Freshmen Make Impact in the Face of Grand Challenges

Emily Takagi just finished her first year on campus, but she is already working with other Georgia Tech students to solve global issues including hunger and energy and water sustainability.

Georgia Tech students participating in the new Grand Challenges program are led in exercises of rhythm and dance technique by Office of the Arts resident artist Sean Curran.
Click image to enlarge

Georgia Tech students participating in the new Grand Challenges program are led in exercises of rhythm and dance technique by Office of the Arts resident artist Sean Curran.

The computer science major from Columbus, Ga., was among 110 freshmen who participated in Tech’s first Grand Challenges Living Learning Community, which started last fall and ran through the 2012-13 academic year.

Grand Challenges participants lived together in Howell Hall and worked in cross-disciplinary teams on 14 different projects that were all eventually awarded funding for execution by the Division of Student Affairs. Takagi’s team took on the challenge of simplifying the process of charging electric car batteries.

“I really learned the meaning of time management and commitment to a group," she said. "The second semester class involved a heavier workload, and trying to juggle group meetings, part-time jobs, and homework was difficult." She also credited Grand Challenges with giving her a more enjoyable freshman experience. 

Kari White, assistant director for Grand Challenges, handpicked each of the project teams of six to eight students. During the fall, students spent class time with Wes Wynens, director of the LEAD program of which Grand Challenges is a part, learning to collaborate with teammates and sharpening their people skills.

Teams selected topics based on the group’s interests and then spent the spring semester diving into their research projects and coming up with a plan to solve their grand challenge with Robert Butera, a professor jointly appointed in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. Along with Butera, students worked with faculty facilitators and were required to connect with experts in the field who would provide assistance and advice while they designed their solutions.

Takagi and her team attended a community roundtable event hosted by Southface Transportation to meet with experts. “We were able to talk to people in the transportation industry, professors from all over the area, and environmental issues advocates,” she said. “We even got a couple of people who were experts on electric vehicles.”

At the end of the spring semester, the teams shared their proposals in formal presentations to Wynens and Butera. Projects were awarded funding based on budgets included in the students’ final proposals.

Looking ahead, White hopes to build more flexibility into the second iteration of the program so students can get started on projects earlier in the year and be able to switch teams if a different group is working on a project that is of more interest to them.

Next year’s Grand Challenges class is being built this summer and is currently 75 percent full, with 80 confirmed participants. These incoming students will work on a whole new set of projects, while approximately 75 members of this year’s community will continue to work on their projects in a Grand Challenges class.

Takagi attributes her success during her freshman year to Grand Challenges.

“I don't think I would have had such a great experience without Grand Challenges,” Takagi said. “Living in a community made me less timid about getting to know people and really helped me be more outgoing. Aside from the great relationships I created with my peers, we could meet faculty and people in administration on a regular basis through the faculty luncheons and guest breakfasts. Because of this, I felt like I could accomplish more in college in this program.”

White said the biggest challenge students faced was “grappling with the uncertainty of the assignment and realizing that we weren’t going to tell them how to do it.” She noted the importance of participants being open to exploration and not always looking for an exact right answer the first time. “We tell new students to be diligent and recognize that failure will happen, but that doesn’t mean they will not ultimately succeed.”