Grand Challenges Scholars Program


About the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP)

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) is a global movement that advances a new education paradigm—one that prepares students to change the world for the better—aligning closely with the mission of The Global School at WPI. The GCSP is a combined curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular program with five competencies that are designed to prepare students to address the grand challenges facing society in the 21st century, in areas including sustainability, health, security, and joy of living. Implemented at more than 50 schools around the world, each institution develops its specific initiative within the program framework.

Meet Five of WPI's Grand Challenge Scholars

Holly Nguyen’s journey at WPI began with the Heal the World Great Problems Seminar, the seed of an ongoing interest in multidisciplinary problems, human health, and cultures around the globe. She reflects on how she integrated her major of computer science, a minor in business, and commitment to service as she created a business plan for women jewelry-makers in Ecuador, worked toward water security for rural people in Guatemala and Ecuador, and developed a mobile sleep app.

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Alex Markoski makes connections between years of research on medical devices at Draper Labs, his work as a University Innovation Fellow and starting WPI's LaunchPad, learning about the climate for startups in Hangzhou China, and his core value of helping others, all with an eye toward leading development of life-saving and life-improving products.

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Rachel Welch has a passion for space exploration and spinoff technologies that will improve life on Earth. She reflects on her leadership of the Satellite Development Club to research, design, and build a CubeSat and on the challenges of coordinating communication between multiple technical and non-technical subgroups. Rachel also learned from internships at Deep Space Systems and interacting with professionals and startups in Denmark, Israel, and Lithuania.

A computer science major with entrepreneurial aspirations, Derek Feehrer saw first-hand the power of multidisciplinary teams via successes in hardware and software hackathons and product pitches.  As a contribution to the grand challenge of advancing personalized learning, Derek developed and applied research, multidisciplinary, and multicultural competencies as part of an IQP team that developed a multi-channel promotion plan to launch the first massive open online course (MOOC) in Namibia.

High school sports injuries led Maggie Vaccaro to a goal of becoming an engineer in the medical device industry. She reflects on how she developed Grand Challenge competencies from work with Boston Scientific and a small startup company, courses she took for her business minor, multiple design projects in biomedical engineering, and travel in Ecuador and Israel.


The GCSP at WPI supports and recognizes undergraduates who wish to combine any major with a passion to address significant challenges facing society.

In August 2017 the NAE named WPI a Grand Challenges Scholars School, recognizing the university’s unique project-based curriculum—the core of the WPI Plan—that enables students to engage in real-world experiences across four years and around the globe. At WPI, our Grand Challenge Scholars Program builds on the WPI Plan. With the Great Problems Seminar, thematically related coursework through the Humanities & Arts Requirement, the Interactive Qualifying Project and Major Qualifying ProjectGlobal Projects Program, summer experiences, and leadership roles in clubs and organizations, students have multiple opportunities to develop their research abilities, interdisciplinary and global perspectives, and entrepreneurial mindset, all in the service of society.

WPI Grand Challenge Scholars will be guided by advisors, mentors, and peers to make purposeful, informed decisions about their program of study with the multidisciplinary, global nature of societal grand challenges in mind. The goal of WPI’s GCSP is for students to connect and reflect on multiple learning experiences, inside and outside the classroom, as they develop the following five competencies:

Colleagues meeting around a desk

  • Research ability: Identifying and solving problems creatively through sustained critical investigation
  • Multidisciplinary approaches and interdisciplinary perspectives: Interacting with and drawing from multiple fields of expertise; making connections between disciplines; analyzing the humanistic, social, historical, economic, and technical contexts of problems
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship mindset: Creating value in the marketplace or in society with a viable business model
  • Global and intercultural competency: Developing skills, knowledge, and dispositions to appreciate diverse perspectives and ideas and to engage in open, peaceful, and productive interactions with people and cultures around the world
  • Social responsibility: Considering the social and human consequences of actions and responsibilities to others in local, national, and global communities; acting to improve the human condition.

Scholars will document their competencies, reflect on their learning, and communicate the impact of their work in an ePortfolio that touches on one or more of the Grand Challenges themes.

