TL; DR: The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) is an independent institution committed to serving the United States through the expertise of accomplished engineers. The nonprofit academy, founded in 1974, also works to promote a vibrant industry by nurturing an inclusive talent pool and providing guidance throughout the careers of engineers. Whether it’s evaluating challenges or making room for future opportunities, NAE aims to be a public voice for the engineering sector.
The American Civil War is often regarded as the first high-tech battle, especially for its time. The conflict acted as a catalyst for feats of science and engineering — from ironclad ships and railroads to surveillance balloons and the strategic use of the telegraph.
According to Al Romig, Executive Officer at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), President Lincoln was personally involved in the war and frequently turned to the telegraph to stay up to date on emerging technical issues. But it wasn’t always easy to find solutions.
When problems arose, such as the presence of dangerous corrosion on ironclad ships, Lincoln would reach out to various sources — the Navy, the shipbuilder, the ironmaker — but almost always left empty-handed. “It’s clear that whatever advice Lincoln was trying to get the old-fashioned way was heavily laced with a bias of whomever he asked the question — because they had a dog in the fight, so to speak,” Al said.
In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Lincoln signed a bill to establish the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) into law. The academy, made up of 50 distinguished scientists from Union states, received a mandate to “investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art” whenever requested by the government and without bias.
The academy ultimately failed to find a way to protect the bottoms of iron ships, but it did find a way to counteract the effect of the iron on magnetic compasses. The government continued to request studies on other subjects throughout the Civil War and beyond, leading to groundbreaking research on atomic bombs, jet-powered aircraft, and nuclear-powered ships.
Over time, affiliated organizations were created under the same congressional act of incorporation that established NAS, including the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Academy of Medicine (NAM). Today, all three organizations fall under the umbrella of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The NAE, where Al serves as Executive Officer, focuses on serving the U.S. and advancing the industry through the expertise of accomplished engineers. The nonprofit also works to nurture an inclusive talent pool and continues to provide guidance throughout members’ careers. Whether it’s through evaluating challenges or making room for future opportunities, NAE aims to improve the well-being of the United States by fostering a strong engineering industry.
A Nonprofit Institution Promoting a Vibrant Industry
Randy Atkins, Communications Director at NAE, told us that the academy encompasses all branches of engineering, including civil, mechanical, electrical, biological, and computer engineering. It also has more than 2,000 peer-elected members, including foreign members, business professionals, academics, and government officials, who provide expertise on the relationships between engineering, technology, and quality of life.
Although NAE was established as part of a congressional act and provides services through projects executed by the National Resource Council (NRC), the academy operates independently of the government. In fact, committee members undertake research work voluntarily and without payment — even though they’re some of the most esteemed engineers in the profession.
“We advise the government on policy issues, and about 70% of our funding comes from the government, but we are not part of the government,” Randy said. “When we’re asked to report on a subject, we bring together the best expertise in the country to perform studies, that usually last a year or two, and provide a peer-reviewed report that includes recommendations and is governed by strict conflict of interest rules.”
In 2012, for example, the NAE provided an analysis on the Deepwater Horizon explosion, fire, and oil spill at the request of the Department of the Interior and in collaboration with the NRC. The academy’s research examined probable causes and recommended measures to avoid future incidents.
In addition to NRC studies, the NAE addresses important economic and social topics in engineering and technology through a self-funded independent study program. Recently, that work has been centered on balancing environmental protection and economic growth, securing national prosperity in a global economy, and shaping a highly competent workforce through educational support.
Nurturing an Inclusive Talent Pool Through Education Initiatives
It’s no secret that there’s a prominent gender gap in the engineering sector. According to the Society of Women Engineers, the number of women in the engineering professions in the U.S. has not increased since the early 2000s.
NAE hopes to change that by helping to create a more inclusive talent pipeline. To encourage female representation within the engineering industry, NAE’s Committee on the Diversity of Engineering Workforce helped create the EngineerGirl website, an informative resource designed to raise awareness about exciting opportunities for girls and women in the traditionally male-dominated field. Launched in 2001, the site includes interviews with female engineers, information on different engineering careers, scholarships, competitions, and networking opportunities, among other helpful information.
EngineerGirl is focused on girls attending middle school who are typically ages 11 through 13. “We chose to focus on that group, because if you look at younger students, girls and boys seem to have equal interest, equal motivation, and equal ability in all things math- and science-related,” Al said. “When they get to that middle school age, you start to see a girl’s interest wane — for whatever reason, it’s not cool for girls to do science and engineering.”
The idea behind EngineerGirl is to show young women just how spectacular careers in engineering can be. Say, for example, an eighth grader is interested in building cars. “Through the site, she can connect with an engineer who works for a company like GM, Toyota, and learn what it’s like to build cars as a woman engineer,” Al said.
EngineerGirl also holds an annual essay writing contest for students in third through 12th grade. This year’s theme focused on creative works of fiction celebrating engineering design and problem-solving. Surveys indicate that 40% of contest participants are more likely to consider pursuing a career in engineering after the essay contest experience.
Expert Guidance Throughout the Educational Process
But NAE’s efforts don’t end with early recruitment. Al said NAE boasts a portfolio of programs aimed at various points in a person’s life, from kindergarten to retirement, which is intended to cultivate, grow, and capture the intellectual capital of the engineering workforce.
In 2012, for example, Chevron U.S.A. Inc. contributed $1.5 million to LinkEngineering in collaboration with Achieve Inc., the National Science Teachers Association, the American Society of Engineering Education, and the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association. Today, the initiative offers research-based guidance to those involved with engineering education in kindergarten through 12th grade, provides a wealth of curriculum materials and resources, and connects engineering education experts with elementary, middle, and high schools.
At the university level, the Grand Challenges Scholars Program (GCSP), inspired by NAE but not controlled by the academy, broadens the reach of undergraduate study in engineering to the global community in hopes of solving worldwide problems, such as providing clean water to everyone on the planet. Universities participating in the program focus on cultivating the competencies needed to solve these problems.
“So in addition to the talent you need as an engineer, it looks to cultivate your ability to work multiculturally, to work in a multidisciplinary way, to make sure you’ve thought about whether your idea makes good business sense or not, and if it’s going to actually do the world some good,” Al said. “Right now we’ve got about 60 programs in the continental U.S., about eight that are international.”
The Next Frontier: Expert Guidance Throughout Your Career
Engineers who are in the midcareer stage and within 12 years of an advanced degree, have demonstrated accomplishment in engineering research and technical work, are interested in engineering developments in other fields, and possess the potential to be a future leader in U.S. engineering can join NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering (FOE) program.
“FOE is a program designed for people who are about 40, give or take five years,” Al said. “The idea was to bring together a group of engineering leaders for a few days to promote the cross-fertilization of ideas and hopefully build some alliances with other young engineers that would carry you through your lifetime.”
Al said that in the last few years, about 20% of those elected into NAE as members were FOE alumni.