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General Card #3335
Transdisciplinary Views on the Grand Challenges
Updated: 6/14/2023 11:47 AM by Becky Benishek
Reviewed: 12/21/2022 8:44 AM by David Olawale
Developing faculty relationships across campus centered around the Grand Challenges to help students better integrate Liberal Arts and STEM concepts.

This card details my efforts at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to bring together faculty from various disciplines to create EML course activities centered on the NAE Grand Challenges or UN Sustainable Development Goals.  The process to bring faculty toward collaboration detailed in this card may be useful to faculty or administrators trying to build cross-college transdisciplinary collaborations.   This project extends what I learned from the 2020 Leadership Unleashed and 2021 Unleashing Academic Change Faculty Workshops.  Funds for this project were provided by a 2021 KEEN Engineering Unleashed Fellowship.

Establishing Transdisciplinary Grand Challenges Collaborations on Campus

Background:  In 2008 the National Academy of Engineering published a report detailing 14 Grand Challenges (GCs) for Engineering in the 21st Century.  Duke, Olin, and the University of Southern California stepped up to create the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) designed to prepare students to address these GCs.  They invited other Universities to join and more than a hundred have since established GCSPs.  Thanks to funding from the Teagle Foundation and collaboration with four other universities, RIT’s Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) started in 2017 and is unique from many GCSPs in that it explicitly stresses integrating Liberal Arts (LA) and Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM). 

Project Motivation:  After two years of disruption due to COVID19, our GCSP needed an infusion of energy.  I found that many faculty, especially outside of the College of Engineering (and even inside) did not know what the GCSP was or if we had one at RIT.  My project goal was to develop a faculty learning community that would then help inform faculty and students about global Grand Challenges, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals and help them integrate LA and STEM concepts.  I established the following goals for my fellowship:

  • Encourage faculty at RIT to connect concepts from Liberal Arts (LA) with the application of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) concepts and the goals of addressing Grand Challenges in their courses.
  • Broaden exposure to the RIT Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) for both STEM and LA students by promoting curiosity about the interplay of technology, environment, individual people, and society.
  • Broaden the discussion in both STEM and LA courses around:
    • The value and risks of technology and technological thinking
    • The underlying human values that objects, processes, systems, and decisions promote.
    • How incorporating different perspectives in efforts to address Grand Challenges or Sustainable Development Goals will enhance the value of our students’ current and future solutions. 

Planned Implementation:  My plan was to hold a half-day faculty workshop around the GCs during Winter break followed by a Spring semester faculty learning circle meeting monthly.  By Summer I had hoped to have identified four pairs of faculty from LA and STEM disciplines committed to developing transdisciplinary modules for a future Grand Challenges Seminar.

Pivots:  My project only went loosely as planned…

Schedule Pivot:  By Winter Break, we were in a full-blown Omicron surge in Western NY.  The university discouraged gathering prior to the start of the semester and serving food was forbidden.  Instead of a half-day workshop, I joined with the larger RIT KEEN initiative of EML Active Learning Seminars, offering a one-hour Zoom seminar called “Integrating Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Grand Challenges” in early February. I also participated on a panel organized by the colleges of Liberal Arts and Engineering to share faculty experiences working across disciplines, which generated interest from colleagues in Liberal Arts.  Because the 1-hour seminar and 7 minute panel brief were not sufficient to recruit interested faculty and identify pairs, I held a longer “Transdisciplinary Grand Challenges Faculty Brainstorming Workshop” (with lunch this time) in May.  Consequently, my timeline was delayed by four months.  The workshop was well attended by faculty across colleges known to be active in transdisciplinary spaces.  It included experienced faculty who helped shape my future ideas for the project.

Implementation Pivot:  The faculty in the workshop discouraged me from planning a 1-credit Grand Challenges seminar unless I was planning to require it for all GC scholars, citing their own experiences with low student enrollment and attendance for 1 credit courses that didn’t fit in a specific program.  While I may later create a required Grand Challenges Seminar, we decided to create modules that could be included in existing General Education and STEM courses.  I very much appreciate the advice of these mentors who saved me from doing a lot of work with little chance of success.  After a few more summer Zoom meetings, we ended up with faculty teamed up for three projects and the planning of a symposium in December.

