Visiting NAE President Delivers a Vision for ‘Lifting Up the Planet’

Multidisciplinary research, hands-on experience, entrepreneurship and multicultural understanding are key to preparing students for solving 21st-century problems, says C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr. in a University of Arizona lecture.

C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr. takes an unequivocally optimistic long view when it comes to our capacity to engineer a better world. 

“The greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century -- like electrification and refrigeration, automobiles and airplanes, interstate highways and space flight, fiber optics and nuclear technologies -- were primarily about things,” he said. “The greatest engineering achievements of this century will be more about people, societies and sustainability.”

The National Academy of Engineering president met with students, faculty and administrators at the University of Arizona on March 29 to present a blueprint for preparing the global workforce to solve the most daunting challenges in the decades ahead -- from preventing terrorism to providing access to clean water.

Problem Solving on a Grand Scale

“There is no way to predict what engineering is going to do in the 21st century,” said Mote, who since 2013 has headed the NAE, a private, nonprofit organization with more than 2,000 members.

“So maybe we should ask a different question: What does engineering need to do in the 21st century?”

Mote, Regents Professor and former president of the University of Maryland, as well as former vice-chancellor and chair of the mechanical engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, presented the NAE’s Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century and the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, designed to prepare future generations to solve the problems.

The 14 grand challenges were drafted by an NAE committee including visionaries like Google co-founder Larry Page and genomics pioneer Craig Venter and published in 2008 following extensive input from scientists and engineers and members of the public.

From making solar energy economical to engineering the tools of scientific discovery, these goals are accompanied by this short but sweeping vision statement: “Continuation of life on the planet, making our world more sustainable, safe, healthy and joyful.”

“This vision statement is not about making America great again,” Mote said. “It’s about lifting up our planet.”

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program, established in 2009, takes a global approach to educating future leaders.

“The educational model does not promote service to a particular nation, or adhere to any particular economic or political system or ideology. It is flexible, based on decentralized authority, and sensitive to cultural practices.” he said. “A major goal is to build a more diverse global workforce, and more than half of our participating students are female and members of minority groups.”

The scholars program aims to build competencies in five areas: research and creativity; hands-on experience in multidisciplinary projects; exposure to concepts in business and entrepreneurship; multicultural understanding and social consciousness.

“How participating schools wish to teach these competencies is up to them,” Mote said. “They design the curriculum and set the rules; we are interested only in outcomes. Our hope is that the program will inspire students to pursue careers in which they can serve people and society 20 or 30 years down the road. I’m feeling very optimistic we will see this happen.”

Mote, a master fundraiser who led a $1.4 billion capital campaign as president of the UC Berkeley Foundation, marveled at what the NAE grand challenges and scholars program have achieved in less than a decade.

“No agency asked for it; no major funding was provided for it. Yet the program continues to expand. We now have 40 Grand Challenges Scholars Programs in the U.S., with several more in consideration, and it has been adopted in 12 other countries. The fact that it is still growing shows this is something people really want. And that really inspires me.”

The College of Engineering is working with the UA to develop a Grand Challenge Scholars Program that includes the entire campus, said dean Jeff Goldberg.

“We are excited to offer opportunities for student engagement that center around grand challenges and integrate new ideas with our existing programs in engineering, business, and social sciences,” he said. “It is all about getting students to be better critical thinkers and to have the passion and ability to work on difficult societal problems.”


Top picture: C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr. (Photo courtesy of National Academy of Engineering)