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New Engineering Education Program Named for Duke Alumnus J. Stephen Simon

DURHAM, NC – On Saturday, November 7, President Richard Brodhead announced that Susie Simon has created an endowment in honor of her late husband J. Stephen Simon to support students participating in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Grand Challenge Scholars Program at Duke.

Steve Simon was chair of the Board of Visitors for the Pratt School of Engineering and a former director and senior vice president of Exxon Mobil Corporation, when he passed away unexpectedly at his home in Dallas, Texas, in July of this year.

The Simons’ gift of $1 million will enable 10 engineering students a year to pursue research, interdisciplinary coursework, entrepreneurship training, service learning and some form of a global learning experience. These 10 students will be known as Simon Scholars and when their rigorous regimen is successfully accomplished will receive the designation of NAE Grand Challenge Scholars on their transcript.

The ‘NAE Grand Challenges’ are a critical grouping of problems that must be addressed and solved in order to maintain our national security, quality of life and sustainable future. The NAE Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program ( is a new model for instilling undergraduates with the technical expertise, breadth of knowledge, and the social, ethical, and global awareness to successfully pursue leadership positions in addressing grand challenge level problems.

“Steve recognized that the role of engineering in the world has changed. In the old economy, engineers focused on creating new devices. Now engineers are focused on engineering solutions to complex technical problems of societal importance. He was enthusiastic about the Grand Challenge Scholars program from the start and he and Susie gave the original gift to start the pilot program. It is fitting that with this endowment Steve’s name will be associated with this program in perpetuity,” said Tom Katsouleas, dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering.

In keeping with Duke’s commitment to provide engineering students with hands-on learning experiences, Simon Scholars will conduct an independent research project related to a grand challenge under the guidance of one or more faculty members. This ensures that classroom learning gets translated into practical skill and that the iterative nature of engineering design becomes an innate problem solving approach.

NAE Grand Challenge Scholars must also craft an approved interdisciplinary curriculum focused around one or more of the grand challenges. This encourages students to take advantage of Duke’s other outstanding departments and schools.

“Steve recognized the need for engineering education to better prepare students to work with experts from fields such as public policy, business, law, medicine and environmental sciences,” said Katsouleas. “The Grand Challenge Scholars program is designed to give students that preparation.”

The entrepreneurship component of the scholars program is designed to teach students how ideas are translated from invention to innovation and how to develop market ventures that scale to global solutions in the public interest.

Scholars must also include a global dimension to their education. This requirement can be met by an academic study abroad or work experience and is intended to help students prepare to address challenges that are inherently global and to lead innovation in a global economy.

The importance of developing a broad worldview resonates with how Steve Simon approached his own life. One of four children himself, his parents required their children to go away to college for at least a year to broaden their intellectual, social and cultural horizons. After that year, they could return home to finish college if they wished. Steve, however, chose Duke and loved the university and North Carolina so much he stayed to graduate.

Through his work with ExxonMobil, Simon held several positions with the company in New York, London and Italy and had the opportunity to travel all over the world. The couple lived more than four years in Rome, and Susie Simon still has the notebooks from Steve’s Italian lessons. She recalls how effortlessly he picked up the language after studying Latin in high school.

“Steve both recognized and valued the human insight he gained from those experiences. Travel changes your perspective on the world for the better. It helps people to be more accepting of differences and there needs to be more of that today,” she said.

The final component of the GC Scholars program is to engage in service learning. Students can engage in any number of service learning opportunities locally, nationally and abroad. The intent of this requirement is to develop and deepen students’ social consciousness and their motivation to bring technical expertise to bear on societal problems.

“Steve was focused on making a difference, and he knew how to get results,” recalls Tom Katsouleas. Beyond his leadership roles at ExxonMobil, Simon also served on the boards of many voluntary organizations over the course of his career, including the United Way, the Boy Scouts, and the Salvation Army. He was also a member of the Governance Committee of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering.

“In talking with Susie Simon, I think that if Steve were still with us he would celebrate this endowment gift with one of his cherished family traditions—champagne and buttered popcorn,” said Deborah Hill, Director of Communications. So, in tribute and loving memory, the Duke engineering family raises a glass to our dear friend, Steve Simon.


The National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenge Scholars Program was conceived by engineering Dean Tom Katsouleas at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, President Richard Miller at Olin College of Engineering, and Dean Yannis Yortsos at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. The National Academy of Engineering endorsed their new educational paradigm in February 2009, and currently more than 21 colleges and universities have adopted the program. When fully implemented nationwide, the NAE Grand Challenge Scholars program will yield several thousand graduates per year who are uniquely prepared to address the grand challenges.