Final Outputs Pivot:  As of September 2022 we are still in the process of developing the modules with a plan to create EU cards for each.  We may not have a need to create videos for these modules because they are not intended for a “flipped classroom” Grand Challenges Seminar and will instead be integrated in multiple classes in slightly different ways.  We will provide EU Cards for the modules and a final video detailing the work done by faculty and students with footage of the symposium.  The learning circle is continuing in Fall 2022 and, now that we have a motivated faculty team, we hope to recruit additional faculty pairs and utilize internal university grants to incentivize them to create Grand Challenges modules beyond December.

Implementation Details and Resources

KEEN Integrating Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Grand Challenges Seminar, 1 hour Zoom seminar with example activity held in February 2022, 7 attendees.

Meeting Agenda: 

  1. Intro to KEEN and EML (this was provided by campus KEEN Leadership)
  2. Participant introductions
  3. The Grand Challenges Scholars Program
  4. Course Example:  “Grand Challenges: Clean Water” (This course is a General Education 3 credit Ethics Perspective, co-taught by an engineer and an ethicist. The class was inspired by the “Great Problems” courses at Worchester Polytechnic Institute).
  5. Active Learning Class Module Example:  “The Play Pump Transdisciplinary EML Module” Card coming soon!
  6. Debrief on The Play Pump Activity
  7. Call to Create more Transdisciplinary Grand Challenges Modules

Resources:  The ad and seminar slides are included below. The Play Pump Active Learning Module example is included as a separate card (link coming soon).  The Playpump module is currently used in the Grand Challenges: Clean Water course, which is co-taught with an ethicist and is described in EU Card https://engineeringunleashed.com/card/2897.

Advice:  If you are planning a similar short seminar, 1 hour was tight for this full agenda.  People joined late and had to leave early for class, the normal Zoom issues with sound, sharing, and rooms caused delays, and introductions took longer than expected.  Schedule for 90 minutes or skip introductions.  If hosting on Zoom use two presenters, one to present the content and the other to manage Zoom sharing and break out rooms.

Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Grand Challenges Faculty Brainstorm, 3-hour workshop with lunch held in May 2022, 12 participants.  Two less formal Zoom meetings followed this workshop in June and July and served to develop ideas and form faculty pairs.


  1. Introductions
  2. Grand Challenges Scholars Program
  3. KEEN Entrepreneurial Minded Learning
  4. Transdisciplinary GC Seminar
  5. Gallery Walk:  GC Topics
  6. Lunch
  7. Brainstorming Session

Resources:  Slides are included below.

Ah-ha moments and Outcomes:  I had expected it to be easy to form pairs from STEM and LA faculty with common interests around Grand Challenges.  However, it quickly became clear that while STEM faculty interests tended to align with challenges (water, energy, security, etc), LA faculty focused on theories, processes, methods, etc that can easily lay over many/all challenges, like weaving a plaid pattern.  Also, the idea of a Grand Challenges Seminar was scrapped in favor of integrating modules in existing courses such as Critical Thinking and Science Technology and Values.

Ongoing Collaborations:  We formed four sub-teams to work on modules and events.  We will continue to meet and recruit other faculty in Fall 2022 and hope to establish additional incentive programs to encourage faculty to participate.  Cards will be developed as the modules are completed. 

Integrating Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Grand Challenges Learning Circle:  We will meet monthly in Fall 2022. 

Resources:  The text of the call to join the learning circle is included below.


Modules and Activities (under development):

Horseshoe Solar Case Study:  Three faculty will work to develop this case study module which will look at NY State renewable energy policy, technological viability of siting solar projects, Corporate Social Responsibility, economics of energy projects and relation to the tax base, community resistance, development on burial sites and viable farmland, and more!  They plan to have the students interact across courses.


Dr. Lisa Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety Management in the College of Engineering Technology proposed the case and is using it in her Corporate Social Responsibility course focusing on the development firms perspective.


Dr. Rob Stevens, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering will explore adding the case in his Renewable Energy course.


Dr. M. Ann Howard, Professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society in the College of Liberal arts will integrate this case in her Environmental Studies course.


True Campus Accessibility vs ADA:  This module will explore how policy and infrastructure design address or fail to address true accessibility needs on campus, using RIT as the subject of the exploration.


Dr. Jessica Hardin, Assistant Professor of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts has been exploring this subject with her graduate students.  The students will participate in developing the module.


Dr. Dan Phillips, Associate Professor of Electrical and Microelectronic Engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering is the Director of Access Technologies on campus and runs the Liveability Lab, research and development facility.


Dr. Matt Marshall, Associate Dean and Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering plans to integrate this module in courses that he leads for the Honors Program at RIT.



