August 12, 2019
Engineering students showing prosthetic leg the developed

Program Prepares Engineers to Face the Future with Confidence

The first crop of graduates has emerged from the National Grand Challenges Scholars program at Catholic University. At Commencement in May 2019, the inaugural cohort of student participants in the University’s program received undergraduate degrees.

The program, created in 2008 by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), presents a global vision for the engineering profession in the 21st century. Catholic University is one of approximately 60 universities in the United States taking part in the program. Without dictating a specific curriculum, it identifies 14 goals that students should be educated to meet. These include making solar energy economically viable; inventing better medicines; restoring and improving urban infrastructure; securing cyberspace; providing access to clean water; and nine other challenges.

Students admitted to the program are expected to maintain a high GPA and to develop five core competencies. In addition to basic research on a topic relating to at least one of the grand challenges, these include skills in business and entrepreneurship; social consciousness (at Catholic University, this requirement is met through a service component); multicultural competency; and interdisciplinary learning.

“Engineering projects are highly interdisciplinary, so it’s important that engineers know how to work with professionals in other fields,” said Gregory Berhmann, Ph.D. 2009, clinical associate professor of biomedical engineering and associate dean for undergraduate programs, who directs the Grand Challenges program for the University. “We have some advantages, I think, because we have a strong liberal studies curriculum that’s integrated with our entire undergraduate program.”

Each participating college, school, or university is responsible for selecting its students and for determining how program requirements will be achieved. Behrmann views the program as a natural fit for the School of Engineering.

“The program aligns with Catholic University’s vision for preparing our students to serve humankind,” Behrmann said. “Both aim to prepare students to solve difficult problems and make the world a better place.”

The multicultural requirement for students in the program can be satisfied in various ways, such as going on a mission trip or by pursuing an education abroad. Patrick Walsh, B.S.M.E. 2019, traveled to Hong Kong for a semester at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

“I took five classes in Hong Kong,” Walsh said, “and I got an education outside the classroom, too. It was great to encounter a whole different culture. I made a lot of friends from all over the world, and after the semester was over, I spent three weeks travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand — on a college budget.”

Hong Kong Polytechnic University is rated highly for its academics and state-of-the-art facilities. Walsh said his favorite class (they were all in English) was aerodynamics, but he learned important lessons simply by living in such a densely populated city.

“It taught me to live small,” Walsh said. “Hong Kong is a massive city of about 8 million people. Everything seemed smaller and more within reach, because everything was connected to the Metro and the buses. It just seemed like a more modest way of living. The room I was in was tiny, but I didn’t need much more, because everything was set up for a communal setting. My belongings fit in two suitcases for five months.”

“We have a longstanding relationship with Hong Kong Polytech,” Behrmann said. “As the program attracts more resources, we can expand the opportunities for research and for global experiences for our students.” 

Caroline Miller, B.M.E. 2019, is another Grand Challenges scholar who has benefitted from international travel. During her junior year, Miller traveled to Cardiff, Wales, for a semester abroad. In addition, she joined a mission trip organized by the Washington, D.C., chapter of Engineers Without Borders to a rural village in Panama, where she and the other participating students helped build a library. 

“The people there had to travel two hours to the nearest populated city,” Miller said. “You had to put on boots to go to the outhouse, because you were walking through weeds up to your knees. The people need things that will help them in their daily lives, such as clean water, or better road conditions, or medical equipment.”

To meet the service requirement, Walsh volunteered at the National Institutes of Health, where he worked in their co-generation plant to optimize energy consumption.

“In a hospital setting, electricity, heating, and water are crucial,” Walsh said. “You can’t lose them for more than a couple of minutes and not have someone’s life at risk.”

For their senior design project, Walsh and Miller worked on developing a method to help patients find a better fit with their prosthetics. 

“Fitting a prosthetic is more complicated than I thought,” Miller said. “You would think, with the advanced medicine and technology we have, that there would be a better way, but it’s pretty much trial and error to fit a prosthetic. We were looking for ways to assist prosthetists in assigning the best prosthetic for each patient. It depends on the materials involved, the patient’s walking gait, and even how each patient feels about a prosthetic.”

Their project directly addressed one of the 14 grand challenges issued by the NAE, to advance health informatics. Meeting that goal entails finding new ways to acquire and use information to enhance the quality and efficiency of medical care. 

Miller is in the University’s accelerated master’s program and will earn her M.B.E. in December. After that, she hopes to find work in the Boston area, a center of the biotech industry. Walsh has a job with Advanced Technology and Research, a contractor with the U.S. Navy. 

“I’m working with computer software that aims to detect small boats off the coast,” Walsh said. “If there’s a boatful of Navy SEALs going toward a foreign coast, how long before they have to turn out the motor off? When do they have to get out and walk to avoid being detected?”

Though their paths diverge for the immediate future, at least, Miller and Walsh are united in their praise for the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and in encouraging students to apply.

“It pushed me to do things I didn’t expect to be doing,” Walsh said. “It’s one of the main reasons I ended up studying abroad, which I loved. It gave me a lot of motivation to make myself the best, most well-rounded student possible.” 

“People shouldn’t be discouraged by how much work is involved,” Miller said. “You may have to add a few classes, but it ends up working out, and it helps you get more involved with the engineering school over all.”

“Don’t be afraid of the challenge,” Walsh advises students considering applying to the program. “You’re at college to learn, and this will definitely help.”