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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.

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.

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
This program, in my mind, puts a name and a structure around the opportunities and hard work that students already accomplish every day at WPI.
Holly Nguyen
Computer Science
Grand Challenges Scholar

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the program only for engineering majors?

    No. While the program was approved by the National Academy of Engineering, it is open to all undergraduate majors at WPI. Students in any major can develop the five program competencies in the context of complex societal problems.

  • If I join the program, do I need to focus all of my academic work on a particular Grand Challenge?

    You may if you wish, but it’s definitely not required. College is a natural time for exploration. Any student who wants to make a difference in the general areas of sustainability, human health, security, or quality of life is a good fit for the program.

  • Can I apply even if I did not take a Great Problems Seminar?

    Absolutely. While the Grand Challenges Scholars Program is a great way for students to build upon their work in a Great Problems Seminar (GPS), taking a GPS class is not required.

  • Will I need to take additional courses? What are the requirements?

    The Grand Challenge Scholars Program does not involve checking boxes! Grand Challenge Scholars complete the same course and project requirements as all undergraduates. The only additional requirement is to create an ePortfolio that demonstrates development in the five competency areas (research ability, multidisciplinary perspectives, global competency, innovation and entrepreneurial (I&E) mindset, social responsibility) by reflecting on multiple project, course, and extracurricular experiences. Each scholar's path and portfolio is unique; it's flexible, like "choose your adventure."

    Some students may decide to choose additional courses or extracurricular activities related to innovation and entrepreneurial mindset that they had not anticipated when entering WPI. Developing the I&E competency enhances graduates' impact to make a difference in the world.

  • How much of a time commitment is involved?

    Three two-hour meetings of all Grand Challenge Scholars are scheduled during each semester (fall and spring), typically at the end of term breaks and before Academic Advising Day. The minimum expectation is that scholars will be required to attend at least two meetings each year, to reflect on what they learned in the previous term or semester and add to their portfolio of work, and share their portfolio with peers and advisors for feedback. These meetings are also a time to connect with fellow scholars and a network of advisors and mentors from multiple disciplines to revisit and possibly refine their plan of study.

  • What are the benefits of the program?

    There are both external and internal benefits:

    • Scholars can share their ePortfolios with potential employers and graduate schools, conveying more about their abilities and accomplishments than can be presented in a resume or LinkedIn.
    • Through the process of developing and revising an ePortfolio, scholars are poised to communicate what they’ve learned from their WPI experiences to a variety of audiences.
    • The process of regular reflection and planning keeps scholars grounded in the big picture of their education, what they value, and how everything fits together.
    • WPI Grand Challenges Scholars will be able to connect with a range of peers in multiple majors who are passionate about making a difference in the world.
    • For academic and career planning, scholars will have access to faculty and staff mentors with multiple areas of expertise related to the grand challenges. 
    • Some government research labs give preference to Grand Challenge Scholars for their summer internships.
    • Scholars will also be recognized at graduation and with a certificate from the National Academy of Engineering.
  • Does the program provide scholarships?

    Not at this time. Being a Grand Challenge "Scholar" is an honor and an achievement, but it does not come with financial assistance.

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


Ambassador H.E. Dr. Barfuor Adjei-Barwuah  alt
Ambassador H.E. Dr. Barfuor Adjei-Barwuah
November 04, 2020