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Engineering Students Changing the World

The NAE hosted a workshop to brainstorm about a joint engineering society competition for students to propose solutions for the world's grand challenges.
Engineering Students Changing The World

By Penny Wirsing, FY18 SWE President Elect

engineeringMore than 120 U.S. engineering schools have committed to educate a new generation of engineers expressly equipped to tackle some of the most pressing issues facing society in the 21st century ( These “Grand Challenges,” identified through initiatives such as the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for Engineering and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, include complex yet critical goals such as engineering better medicines, making solar energy cost-competitive with coal, securing cyberspace, and advancing personalized learning tools to deliver better education to more individuals.

Engineering Students Changing The World
Penny Wirsing, FY18 SWE President Elect

On September 18, I attended a workshop hosted by NAE to brainstorm how to develop a joint engineering society challenge for students worldwide to think beyond the strictly technical aspects of engineering and propose solutions for these grand challenges.

The meeting, held on the campus of University of Southern California, was attended by about 25 representatives from engineering societies including IEEE, ASCE, ASME, ISA, SAE, as well as universities including USC, Colorado School of Mines and Purdue.

Creating a worldwide competition that crosses engineering society boundaries raises a lot of questions, like how will it be funded and who will lead it, in addition to how the competition might be structured. Breakout sessions focused on competition eligibility and prizes; judging criteria; value propositions for the various stakeholders; communication methods and messages; society commitments; and implementation logistics.

It was interesting to see something like this starting from scratch, though after a full day there were still more questions than answers – including some as simple as whether the students would need to be a member of one of the engineering societies. While not on the same level, developing this competition is in itself a big challenge!

About Penny Wirsing

Penny Wirsing is currently an Environmental Manager for a refinery in Southern California and has been in the oil and gas industry for almost 30 years, holding a number of positions related to engineering and the environment around the country. She earned her BS in Civil Engineering from Michigan State University, and MBA from the University of Washington.

Throughout her career, Penny has mentored young women within her company, in the local community, and at colleges and universities. She received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Michigan State University College of Civil Engineering in 2015, and was honored as a Fellow of the Society of Women Engineers in 2007. She is SWE’s FY18 President-Elect and is also active in her community, serving on the Board of Directors and Advisory Boards for several non-profit organizations.