Proceedings of a Workshop
An Undergraduate Competition Based on the Grand Challenges for Engineering: Planning and Initial Steps
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
On September 18, 2017, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) held a workshop to explore the possibility of a competition for undergraduate students based on the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering.1 The workshop brought together university faculty and administrators, representatives of engineering societies and companies, and students to examine how such a competition would be organized and administered.
The workshop was the first in a series of follow-up activities to an NAE workshop earlier in the year that examined the relationship between engineering societies and engineering education.2 That workshop looked at “potential areas where engineering societies could contribute in significant ways that align with the needs of engineering education,” said Leah Jamieson, John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering at Purdue University and chair of the project steering committee. “The idea of a competition focused on the Grand Challenges came out of that meeting as something with huge potential” to help engage, recruit, retain, and prepare undergraduates for a variety of engineering careers. It was also identified as a good vehicle to better engage professional societies with undergraduate students.
The goal of this workshop was to develop a shared understanding of what a competition might look like, said Burt Dicht, director of student and academic education programs for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a leading organizer of the workshop. He reported the following guidelines that emerged during a series of phone conversations before the workshop:
- It’s important to keep the preparations and the competition itself simple. “We are all busy, we all have a lot of things in our portfolios, and taking on something new is a challenge.”
- Students need to see enough value in the competition to want to become involved since they, too, are very busy.
- The competition needs to be flexible enough for students to have latitude in deciding what they want to do.
- The competition has to help students meet learning objectives that are useful for them.
1 The NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, announced in 2008, are a cross-disciplinary initiative whose vision is the “continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, healthy, safe, and joyful.” Under these four themes, the 14 Grand Challenges are complex yet vital aspirations such as reverse-engineering the brain, enhancing virtual reality, securing cyberspace, making solar energy cost competitive, engineering better medicines, providing access to clean water for nearly a billion people who lack it, and advancing personalized learning. For the complete list and more information about the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, see www.engineeringchallenges.org/challenges.aspx.
2 The workshop on “The Engagement of Engineering Societies in Undergraduate Engineering Education” took place January 26–27, 2017, at the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, DC. Information on the workshop is available at https://www.nae.edu/Activities/Projects/126089/167196/163917.aspx. Both workshops are activities of the NAE project on the Engagement of Engineering Societies in Engineering Education; information is available at https://www.nae.edu/Activities/Projects/126089.aspx.
B.L. Ramakrishna, director of the NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program Network, noted that his position at the NAE was created to support students working on the Grand Challenges from a local to a global scale. Many students want to be engineers for different reasons now than was the case in the past, he said. The Grand Challenges Scholars Program gives them an opportunity “to realize their dreams and goals” while also providing their future employers with graduates who have a global, entrepreneurial, and socially oriented mindset. The NAE wants to work with engineering societies, companies, foundations, colleges, and universities to meet the needs of both students and employers, he said.
The workshop consisted largely of breakout sessions in which small groups discussed six topics: value propositions, competition concepts, judging criteria, society commitments, implementation, and communications. In plenary sessions following the breakouts, representatives reported the groups’ ideas and conclusions, including aspects requiring further consideration. Given the exploratory nature of the workshop, there was occasionally some overlap in groups’ thoughts about a particular dimension of the competition, such as team size; discrepancies between group suggestions are included in this factual account of the discussions. In a final plenary session, the workshop participants discussed issues still to be resolved.
This breakout group determined that each stakeholder in the competition—students, engineering departments, engineering societies, companies—would have a different value proposition.
Students want to make a measurable difference and know that what they are doing is relevant to their aspirations. In the competition they would have opportunities for growth through collaborations not only with others on their team but also across organizations and with the community, and their participation on a team or engagement in a collaboration might lead to a later internship. In addition, participation in the competition would build students’ communication skills, allow them to stand out from others, and give them an opportunity to be recognized and participate more actively at conferences. It also would expose them to a greater diversity of collaborators and ways of thinking, increasing the value of their engineering education.
Universities, engineering departments, and faculty could use participation in the competition as an opportunity to foster their students’ professional skills, provide them with expanded learning experiences, and help them find work they are passionate about. Given the benefits of participation, outreach to diverse institutions, including historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, would be important.
Engineering societies could increase their membership of both students and future professionals. They could engage in cross-society collaboration and help to narrow the gap between industry and academia. Participation in the competition would create and strengthen relationships between students and societies, and increase opportunities for mentorship between members and students, thereby increasing member engagement with the society.
