College of Engineering News Room

NAE Grand Challenges Scholars Program


Dr. John Kuhn presents at the first GCSP Meet and Greet event. 

The Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP) was adopted by numerous engineering schools and K-12 programs to provide students with practical projects to supplement their education. The GCSP is part of the National Academy of Engineering’s (NAE) vision to make our world more sustainable, secure, healthy, and joyful. To properly prepare students to address global challenges, the GCSP identified five pillars that each student must achieve before graduation. These five competencies include the following: research, interdisciplinary studies, entrepreneurship, global outreach, and service learning.

The College of Engineering accepted NAE’s invitation to join the Grand Challenges Scholar Program back in 2018. The program is based on a vertically integrated three-year curriculum involving project-based peer to peer learning. Students are selected into the program during their freshman year and begin at the beginning of their sophomore year. The first cohort was divided into two groups to work on a project of their choice: Autonomous Vehicles mentored by Dr. Alexandro Castellanos and Sustainability (water retention) mentored by Dr. Souheil Zekri.

To meet the competencies set forth by the NAE’s vision, both groups provided valuable opportunities to students that helped them grow not only as skilled engineers, but as dependable team leaders in workplace settings.   

One of the first cohort’s members of the sustainability group is chemical engineering student Britney Campbell. Britney discussed the GCSP’s positive impact on her and how it improved her workplace skills. “My experience in the sustainability group taught me about leadership and the importance of communication. I never really had the chance to work with professionals in a project setting beforehand. You are required to clearly communicate your ideas to professionals and the exact role you wish them to play whether it's for funding, getting permission to carry out the project, or getting information and resources.”


The sustainability group poses with their mentor Dr. Zekri. 

Britney continued, “I think GCSP enhanced my skills as an engineer in the professional sense. I was able to go to conferences and work through the natural stages of a project over the span of three years. You learn about the necessary elements to have an effective team and the struggles of carrying a project to its completion. Therefore, I would recommend GCSP to new sophomores because of the unique experience you get from the program. Even though we are students, the program is almost independent of this fact and requires growth outside of this setting.”

The faculty mentor for the sustainability program, Dr. Souheil Zekri, discussed the importance of mentoring engineering students and how the GCSP program prepares students for future challenges.

“As a mentor, I work with students to guide them during their research as well as help them develop their professional skills. I personally provide them with career guidance and write letters of recommendations for internships, co-ops, and grad school. The GCSP experience at USF is an excellent opportunity for engineering students to embark on a capstone design level journey for three out of their four undergraduate years. Mentoring engineering students through the difficult task of solving complex open-ended problems is a very rewarding experience. Most students come with a strong background in the STEM fields but lack research, design, and entrepreneurial experience. GCSP fills a gap in the educational path that prepares students for a successful engineering career," said Souheil.

A second participating student of the first cohort is computer science and engineering student Jose Elidio Campeiz Neto. Jose is a member of the autonomous vehicles group and had extremely positive things to say regarding his experience within the program. “As a member of the Grand Challenge Scholars Program, I had an amazing experience in my student group project. We developed a Virtual Simulated Environment for Smart Cities, where I was able to discover and pursue my passion for the applications of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in improving urban infrastructures and creating a sustainable future.”

Jose continued, “I’m graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in May 2021. I believe the GCSP program has had a big impact on my experience at USF and I'm really grateful for having the opportunity to pursue my passions for academic research and entrepreneurship, while greatly enhancing my professional skills. I am looking forward to beginning my career as an Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Software Engineer after my graduation.” 

Biomedical engineering student, Carolyna Yamamoto Alves Pinto, was also a member of the autonomous vehicle group; she explained that her experience within this group gave her much-needed real-world experience. “Unlike any of the regular classes I’ve taken, this project makes you experience real-world problems and situations that do not always have a straight-forward solution. I can definitely say that this project helped me develop the leadership skills that I have today and how I enjoy the spirit of teamwork."

According to the GCSP’s Director, Dr. Sanjukta Bhanja, 2021 will be a very special year for participating students that began their work in 2018.

 “The students from the inaugural 2018 cohort will be the first NAE GCSP graduates from the University of South Florida. They will be recognized by the College of Engineering at the upcoming Induction into the Profession Ceremony and will be listed on the NAE’s website as GCSP graduates. We are very proud of these students and their impressive accomplishments.”

In 2019, the second cohort joined the program, and two new groups were created: Pico-satellite mentored by Dean Bishop and the health group (artificial blood vessel engineering) mentored by Souheil Zekri. Due to Covid 19, there was no new cohort added in 2020.


Student participants gather at the 2019 NAE Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.

“The GCSP exposes the student scholars to the challenges the world faces in the 21st Century.  Creative and practical solutions will require hands-on learning experiences that reach well beyond traditional classroom settings,” said Bishop. The experience will give students an edge in the competitive workforce enabling them to become our future leaders in the effort to address global challenges during their engineering careers.”

A current medical engineering student that was a part of the health group, Tobias Florido Campos De Souza, discussed the importance of communication within the GCSP program. “The GCSP definitely enhanced my communication skills as an engineer. During the beginning of the semester, it was hard to keep in contact with everyone since we are all so busy with our own class schedules. However, our group successfully found a way to be responsive and reliable.”