Published: Aug. 7, 2017 By

Keynote speaker Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation on stage.

Rajiv Shah of the Rockefeller Foundation gives a keynote address at the summit. Courtesy of the National Academy of Engineering.

Four CU Boulder engineering students recently returned from the Global Grand Challenges Summit in Washington, D.C., where they rubbed elbows with top scientists and peers tackling the world’s toughest questions.

Students Bridger Baird (CivEngr), Zoey Craun (ArchEngr), Katie McQuie (EnvEngr, ChemEngr) and John Stechschulte (CompSci) represented CU Engineering at the summit July 18-20. A fifth, Kaitlyn Garifi (ElEngr), also was selected but was unable to attend.

The summit aims to inspire the next generation of engineers, policymakers and business leaders to address critically important challenges facing humanity. It’s sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering and its equivalent organizations in China and the U.K.

Students enjoyed presentations and Q&As with researchers and business executives including Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, who gave a hopeful perspective on individuals’ abilities to solve problems. Other panelists–like Jeff Dean of Google and Michael Abrash of Oculus VR–gave insights on what the world’s technological future might look like.

“As a PhD student, my day-to-day work is in the nitty-gritty details of computer science and robotics,” Stechschulte said. “The GGCS offered a moment to step back and consider my work on a global scale and in context with incredible advances occurring outside my field.”

Reception hall.

Participants join for an opening reception at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Courtesy of the National Academy of Engineering.

Craun said one of the best parts was hearing from talented students and professionals from an array of disciplines and cultures.

“Some of the questions asked–especially those about how to close the gender gap and increase diversity in engineering–sparked discussions that carried long into our free time,” she said. “I really enjoyed getting the chance to hear the perspectives of other people on these issues.”

Baird said the quality of the conference speakers and attendees beat his expectations, and he left re-energized by a desire to make a collective, positive impact on the world.

“I want to use my engineering degree to make the world a better place, and I feel like the Grand Challenges do a good job of creating a broad idea of the most important issues facing our generation” such as water access, food security and energy, Baird said. “I hope to make my impact on the Grand Challenges from a sustainability perspective and try to give back to the planet more than I have taken.”

What’s Next?

CU Boulder is one of 122 U.S. engineering schools that signed a letter of commitment in 2015 to start a Grand Challenges Scholars Program, a program that encourages undergraduates to broaden their education with research, service learning and entrepreneurial experiences. Stechschulte said he hopes to be involved with that effort. Stay tuned for more.

What are the Grand Challenges?

The Grand Challenges are a set of 14 broad goals to improve life on the planet in the 21st century, defined by a multidisciplinary, international group of experts in 2008. They broadly address themes of sustainability, health, security and joy of living and include goals such as “make solar energy economical” and “reverse-engineer the brain.” Read a related blog post by Dean Bobby Braun about CU’s Grand Challenge Program.