Finally, companies that participate could showcase their role in the community as problem solvers and build good will among competition participants, making it easier to recruit students to jobs.
The breakout group that discussed competition concepts favored the idea of a global competition that would initially be for undergraduates from two- and four-year institutions; the inclusion of graduate students might be considered in the future. There could be separate judging criteria for teams from two- and four-year colleges. Students would be allowed to participate at any point in their undergraduate years, which could help retain some earlier students in engineering.
Teams would need a mentor who belongs to an engineering society, which would encourage the engagement of societies and their members. A mentor could work with multiple teams, but students could be on only one team to prevent their being overcommitted to the competition. The mentor could be a faculty member, graduate student, or someone from industry to provide advice and guidance.
The scope of the competition would need to be specified, with examples of projects provided to teams along with the judging criteria. The scoping process would convey to students that, while they might not be able to solve a Grand Challenge, they could contribute to local or specific solutions related to one or more of the Grand Challenges.
The first level of competition could be at the level of each individual society, with the winners moving on to a broader competition. Competition at the society level would provide smaller societies with opportunities for exposure and connections to students.
Members of this breakout group envisioned teams of at least four people, with no upper size limit. They reasoned that, because different types of engineering projects need different types of teams, the composition and size of teams would vary. Multidisciplinary teams would be encouraged through the judging criteria but would not be a threshold requirement for entry in the competition. Team members could be from multiple universities, and there would be no restrictions on majors either within or beyond engineering, to encourage the development of multidisciplinary skills through interdisciplinary collaboration.
The deliverables could encompass two stages. The first stage would be a proposal, with a letter verifying team members’ status as students and identifying a mentor. This stage would enable societies to determine the resources needed to judge the competition and could indicate which universities are aware of and involved in the competition and which might need further outreach.
The second-stage deliverable would be the team product, which should include a proof of feasibility and an analysis of potential impact and might include a physical demonstration. Because demonstrations can be influenced by the amount of resources an institution can devote to a team’s effort, judging would emphasize the quality of the analysis so as not to favor institutions with more resources. Videos in which each team member explains the project would encourage all team members to take ownership of the project. And videos could be a good way of advertising the competition.
Each team member would receive a certificate. Acknowledging differences in resources among societies, the breakout group members suggested that cash prizes be at the cross-society rather than the society level of competition. Societies would provide money for the society-level winners to travel to the cross-society level. Prize money should go to the students rather than the societies and special prizes at both levels could recognize particularly noteworthy achievements.
Issues still to be resolved include who owns the intellectual property from the projects, whether students who graduate before the end of the competition would still be eligible, and the amount of time between the first and second stages of the competition, particularly given the scale of the problems represented by the Grand Challenges. The group discussed whether and how to integrate the competition into the capstone projects required of engineering students at many institutions. Capstone experiences provide a valuable springboard into the engineering profession, and participation in the Grand Challenges competition could have similar benefits. One problem with integrating a project into a capstone experience is the lapse of time between the two stages of the project, since students need to complete their projects before the end of the academic year, which may not coincide with the schedule for the competition.
Clear and explicit criteria for the competition would convey to students, mentors, and judges what is expected of them, according to the breakout group that examined judging criteria. A web-based platform could be established to publicize these criteria and provide administrative support to the judges.
The criteria should be weighted to emphasize the most important elements and to provide transparency in judging. The following criteria (and their associated weightings) were offered for discussion:
- Applicability: Is the project applicable to one or more of the Grand Challenges? (20 percent)
- Feasibility: Is the project technically and economically feasible? (20 percent)
- Innovation: Is the project unique, something new, incremental, an extension of something that already exists, or disruptive? (20 percent)
- Benefit: How would society benefit from the project in terms of funding, quality, or operational efficiency? (20 percent)
- Multidisciplinarity: Does the project include multiple disciplines and have a positive impact on diversity in its design? (10 percent)
- Sustainability: Does the project support the UN Sustainable Development Goals?3 (10 percent)
3 While the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not directly tied to or included in the Grand Challenges, the breakout group felt it was important to include them in the competition framework. For information about the SDGs, see www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals.
The members of this breakout group thought that teams should be required to have more than one discipline represented among their members and that at least one team member should be a member of the sponsoring society. They also thought that the optimal team size would be three to five members.
