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In 2008 the National Academy of Engineering of the United States met to discuss the grand challenges for engineering in the 21st century. During those meetings, 14 grand challenges were identified.

It is important for people of color to understand what these challenges are, and their implications as each global community will experience grand challenges differently. Specific challenges may be more important for one community or less for another.

Grand challenges are BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) and considered to be some of the most difficult problems to solve. Solutions of these challenges will have tremendous benefits for global society because they are fundamental to the quality of life around the world.

Clean Water

One of the grand challenges is to provide access to clean water. Though water type and condition vary widely around the world, access to clean water is a challenge for all global citizens.

Planet Earth is largely made of water, but most of that water has a high salt content and not drinkable. Freshwater, or potable water, is in short supply and that supply is getting lower.

The limited supply of fresh water is becoming so much of a problem that books have been written about wars that will transpire based on the availability of clean water. True to these writings, I have had discussions with visiting scholars from Africa who’ve spoken about rising political tensions over access to the water originating from Lake Victoria. In places next to the ocean like Saudi Arabia engineers are devising ways to desalinate water cheaply.

In the United States, water and politics have gone hand in hand for a long time.

The history of Los Angeles is tied to the city aqueduct built by William Mulholland (the Irish-born civil engineer) and immortalized in the Roman Polanski movie “Chinatown,” loosely based on the Los Angeles water wars of the early 1900s.

Crisis in Flint, Michigan

The crisis in Flint, Michigan exemplifies that challenges of water contamination can affect many communities.

How do we effectively deal with the global water crisis? Can we make desalination plants more cost-effective? Can we provide filtration systems to reclaim contaminated water that is abundant around the world?

Though these questions are technical in nature, they are also political and cultural and the issues span disciplines such as business and public policy. At their core, however, they are engineering problems.

In March of 2013, the National Academy of Engineering met in London with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Chinese National Academy of Engineering. The three-day meeting had presentations and discussions regarding the 14 grand challenges.

A similar meeting was held in September of 2015 in Bejing China. The third meeting was held in July of 2017 in Washington D.C and once again the academies of engineering met and discussed these grand challenges. All of these meetings provided a forum for state-of-the-art presentations on the worldwide status of the 14 grand challenges.

Grand Challenges Scholars Program

Motivated by the National Academy of Engineering the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) was started. This program has now been implemented at more than 40 engineering schools around the world.

The GCSP is a combined curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular program with five competencies that are designed to prepare the next generation of students for addressing the grand challenges facing society in this century. The students are allowed to think innovatively and creatively about ways to address these challenges.

Here at Morgan State University, we are looking to be a part of this effort. We believe it is important for students to be involved in these discussions early because these are the challenges that will shape the world today and in the future. Solutions to these challenges are critical if we as a society are going to continue the lifestyle we currently have.

Some of my upcoming articles will delve deeper into a few of these grand challenges. Engineers dedicate themselves to solving problems, and I firmly believe that there is nothing more attractive to a passionate engineer than being able to make a significant contribution to a problem critical to the world.

To find out more about these grand challenges, the National Academy of Engineering’s website provides intriguing and informational summaries in easy-to-understand language.

Visit www.engineeringchallenges.org to stay abreast of the conversations and innovation that will address and solve these global challenges.

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