Sophomore NAE Challenge

View the challenge topics and submissions

Project Submissions

VCU College of Engineering is hosting its first Sophomore NAE Challenge during which all rising engineering sophomores will tackle the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenges for the 21st Century.  These challenges include clean water, new energy methods, cybersecurity, virtual reality, healthcare and many more. You will be challenged to create ideas and propose solutions for some of the biggest challenges facing planet Earth and humankind’s future.

Keynote speaker Edward Botchwey, Associate Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology & Emory University School of Medicine, will kick off the Grand Challenges. Students will partner in virtual teams and work alongside engineering faculty and industry leaders to develop concepts and proposals. This virtual event will take place the week of Aug. 10-14, require about 10 hours’ total time of participation and culminate in a final showcase and awards at the end of the week.

All engineering rising sophomores are urged to participate, express their creativity and engage with their peers, faculty and industry leaders. 

Teams that submit proposals in response to a Grand Challenge during the week will:

  • Be eligible for a cash prize and further mentoring to continue their project
  • Earn a digital badge of completion for use on LinkedIn or other platforms 
  • Receive a certificate of completion mailed to their residences

What are the NAE Grand Challenges? Here’s how NAE describes them:

With input from people around the world, an international group of leading technological thinkers were asked to identify the Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st century. Their 14 game-changing goals for improving life on the planet, announced in 2008, are outlined here. The committee suggested these Grand Challenges fall into four cross-cutting themes: SUSTAINABILITY, HEALTH, SECURITY, and JOY OF LIVING. Learn more about the NAE’s Grand Challenges.


  • Aug. 10: noon – 4 p.m.
  • Aug. 11: noon – 2 p.m.
  • Aug. 12: noon – 1 p.m. Projects submitted by 5pm.
  • Aug. 13: Judges deliberate.
  • Aug. 14: noon – 1 p.m. showcase finale and awards

A link to join will be sent in advance. All you need to participate is an Internet connection. Please join at the times indicated. Additional times will be offered for groups to work together in breakout sessions.


Speaker Bios

Dr. Edward Botchwey

Edward Botchwey, Ph.D.

Dr. Botchwey is an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. He serves as the director of the Laboratory for Immuno-Regenerative Engineering located in The Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB) in the heart of midtown Atlanta. Inflammatory signals are key regulators of adult tissue repair processes including neovascularization, re-epithelialization, and remodeling of extracellular matrix, and as such, his group seeks to understand how inflammatory signals can be harnessed to improve tissue repair outcomes.

This talk will describe investigations into metabolism and signaling of bioactive sphingolipids such as sphingosine 1-phosphate and pro-resolving lipid mediators for applications in regenerative engineering. Pre-clinical modeling results will show how non-classical monocytes serve as biased progenitors of pro-angiogenic, anti-fibrotic macrophages within excisional skin wounds and volumetric muscle loss injuries. Single cell analysis combined with computational dimensionality reduction algorithms will be used to describe the how infiltration of immune cells can be modulated to enhance healing capacity in multiple tissue types. Results will also show how understanding the role of lipid metabolism can be exploited to improve the tissue-regenerative responses in inflammatory cells.

Allison Schumacher

Allison Schumacher

Allison Schumacher’s career has been a mix of professional and academic experience. Before joining the da Vinci Center full time, Allison held faculty and administrative positions in the VCU School of the Arts, Department of Graphic Design, the #1 public graphic design program in the US. Her passion for student success and cross-disciplinary education is what led her to the da Vinci Center, but will always remain hungry for entrepreneurial adventures that led to previous ventures in the entertainment, design and food industries.

At the da Vinci Center for Innovation, Allison works to evolve the academic programs and take learning out of the classroom and into the real world by designing cross-disciplinary project-based learning opportunities that partner with industry to build and validate new products. While learning how to fill the gap between the academy and industry is not a new problem, it is one Allison is motivated to solve.

Joy Polefrone

Joy Polefrone

As a passionate co-creator of solutions, Dr. Joy Polefrone has excelled in many diverse areas within the healthcare space. She has been an accomplished scientist, launched a non-profit start-up, led marketing for a fast-growing venture, and was head of HR strategy for a large global division. Joy views the world through this diverse lens, and consistently brings a multifaceted perspective to resolving complex problems.

