UNSW Engineering students passionate about solving the greatest challenges facing humanity can now take part in an international program devoted to the cause as part of their studies.

UNSW engineering students communicating with their Arizona State University counterparts by videoconference.

A cohort of UNSW Engineering students will be graduating as Grand Challenge Scholars in 2020 following the university’s acceptance by the international body governing the accreditation.

The National Academy of Engineers (NAE) in the US accepted UNSW into the Grand Challenge Scholars Program (GCSP) late last month after the university demonstrated that it was already providing courses that could be counted towards the Grand Scholar designation.  

Dean of Engineering Mark Hoffman said the GCSP is a big win for UNSW Engineering and will provide students with the tools to make a valuable impact on the world.

“The GCSP is a great fit with UNSW’s 2025 Strategic Plan that positions us as a truly global university,” he said.

UNSW is the second university in Australia to be accepted into the global program, following Australian National University in 2016. However, with its own Grand Challenge course already in place since 2016, UNSW will see some early adopter students graduate as Grand Challenge Scholars in 2020.

Students who take part in this program are the ‘dreamers’ who actually care about these challenges facing our planet

Dr Ang Liu.

Mechanical Engineering Senior Lecturer Dr Ang Liu, who was involved in the application process for the global recognition, said acceptance into the GCSP owes much to a joint course offered to engineering students at UNSW and PLuS Alliance partner, the Arizona State University.

“This program was founded on the course that we offer with ASU based on the PLuS Alliance, and the program is characterised by its particular emphasis on international collaboration,” Dr Liu said.

“The students participating in this course from UNSW and ASU can interact and learn from each other using videoconferencing technology without leaving their own campus.”

The Grand Challenge Scholars Program was originally launched in the US in 2008 with an aspirational vision to safeguard the future of humanity by dealing with the most pressing issues facing the planet.

The NAE identified 14 game-changing goals for improving life on Earth. Prospective Grand Challenge Scholars at UNSW will work towards one of these Grand Challenges by choosing subjects from within the curriculum, outside of the curriculum and interdisciplinary offerings from other Faculties.

Dr Liu says while the GCSP will be offered to the best performing students in first year, students can also apply by demonstrating their passion to make a positive difference in the world.

“Not all the students taking part in the Grand Challenge Program so far are necessarily the top performers. Students who take part in this program are the ‘dreamers’ who actually care about these challenges facing our planet and are committed to address them with emerging technologies,” he said.

Dr Liu says there are five competencies that the students must fulfil to graduate with the GCSP status. These are in the areas of: research experience, interdisciplinary curriculum, entrepreneurship, global experience and being socially conscious.

“I would say that compared to the regular engineering students, this program will equip them with new skills and motivation to solve challenges facing the world, as well making them more employable and favoured by future employees, especially non-profit organisations that grapple with these issues,” Dr Liu said.

Professor Maurice Pagnucco, Deputy Dean Education in Engineering and strong proponent of the initiative is excited about UNSW Engineering being accepted into the program.

“I’m looking forward to seeing our first Grand Challenge Scholars go out into the world and make it a better place for all using the knowledge, experience and skills learned at UNSW,” he said.

To date, 60 students have taken subjects in the two years since UNSW Engineering has offered Grand Challenge related programs, and it is expected at least three will graduate in 2020 as Grand Challenge Scholars.

Written by: Lachlan Gilbert