the king's ransoms reaped by all the overpaid hedge fund managers in the past decade, as many of the best minds on earth focused on Bloomberg terminals instead of the fragile blue globe that is our home, now and forever. The Duke experiment shows that engineering can be sexy and exciting. Perhaps our President needs to convene a national science summit and make the Grand Challenges part of the national agenda. The result might be a million more students like Katrina, passionate about both science and saving the world.

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