Prior to joining VCU, Joy led HR Strategy for the Global Ultrasound Business of Philips HealthTech, where she blended her experience in innovation and entrepreneurship to drive a customer-centric leadership and culture change within one of Phillips’ most mature businesses. Early in her career at Philips, she held global leadership and managerial roles in clinical marketing, product management, and strategic marketing. Prior to this, Joy was instrumental in the early scientific and strategic development of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation (, where she also launched and led a patient support organization for women with uterine fibroids ( She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Chemistry, earning her PhD from the University of Virginia in 2007 with research focusing on cancer immunotherapy applications of proteomics. Additionally, Joy has been a meditation and yoga teacher for more than 20 years, and the blending of the personal and the professional drives a lifelong intention to bring her work on the cushion and mat into every other area of her life.

More about the da Vinci Center

A collaboration between VCU’s Schools of Arts, Business, and the Colleges of Engineering, Humanities & Sciences, and the VCU Health System, the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation is a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Committed to access and diversity, the da Vinci Center is a 21st-century leader in education, innovation, and entrepreneurship through the integration of a multi-discipline project-based curriculum with experiential learning opportunities to bring ideas out of the classroom and laboratory and into the real world.

The da Vinci Center prepares graduate and undergraduate students for life post-graduation through applied academic and experiential opportunities. Our students are innovators, entrepreneurs, creators, business leaders, engineers, and artists all highlighted by their innate ability to succeed by whatever it is they put their minds to and have a history of becoming leaders in multiple industries and founders of their own businesses.

More about VCU PRE-X

This year VCU Pre-X and VCU Healthcare Innovation Sprint came together to compete for 2 top prizes of $5k and 2 People’s Choice Awards for $500. Eight teams from VCU Pre-X participated in a semester-long program to identify, support, and launch high growth and high potential startups and founders. And eight teams joined a 2-week Healthcare Innovation Sprint to explore solutions related to COVID-19 through healthcare and innovation.


Roles and Responsibilities


Estimated time required: 1 hour pre-meeting; 9 hours during the week

The Facilitator is the discussion leader. The facilitator must be familiar with the NAE Challenge topic and is free to make decisions that help the group advance their proposals. Facilitators may also serve as judges for other teams. Facilitators will:

  • Create a relaxed, supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere
  • Remind participants that there are no right or wrong approaches
  • Ensure all participants have the opportunity to talk and express viewpoints
  • Monitor time and progress
  • Help the team learn from group discussion and not judge fellow participants


Estimated time required: 1 hour pre-meeting; 9 hours during the week

The observers are tasked with making detailed notes about the actual content of the discussion. The observer is looking at any nonverbal signs or body language that the group demonstrates. This can reveal how the group feels about the NAE Challenge Topic and give indication of how many in the group hold the same idea. Observers also serve as a backup facilitator. Sample questions that the observer will focus on include:

  • Do all participants have the opportunity to express viewpoints?
  • Is the discussion focused on the NAE challenge?
  • Are participants discussing with each other?
  • Record observations and initial reflections. 


Estimated time required: A few hours on Thursday

Judges will use a rubric to evaluate submissions from each group


Challenge Topics and Projects

Sushma Chappidi, Jayla Johnson, Janice Vaz
Sushma Chappidi, Jayla Johnson and Janice Vaz

Project: Alzheimer’s: Trying Not To Forget What I Just Forgot
Sophomores: Sushma Chappidi, Jayla Johnson, Deion Sanchez-Viafara, Janice Vaz
Funding from: VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine
Grand Challenge: Engineer Better Medicines


Sekai Clayton, Ajanee Robinson
Sekai Clayton and Ajanee Robinson

Project: Cyber Rams Protection Service
Sophomores: Sekai Clayton, Ajanee Robinson
Funding from: Commonwealth Cyber Initiative
Grand Challenges: Secure Cyberspace & Enhance Virtual Reality 


Ryan McGuire
Ryan McGuire

Project: Temperature Extraction and Control Advancements for Nuclear Reactors 
Sophomore: Ryan McGuire
Funding from: VCU College of Engineering
Grand Challenges: Develop Carbon Sequestration Methods & Provide Energy from Fusion
People’s Choice Award winner