Museum Studies Grand Challenges Round Up:  This module will explore how museums portray the Grand Challenges and education the public about them.   


Dr. Juilee Decker, Associate Professor of Museum Studies in the College of Liberal Arts is including research on the module – how museums present Grand Challenges – in the Intro to Museum Studies course this fall. 


Sarah Brownell (bio above) will utilize the module with students in the Grand Challenges Scholars Program and in the Foundations of Community Engagement and Transformation course she teaches with Dr. Howard (bio above).


Concept Maps around the Grand Challenges:  Students in the Engineering Exploration course (more than 140 students per year) will select one of the GCs or SDGs.  Over the course of the semester, they will construct a concept map that shows their understanding of not just the challenge itself, but the role that different engineering disciplines have in the particular problem.


Dr. Matt Marshall (bio above) is developing this EM activity based on his participation in the ICE 1.0 workshop. 



Grand Thinking X Disciplines Symposium:   The Grand Challenges Scholars Program plans to co-host an end of the semester symposium with the RIT FRAM Applied Critical Thinking Initiative that will include a student poster sessions on Grand Challenges projects and sharing of faculty work on the modules.  We will create a 3-5 minute video surrounding this event and the experiences of the presenters.


Dr. Jennifer Schneider is the Eugene H. Fram Chair of Applied Critical Thinking and a Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering Technology, Environmental Management & Safety in the College of Engineering Technology. 


Sarah Brownell, Senior Lecturer and Director of the Grand Challenges Scholars Program in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering will recruit and prepare students from the GCSP and the Grand Challenges: Clean Water course to participate in the student session and faculty to share their work developing the modules in the faculty session.


Future Collaborations: Other collaborations are being considered for modules on Resilient Cities and Augmented Humans, and we plan to create Grand Challenges flavored sections of the general education courses “Science Technology and Values” in the Science Technology and Society Department and “Critical Thinking” in Philosophy.  This work is on hold due to sabbaticals, active research projects, and Doctoral work. 


Learning Objectives
Develop their own roadmap for building cross-disciplinary collaborations.
Instructor Tips

Key learnings from this EU Fellowship year:

  • It is challenging but fun and rewarding to work across disciplines. 
  • It takes more time to organize faculty projects than those intended for students.  Even if they are highly interested, faculty are already very busy!
  • Faculty working together, especially across disciplines, have great ideas and senior faculty have experience with University systems and processes that can help improve a project concept.  Don’t get too stuck on your own ideas.
  • Faculty who have ownership of their ideas and plan to use them in their own classes have stronger motivation to persist on a project despite their busy schedules.
  • As a STEM professor, participating with liberal arts faculty on projects helps me think of new ways to connect STEM concepts to real life and makes me more comfortable including non-technical topics in my own classes in small ways throughout the semester.
  • Demonstrate constant curiosity about our changing world
  • Integrate information from many sources to gain insight
Creating Value
  • Identify unexpected opportunities to create extraordinary value
  • Identify Opportunity
  • Develop Partnerships & Build Team
Categories & Tags
  • Classroom & Courses
  • Professional Learning
  • Comprehensive

Faculty Collaborators:

Kate Gleason College of Engineering:  Matt Marshall, Rob Stevens, Dan Phillips, Jade Myers

College of Engineering Technology:  Jennifer Schneider, Lisa Greenwood, Yewande Abraham

College of Liberal Arts: Juilee Decker, Jessica Hardin, Ann Howard, Evelyn Brister, Deb Blizzard

The advertising flyer, seminar slides and worksheets are included here.
Title Type Ext Date Size Download All Downloads
IntIntKeen Transdiscplinary Perspectives Workshop Flyer.pptx Photo / Graphic .pptx 8/28/2022 814.1 KB 398
KEEN Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the GCs.pptx Presentation .pptx 8/28/2022 48.2 MB 400
KEEN GC Transdisciplinary EML Seminar Working Document.docx Activity / Handout .docx 8/28/2022 11.9 KB 379
Slides from the workshop are included here, but we did not complete the Gallery Walk.
Title Type Ext Date Size Download All Downloads
Transdisciplinar Grand Challenges Faculty Brainstorm.pptx Presentation .pptx 8/28/2022 30.5 MB 371
The text of the call to join this learning circle is included here.
Title Type Ext Date Size Download All Downloads
Transdisciplinary GCs Learning Circle Proposal.docx Other .docx 8/28/2022 14.7 KB 367