Skip to main content
Honors students participating in the Grand Challenges Fellowship program stand outside the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Institute of American Civics, housed within the Howard H. Baker Jr. School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, has partnered with University Honors for a semester-long Tennessee Grand Challenges Fellows program.

Participating first-year honors students are addressing three grand challenges: advancing K-12 education, strengthening rural communities, and overcoming addiction. The UT System and its partners determined that these issues were vital for Tennesseans to thrive, and are working to transform them into strengths and move Tennessee into the top 50% of U.S. states.

Making a Difference for Tennessee

Zomchick speaks with students during the Baker School’s kick-off of the Grand Challenges Fellowship program.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor John Zomchick met with the students during the program’s kickoff in September.

“You all are a special group of students. Not only are you honors students, but you chose to be part of this program,” said Zomchick. “You are going to have splendid opportunities to learn and, perhaps even more importantly, to make a difference. It’s by making those differences that we fulfill our mission – the university’s land-grant mission.”

Throughout the program, students will be introduced to the grand challenges, interdisciplinary approaches used to understand them, and the ways problem-solvers are working to address them. The goal is for students to see how individuals can work together to find solutions.

“This fellowship embodies the mission of UT’s Institute of American Civics,” said Josh Dunn, director of the institute. “We want to teach our students to embrace the competition of ideas to reach more durable solutions and participate in civic engagement to learn how to solve collective challenges together.”

Solving Grand Challenges Through Civic Engagement

The semester encompasses five sessions, with two required civic learning engagements where students can connect the grand challenges to their own lives and their academic journeys. Options for the civic engagement component include attending a city council or county commission meeting, a school board meeting, or a Baker School event.

Individual course sessions focus on each of the grand challenges, with discussions led by two speakers—an academic professor and someone who works in an associated career field.

“We are grateful to the Baker School for giving our honors students this opportunity at civic engagement,” said Pat Akos, associate vice provost and executive director of University Honors. “Our students are eager to problem-solve and devoted to service, but civic engagement more deeply transforms students into active citizens who can make an impact.”

To close out the semester, students will provide written reflections from their participation during three main panel events. Those reflections will be used to create an overall report generated using artificial intelligence. A faculty member from UT’s College of Emerging and Collaborative Studies who teaches AI will use the exercise to demonstrate the power of text recognition and human language processing.

The program concludes Dec. 1 with an overview of how students can prepare themselves to be part of the solution.

About the Institute of American Civics

Created by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2022 with overwhelming bipartisan support, the Institute of American Civics provides a comprehensive civic education for university undergraduates and the state that includes America’s founding principles, the economic and political institutions that maintain American democracy, and the basics of civic engagement. The institute is housed within the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs and is advised by a 13-member board of fellows.


Cindi King (865-974-0937,

Patricia Contic (865-974-3869,