Yet to be determined is whether the demographic composition of teams (in terms of socioeconomic status, gender, or race and ethnicity) should be reported and taken into account in the judging, whether the judging criteria should be the same at both levels of the competition, whether judges should meet any minimum qualifications, and when and by whom a decision should be made that a proposal does or does not address a Grand Challenge.
An additional question is whether the number of Grand Challenges is too large for the competition to encompass them all. Perhaps a subset of the Grand Challenges should be specified in a given year’s competition as essential elements of competing proposals, though some workshop participants pointed out that this could bias that year’s competition toward particular disciplines.
A number of commitments would be expected of engineering societies that participate in the competition, including:
- marketing to members
- recruitment and support of mentors
- recruitment and support of judges
- initial screening of project submissions
- judging after initial screening
- support for software for administering and judging projects
- society-level awards
- travel costs and conference registration at judging events and/or awards ceremonies
- in-kind services (such as marketing materials and design)
- recognition of participants, mentors, judges, and sponsors at society conferences
- educational materials.
In general, participation would require time and money, and societies would need to determine their budgets for both.
The breakout group also acknowledged the importance of addressing the question “what’s in it for me?” For example, individual societies may want their own brand, even if the competition involves multiple societies.
For potential sources of financial support, the breakout group identified local and national companies, universities, foundations, and the engineering societies themselves. The United Engineering Foundation, for example, provides between five and ten grants per year totaling nearly $800,000, though the grants are nonrenewable.
The breakout group that discussed implementation of the competition proposed a three-stage plan that would precede the first competition. The first stage would be to get agreements from engineering societies and universities, develop the budget for the competition, and establish the prizes. This stage would also see the development of the competition website (to the stage of beta testing) and supporting platform.
In the second stage the societies would determine and commit their support at a particular level, the criteria for screening and judging projects would be established, and the website would be completed. A central portal would be established for the competition to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
In the third phase, students would be invited to apply. Teams would be connected with mentors to provide guidance on projects and societies would be invoiced for their contributions to support prizes. The group expected that the greatest financial impact for societies and universities would accompany the judging and awarding of prizes, including travel to and from conferences for awards ceremonies.
A possible timetable for the plan would call for the first stage to be completed in early 2018. The competition would open in the fall of 2018, with final submissions due in the spring of 2019 and prizes awarded that summer.
The breakout group suggested that the NAE could take the lead role in the competition, with the American Society for Engineering Education acting as the lead sponsor and promoter.
This breakout group identified five audiences for tailored marketing plans: students, engineering societies, industry, universities, and the general public.
- For students, the emphasis would be on the potential impacts of participation, including opportunities for networking and jobs.
- For engineering societies, the messages would involve expanding their engagement, growing their membership, and being part of an important initiative.
- Workforce development and social responsibility would be prominent messages for industry.
- For universities, messaging would emphasize the alignment of participation in the competition with student learning goals, including the need for multidisciplinary and entrepreneurial educational experiences. The potential to increase the diversity of students participating in engineering would also be an attractive message for higher education.
- For the general public, messaging would seek to increase awareness of engineering generally and of the role of engineering in solving the Grand Challenges.
The group suggested that the competition have a single web portal, hashtag, Facebook page, LinkedIn account, and other social media presences. Guidelines for branding should be developed with selected key messages and a single logo. Engineering societies should have standardized ways of highlighting their participation. The competition budget should include funding for online ads.
A precompetition communication plan could help recruit judges, sponsors, and students. After the competition the plan would identify opportunities for outreach to the general public and to more colleges, universities, and engineering societies.
Many questions surround staffing, budgeting, the division of responsibilities, and succession planning, but the group felt that communications would require two to three dedicated staff, including one person to monitor and manage social media.
SYNTHESIS OF CONCEPTS AND REMAINING ISSUES
In the final plenary session, the workshop participants discussed key issues to be resolved in establishing the competition.
One aspect that needs to be determined is the nature of the staged process, in which projects are initially screened or selected for participation in later stages of the competition. After a binary decision of whether a proposed project meets the competition criteria, an initial level of competition would be held by individual engineering societies. The winners at the society level would move on to the final competition.
What will be the best ways to foster multidisciplinarity in the initial stages of the competition? That is an important element in the Grand Challenges and needs to play a large role in the final competition.
It will be important to have as many winners as possible over the entire course of the competition, even if the judging criteria change at each level of the competition. Different kinds of prizes, at the various levels, could recognize different kinds of accomplishments.
