Throughout history, engineers have done amazing things like building structures that can withstand disasters, designing ways to transport people and goods around the world, creating new ways to combat diseases and pandemics, and so much more!
The National Academy of Engineering has defined 14 goals that are known as the Grand Challenges of Engineering in the 21st century. This list provides a high-level summary of the goals that engineers work towards in order to improve humanity’s state of sustainability, health, security, and lifestyle. Read on to learn more about these Grand Challenges and how engineers today contribute to these goals!
1. Restore and Improve Urban Infrastructure
Infrastructure consists of all the structures and facilities that are needed for a society to operate. Some examples include buildings, roads, and bridges. The infrastructure in many countries is failing or requires significant funding to maintain regularly, and many areas of the world lack the necessary infrastructure. As a result, civil and structural engineers, among others, work to come up with new and improved ways to maintain or build infrastructure for different types of habitats around the globe. For a great example, check out the story of Phoebe Suina, an environmental engineer who uses her engineering background to improve the infrastructure of indigenous communities.
2. Provide Access to Clean Water
Many of us often take for granted the supply of clean water that is regularly delivered to our homes, but it is important to remember that this privilege is not granted to all communities around the globe equally and that existing water supplies continue to face new threats with time. Engineers aim to research and utilize new, advanced technologies to help provide clean water to everyone. Read about SWE senior life member, Becky Svatos, an environmental engineer and consultant on spill prevention, cleanup services, and regulatory compliance.
3. Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods
Carbon sequestration is the method of trapping unwanted, excess carbon dioxide and storing it safely away from the atmosphere. Some methods already exist for manufacturing processes and facilities or power plants, but engineers continue to research more efficient methods. Learn more about SWE member Julie Jastrow, who researches terrestrial carbon sequestration.
4. Make Solar Energy Economical
Today, solar energy has a very minimal contribution to our energy needs although it has the potential to provide so much more. As we continue to deplete our fossil fuel resources, engineers are researching ways to improve the efficiency of harnessing energy from renewable resources, including solar energy. These engineers include a number of SWE members with countless patents and inventions in the field. One example is Maria Telkes, who was the first recipient of SWE’s Achievement Award in 1952.
5. Provide Energy from Fusion
Another potential sustainable source of clean energy in the future consists of power plants based on fusion. Fusion is the energy source from the sun, but human-engineered fusion on earth is still much more challenging to obtain. Check out the story of Irene Sage, who was influenced by her mother’s dedication to the field of fusion energy.
6. Prevent Nuclear Terror
As the number of nuclear reactors for research and power continues to grow across the globe, so does the need to educate on and prepare for potential attacks. Members of SWE’s Women in Government Affinity Group often address such topics and governmental regulations.
7. Engineer Better Medicines
There is no doubt that the current state of health and medicine is much better than what it was even 50 years ago. Still, we are continuously faced with newly discovered pathogens, pathogens increasing their drug resistance, new research findings in the field of genetics, and so much more which leads to the need to develop more effective medicines. Check out some of SWE’s biomedical engineers who contribute to pharmaceutical research and production.
8. Reverse-Engineer the Brain
The brain is one of the most sophisticated organs in the human body, and a deeper understanding of the brain can help engineers improve health care and communication systems. Learn about Ranu Jung, one of the first engineers to merge neurology with communications and electronics to research the recovery of lost neurological functions.
9. Advance Health Informatics
Health informatics data includes everything from the medical records of individual patients to national or international data in the case of an outbreak. This data needs to be preserved, secured, and made available to the medical professionals who need it. Check out this interview with SWE member Anna, a Senior Associate – Technology Lead at Essex Management who works on bioinformatics software.
10. Advance Personalized Learning
Due to the many variations in individuals’ learning styles, academic interests, mental abilities, and other factors, many researchers focus on advancing personalized learning in place of traditional education systems that target equality rather than equity. There are a number of web-based personalized learning systems today, many of which have gained popularity with the increase in remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The research continues in order to develop more diversified content, better understand the neuroscience and cognitive abilities involved, and improve upon the existing platforms. Check out SWE’s Advanced Learning Center for some virtual learning content tailored to fit diverse members’ needs.
12. Enhance Virtual Reality
Virtual reality has found its way not only into the field of entertainment but also the worlds of technical training and communication. Engineers continue to improve the standards of virtual reality systems and research their potential in fields such as psychiatry, art, neuroscience, and more. Check out robotics engineer Beata Tala Barati and her work on virtual reality on the SWE All Together Blog.
13. Secure Cyberspace
As computer systems continue to expand into more and more aspects of our lives, it becomes more and more important to ensure that personal privacy and security are maintained throughout our interactions with these systems. For more info on what it means to be a cybersecurity engineer, check out SWE’s interview with Karen Reinhardt, a cybersecurity engineer at the Home Depot.
14. Engineer the Tools of Scientific Discovery
Just as engineering involves the use of existing scientific and mathematical tools to improve the world we know, engineers also give back to the fields of science and mathematics by partnering with researchers and developing tools to understand the many, unanswered questions today.