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21st Century Grand Challenges Shaping the Future of Education

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Jon Stone

Media Relations Manager

Jon Stone

Justin Beach

Dean Holston and a DU junior journey to Washington, D.C., to learn about White House initiative


“Making solar energy as cheap as coal. Making electric vehicles as affordable as the ones that run on gas. They’re ambitious goals, but they are achievable. We are encouraging companies, research universities and other organizations to get involved and help us make progress.”

That was the challenge set forth by President Barack Obama more than three years ago. The Grand Challenges initiative is an element of the president’s Strategy for American Innovation, an effort to harness science, technology and innovation to solve important national or global problems.

It’s this initiative that is driving the future of DU’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science (RSECS). Dean JB Holston is building the frame of the school’s strategic plan around the goals and initiatives of the president’s Grand Challenges. It also aligns with DU’s strategic plan of establishing Rocky Mountain Grand Challenges, detailed in DU Impact 2025.

JB Holston and Racheal Erhard in DC

Holston says RSECS is ready to enlist students in tackling this objective. “Instead of just sitting in class, you are also going to be doing something on a global basis, which DU is well positioned for because of our study abroad program. You get involved in some kind of project-based experiential learning; we do that as part of senior design and will start doing that throughout the curriculum. Entrepreneurship is one of the goals of the Grand Challenges. Again we are in a unique position to do that at DU.”

DU signed on to be a Grand Challenge university shortly after Holston arrived at DU in 2015. Now the goal is to get the program started next fall and enlist 10 percent of the incoming class as Grand Challenge scholars.

“If you come in as a student and you are one of the Grand Challenge scholars, you are going to figure out which of the Grand Challenges is the most compelling for you, and we are going to help you curate your undergraduate experience around exploring that challenge,” Holston says.

JB Holston and Racheal Erhard in DC

Earlier this month, Holston ventured to Washington, D.C., to meet with the National Academy of Engineering, representatives from the White House and other Grand Challenge universities from across the country. Traveling with him was Racheal Erhard, a DU junior majoring in both mechanical and electrical engineering. “She’s very interested in Grand Challenge topics, in particular sustainability and sustainable energy as a solution,” Holston says.

“It was definitely a really great experience for me,” Erhard says. “It provided a lot of clarity for what we can do with this in the future.” By meeting with universities from across the country, the trip also helped her realize what work can be done today through DU’s Center for Sustainability, an organization she supports.

William Fitts Ryan

The trip had added meaning for Erhard. Her grandfather, William Fitts Ryan, was a congressman from New York for 12 years. “In my house we have pictures of my grandfather with LBJ, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. Seeing those pictures and then seeing the Oval Office in person was really cool, because it didn’t look like anything that I expected. It was cool to be able to see that and where my grandfather once walked.”

Now back from their trip, Holston and Erhard are eager to get the Grand Challenge initiative up and running at DU and increase student involvement. “The main goal of these challenges is to get students aware of greater issues and get them to start thinking about how they can make an impact in the world,” Erhard says.