The group briefly discussed whether the projects might be tied to one of the four broad themes into which the Grand Challenges can be organized: health, security, sustainability, and joy of living. However, it was pointed out that almost any project could fall into one of those categories, so the projects should be explicitly associated with one or more of the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering.
The question of whether one or more members of a team should be a student member of an engineering society was left undetermined. While most teams may have little or no difficulty meeting a membership requirement, it might be an obstacle for some, such as those from two-year colleges. If student membership were not required, having a mentor who is a society member could provide a connection between students and that society. One representative of a society said she could make a strong case to its leaders and members that student membership not be a requirement.
The roles and functions of mentors were not completely decided:
- If all teams are required to have a mentor, would the requirement extend through the duration of the team’s work, or could a mentor join or be assigned to a team at some point in the process? For example, some teams might wish to get started on a project without having a mentor and then enlist one later.
- Should mentors have to meet particular requirements, such as being at a certain stage of their career, having had certain experiences, or supporting teams in particular ways?
- Could mentors serve as judges—or should they be required to? If they do serve as judges, how could conflicts of interest be avoided?
Serving as a mentor after just entering the profession may be a valuable way to keep former student members involved in a society while making the transition to a career. Workshop participants pointed out that having mentors work with teams would present a powerful learning and growth opportunity for both team members and mentors, so structuring the involvement of mentors appropriately is important.
The right balance between exposing students to multiple disciplines and meeting engineering society needs was also discussed. Multidisciplinarity is a major aspect of the Grand Challenges, but if particular societies took the lead in organizing and running the competition, the disciplines represented by those societies might be emphasized. One possibility would be to let students decide which society they want to review their project. Another would be to have societies decide which projects they want to judge, either individually or collaboratively. Or judging teams could include representatives from different societies, to foster multidisciplinary projects and judging perspectives. Some societies, such as the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), work across disciplines, and these might be the preferred organizers and hosts of the competition. In particular, ASEE’s annual meeting in June was mentioned as a logical place for the final competition.
The question of how to cover the expenses of travel and accommodations for competitors and judges, along with the funding of prizes, remains to be answered.
Rather than assigning responsibilities to particular societies, a list of needs could be generated and societies could volunteer to meet selected needs. Additional flexibility could come from allowing societies to contribute in different ways, for example by providing funding, staff support, marketing, or other resources. Memoranda of understanding would clarify society commitments and help resolve concerns such as intellectual property rights.
An advisory committee would provide guidance on many of the broad, high-level issues associated with the competition, while a steering committee would make many of the operational and day-to-day decisions. Finally, many engineering societies have held student competitions, and that base of experience could inform the development and implementation of this competition.
As Dicht said in summing up the day, “This workshop is a great first step, but a lot more has to happen.” Next steps, such as appointing a steering committee and an advisory committee and formalizing relationships, are up to the participating societies.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Steve Olson as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
STEERING COMMITTEE ON THE ENGAGEMENT OF ENGINEERING SOCIETIES IN UNDERGRADUATE ENGINEERING EDUCATION PLANNING COMMITTEE: Leah Jamieson (Chair; Purdue University), Stephanie Adams (Old Dominion University), Marilyn Barger (Hillsborough Community College), Steven Brown (Loyola University), Don Giddens (Georgia Tech), Asad Madni (BEI Technologies Inc.), Tom Perry (ASME), Anne Spence (Baylor University), John Wall (Cummins, Inc.), Gregory Washington (University of California, Irvine); and STAFF: Kenan Jarboe, Senior Program Officer, and Michael Holzer, Senior Program Assistant.
We wish to thank Burt Dicht (IEEE) for his help in organizing this workshop.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Ruth A. David, ANSER, retired (monitor); Karin J.M. Anderson, Boeing; George L. Danko, University of Nevada, Reno; Paul Scott, American Society of Mechanical Engineers; and Dianne Chong, Boeing, retired. Janet Hunziker, National Academy of Engineering, served as the review coordinator.
SPONSORS: This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. EEC-1360962. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
For additional information regarding the workshop, visit https://www.nae.edu/Activities/Projects/126089/167196/173328.aspx
Suggested citation: National Academy of Engineering. 2018. An Undergraduate Competition Based on the Grand Challenges for Engineering: Planning and Initial Steps: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25018.
National Academy of Engineering
Copyright 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.