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Engineering professor works to solve the global 'Grand Challenges'

Thu, 08/10/2017

LAWRENCE — Before Andrew Williams could settle into his new job at the University of Kansas this fall, he had one task to complete over the summer: help save the world.

Williams is the new associate dean for diversity & inclusion at the School of Engineering. In July, just a couple of weeks after he arrived on the KU campus to start in his new role, he worked as a facilitator and mentor at the Global Grand Challenge Summit — a multinational gathering of engineers focused on big ideas considered crucial to humankind’s survival.

“The vision is making our world more healthy, sustainable, safe and joyful,” Williams said. “We want to engage the next generation in solving these problems.”

The summit, held July 18-20 in Washington, D.C., was sponsored National Academy of Engineering, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering and the Chinese Academy of Engineering. It’s the continuation of efforts started by those organizations at a 2008 summit.

Among the challenges being pursued at the summit: How to expand access to clean drinking water, secure cyberspace and engineer better medicines. Speakers included top officials from Oculus, Google, the China Meteorological Association and the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer.

“It’s almost like, what are the next moon shots that engineering can try to tackle?” said Williams, who also attended the 2015 summit in Beijing. “The reason they’re doing it across nations — the amount of pollution in China is going to affect other countries. Nuclear threats in one country can affect another. If cyberspace isn’t secure in one country, we’re all susceptible to attacks.”

Williams attended this year’s summit as a facilitator for brainstorming sessions, as well as a mentor to student engineers charged with creating a podcast highlighting the work being done on the “grand challenges.”

“Solving these grand challenges in engineering is about doing cutting-edge research,” Williams said, “but it’s also about developing the next generation of students who will be tackling these challenges.”

And as befits his new KU job, Williams paid close attention to activities of minority and female engineering students at the summit. Engineering can make their worlds better, too, he said.

“Once they see how technology can be used to make positive changes in their communities and the world, that motivates them more to learn engineering,” he said. “It’s not just learning math equations to learn math equations, but to cure a disease or to provide better living conditions.”

Williams earned his undergraduate degree from KU in 1988 and his doctorate from the university in 1999. He comes to Lawrence from Marquette University, where he served as professor and director of the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics Lab. He’ll bring some of the ideas — and focus — from the summit to university.

“That’s really the challenge — getting students excited about these challenges at a young age,” he said, “and letting them know there’s a career pathway to help people tackle these challenges.”



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