Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School to Co-Host Grand Challenges Summit

First-of-a-kind conference will address issues of sustainability, health, national security and quality of life.

January 08, 2009 —

Answering a call from the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to address society’s most pressing environmental and societal challenges, USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering will co-host the first-ever national Engineering Grand Challenges Summit on March 2-3, 2009, on the Duke University campus in Durham, NC.

Engineering Grand Challenges Summit logo — "Face the Challenge" — is a call to action. 

Co-sponsored by  Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering and the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, the event will feature a wide variety of experts who will address key issues in energy, sustainability, health, national security and quality of life. 

The leaders of the three sponsoring institutions are former University of Southern California colleagues. Dean Thomas Katsouleas of Pratt, who initiated the project, is a former Viterbi School professor and associate dean, who also served as president of the USC Academic Senate. Before becoming President of Olin College, Richard Miller was aprofessor and associate dean at the Viterbi School, which is now led by Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. 

The Summit follows an NAE report released last year, which identified 14 grand challenges facing the 21st century.  Most of the 14 challenges could be realistically met early in the century, the NAE report stressed.  
“Our faculty have been addressing many of these issues for some time now, and with utmost urgency, recognizing that the key to our global well-being in the 21st century is intricately tied to them,” said Yortsos.  “But we need to make considerable progress quickly, and address a handful of very difficult issues, such as finding suitable energy alternatives, developing green technologies to safeguard the environment, improving cybersecurity and advancing the frontiers of medicine and health informatics, among several other priorities.”   

Addressing such complex issues will necessarily require innovation and cooperation from engineers of all kinds, as well as policy makers, economists, geologists, biologists and sociologists, to name just a few disciplines.

Solar Panel 1

The Summit will serve as a call to action and a focal point for society's attention to the most important opportunities that challenge our quality of life.  Pulling the best minds together for debate and focused conversation is one way to build the community that will build the future, organizers said.

“Nearly all of these challenges address complex social issues that require technology to solve but cannot be solved by technology alone,” said the three co-sponsors, including Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and Rick Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering.  “Most require engineers to work with policy makers, business professionals, social scientists and humanists; and most are inherently global by nature.  

“The NAE has shown us that our profession must move from devices alone to global social challenges and has identified a number of exciting ones,” they continued in a joint statement.  “At the same time, we have also learned that this generation of students wants to be engaged in such challenges.  The summit is an opportunity to capitalize on this coincidence. Through programs like these, we can engage students in society’s grand challenges and prepare them to be the generation that solves them.”
Yortsos VSo E Thumb
Pratt Dean Thomas  Katsouleas (left) initiated the Summit project, working with  two former USC colleagues: Yannis Yortsos (center), current USC Dean of Engineering; and Olin College President  Richard Miller (right).

The specific goals of the Summit are:

•    To enhance student interest in engineering and science.
•    To increase the visibility and importance of engineering and science to society.
•    To underscore the importance of recognizing that engineering education must be coupled to policy/business/law and must be student-focused.
•    To encourage future collaborations of interested scientists, engineers, policymakers and researchers in business, law, social sciences and the humanities, all of whom are needed to successfully address these complex societal issues.

To achieve these goals, speakers from across the country and the spectrum of expertise are scheduled to attend, including:

•    Charles Vest – NAE president
•    Steven Chu – Nobel laureate, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and U.S. Secretary-Designate of Energy.
Charles Vest,  NAE    president.
•    Robert Socolow – Princeton University
•    Robert Langer – MIT, recipient of the 2008 Millennium Technology Prize
•    Tom Byers – Stanford University
•    Donald MacLean Kerr – principal deputy director, U.S. National Intelligence
•    Jeff Hawkins – founder, Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience

The winner of a national student video contest will also be announced during the Summit. College students across the U.S. have been asked to create a video and write an essay in response to this question: Which of the 14 grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering would you choose to address, and how would you do it?

The winning team or individual will receive $15,000 in cash. Second place awards are $10,000, and third-place winners will receive $5,000. In addition to cash prizes, the winning videos will be shown during the two-day Summit.

The contest is part of an outreach effort to engage college students in big picture thinking, and the prize money, which was provided by an anonymous donor, is intended to stimulate student interest in the grand challenges.