by Matt Hughes
The best engineers in the world won’t stop climate change, ensure everyone has access to clean water or prevent the next pandemic — at least not alone.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recognizes that problems like these are too big for any one discipline to fully address and is now looking to Bucknell, where top-tier engineering and liberal arts programs coalesce, as a model for nurturing a new generation of broadly trained and aware engineers ready to meet these and other global challenges head on.

In September, NSF awarded a grant of nearly $2 million from its Revolutionizing Engineering Departments program to Professor Alan Cheville, the T. Jefferson Miers Chair in Electrical Engineering, and four co-researchers from the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering: Professors Robert Nickel, Stu Thompson, Stewart Thomas and Rebecca Thomas.

Over the next five years, the professors will make exploration of these problems using an interdisciplinary approach part of the department’s curriculum. They’ll also work on ways to help students draw stronger connections between engineering and their other courses, and offer faculty more time to craft and execute high-impact learning experiences.

The researchers intend to create a model that schools around the world can adapt to make their own engineering instruction more effective. It’s a tall task, says Stewart Thomas, but a critically important one.

“You can go pretty far and say that the future success of humanity is dependent upon us as engineers thinking in these ways — not just thinking of the technical aspects alone and nothing else,” he says.

Approaching these grand and thorny challenges means students and faculty alike will need to forge deep connections with those outside their fields. In fact, one of the project’s main contributors won’t be an engineer but a postdoctoral fellow with a background in anthropology, ethnography or a similar social science — one of two research fellows the grant will support.

“These are global problems where not only engineers but scientists, social scientists and people on the ground with deep cultural knowledge are going to have to work together,” says Cheville, the grant’s principal investigator.