Grand challenges: Freshman course teaches students how engineering benefits society

Published April 28, 2008

Tokyo sits on a tectonic plate boundary, making it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. So, for the capital and largest city of Japan, a seismic monitoring system to predict earthquakes is critical.

However, current technology can give residents only a few tens of seconds of warning that an earthquake is about to strike.

More than 6,000 miles away from Tokyo, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering students are discussing technologies for better prediction systems—and how engineers from different disciplines could collaborate to find a solution.

The Tokyo case study is only one example of the humanitarian applications of engineering that students are investigating in the inaugural semester of the course, Introduction to Society’s Engineering Grand Challenges.

Based on challenges outlined by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), the UW-Madison class aims to inspire students to become engineers to improve the quality of life around the world. This semester, 98 first-year students are tackling five themes that encompass a variety of challenges facing society today.

Susan Hagness, a professor in electrical and computer engineering, conceived of the course as a way to show students the bigger picture of what engineers do for society. “The course is a combination of the NAE project and an inclination I’ve had for awhile that there are students out there who would make wonderful engineers who need to know more about the important impact engineering has in the world,” says Hagness. “It’s not about making cool high-tech gadgets. It’s more than that.”

The course reaches out to students early in their engineering education because studies suggest that students who see the role of engineering in society are more likely to stay with the field, Hagness says.

Mike Lucas is one of the first-year students in Grand Challenges. Lucas says he entered UW-Madison confident he would be an engineer, but partway through the first semester of classes, he was unsure he wanted to continue. “I was just not exposed to much engineering,” he says.

His adviser, College of Engineering Assistant Dean for Engineering General Resources Donald Woolston, encouraged Lucas to try the Grand Challenges course.

The class helped. “It gives you a good idea of what engineers do and the specifics of what the different disciplines do,” Lucas says. He says studying engineering now feels like a concrete decision and plans to pursue a degree in engineering mechanics.

The course also makes an effort to reach out to women—and nearly a quarter of the enrolled students are female. Samantha Kamin is one of them. A first-year student, Kamin was interested in engineering before taking the course, but Grand Challenges helped her pinpoint biomedical engineering as the discipline she plans to study.

The course structure offers students a taste of different engineering disciplines while enabling them to examine broad engineering issues, says Hagness. “Instead of structuring the themes based on specific NAE grand challenges, we came up with societal themes based on scale, starting with engineering challenges at the personal level and getting larger and larger,” she says.

Course sections rely on a team of faculty members who each present a theme and case studies to students, who work with two of the themes over the course of the semester.

Mechanical Engineering Professor Nicola Ferrier teaches students about engineering challenges that impact individuals, such as privacy, biometrics, rehabilitation engineering and assistive technologies. Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Trina McMahon and Professor Jeffrey Russell discuss sustainable engineering solutions for challenges facing the developing world, including clean water, housing and health care.

Hagness teaches the third theme, which is engineering for the “megacity” and tackles challenges such as pollution, transportation, security, energy, and natural disasters in cities with populations above 10 million; Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Daniel Klingenberg at global engineering challenges focused on environmental issues like climate change and conservation.

And finally, Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Kristyn Masters expands the course horizons beyond Earth to investigate space travel, inhabiting space and deflecting near-Earth objects like asteroids.

Within each course section, students work in teams to develop oral and poster presentations. In the “megacity” group, for example, current projects include underground high-speed transportation to reduce congestion in cities and turning megacities into self-sufficient “eco-cities.”

“This course helped me decide to get the additional Technical Communication Certificate (in engineering) because it helped me realize that I really enjoy the presentation and communication aspect of this field,” says first-year student Kamin.

Class activities also challenge students to consider more than just technical issues when developing solutions to engineering problems. “Engineering is fundamentally a design process with both technical and nontechnical constraints,” says Hagness. “We’re trying to emphasize the importance of a broad perspective: Engineering solutions are influenced by political, environmental, ethical, legal and social constraints.”

“That perspective will help students in all of their future coursework here as well as wherever their career takes them.”

The course is funded by the College of Engineering 2010 Initiative, which seeks to increase cross-disciplinary research and education on campus to respond to changes in the engineering field, such as technological advancements and global competition.

“The long-term vision is to expand the offering of this course to students from all over campus,” says Hagness. “Having a more diverse environment in the classroom would help the engineering students because ultimately, they are going to be working on technologies that have to be embraced by the public.”

That message resonates with Kamin. “The most valuable thing I learned in this course is that the communication of information is just as important as obtaining that information in the first place,” she says.

“Without being able to communicate your research or the effect it will have on society, it is impossible to get people excited about your work.”

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