The goal of the program is to foster the mindset that being a Grand Challenges Scholar is simply what you make of your experiences and the roles you assumed during your undergraduate years.
  • Taylor Stephen
  • Robotics Engineering
  • Grand Challenges Scholar
I think reflection is something that isn’t always incorporated into education and this is a fantastic opportunity to compile information.
  • Holly Nguyen
  • Computer Science
  • Grand Challenges Scholar
My goal is to help create meaningful impact in the world in any way I can. If I can help another student in any way, this is my goal.
  • Ryan Rigney
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Grand Challenges Scholar
With our engineering background, we have the foundation to our work, but it’s what we do beyond the walls of our degree that benefits the rest of the world.
  • Taylor Stephen
  • Robotics Engineering
  • Grand Challenges Scholar
Paul MacCready

Founder and Chairman, AeroVironment Inc.

Throughout a long and distinguished career as a meteorologist, aeronautical engineer and entrepreneur, Paul MacCready has taken on host of challenges, amassed an amazing record of pioneering achievements, and become widely recognized as one of the most influential engineering minds or our times.

In 1977, with the Gossamer Condor, a 55-pound craft with a 96-foot wingspan, he achieved a milestone in aviation: powering an airplane with nothing more than human muscles. This human-powered plane successfully maneuvered a 1-mile, figure-eight course at an altitude of 10 feet and an average speed of 10 miles per hour to win the coveted $100,000 Kremer Prize. That plane now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, not far from the Wright brothers' Flyer.

As a boy growing up in Connecticut, MacCready developed a passion for model aircraft of all types. During World War II, he trained as a Navy pilot. After the war, he studied physics at Yale and aeronautical engineering at Cal Tech, where he earned a Ph.D. A soaring enthusiast, he worked on a number of innovations for gliders early in his career, including the Speed Ring Airspeed Selector, used by glider pilots worldwide to select the optimum flight speed between thermals (commonly called the "MacCready Speed"). In the 1950s, he co-founded Meteorology Research, a company that specialized in weather modification. In 1970, he launched AeroVironment in California, where he turned his attention to new energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

It was during this time that he developed the Gossamer Condor, and later the Gossamer Albatross, which won a second Kremer Prize by crossing the English Channel under human power. A few years later, his Solar Challenger became the first solar-powered plane to fly across the Channel.

Under his direction, AeroVironment has opened a host of new frontiers in aviation, electric vehicles, telecommunications and energy. With General Motors, AeroVironment designed the Sunraycer, a sleek solar-powered car that won the first trans-Australian solar-powered car race in 1987, as well as the Impact battery powered vehicle. It garnered headlines last summer when its Helios solar plane, designed as a prototype for a high-altitude telecommunications platform, flew to nearly 97,000 feet, shattering altitude records for propeller- and jet-powered planes. AeroVironment is also making headlines with its unmanned aircraft and micro-aircraft. Used for remote surveillance, they are finding a wide range of law-enforcement and military applications.

A member of the National Aviation Hall of Fame, MacCready has won numerous awards and honors for his work. They include the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest honor, the Reed Aeronautical Award, and American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Century Gold Medal. Time magazine honored him as one the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century. In 2003, he received the prestigious Heinz Award, in the category of technology, the economy and employment, and the Franklin Institute's Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science, in the field of aviation. WPI recognized MacCready in 1980 with an honorary doctorate in engineering.

Presented November 11, 2002, as part of WPI's celebration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight.

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Program Eligibility and Application Requirements

First-year students and sophomores from any major are eligible to apply. The application consists of:

  • An unofficial transcript
  • A one-page essay explaining interest in the Grand Challenges and motivation for joining the program
  • Two faculty endorsers, one from a science or engineering discipline and one from the Humanities and Arts, Social Sciences, or Business.

For more information on the Grand Challenges Scholars Program, contact:

Chrysanthe Demetry
Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering
Director, Morgan Teaching & Learning Center

Stephen Kmiotek
Professor of Practice, Chemical Engineering