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Spring 2005 Vol. 5 No. 1

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National Academy of Engineering

Photo by Cable Risdon Photography Celebrating Innovation

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of middle and high school students about engineering. I mentioned that my grandfather was about their age in 1900, and described how different his life was from ours today. For instance, in 1900 few people had electricity, telephones, or cars; there were no airplanes; there was no radio or television; there was no air conditioning or even refrigerators; there were no washing machines, dishwashers, or other electric household appliances; and, of course, there were no computers, PDAs, iPods, or Internet.

As I said these things, there were audible gasps from the students. Each of these engineered artifacts is now so essential to our way of life that it's hard to imagine that they didn't exist just two generations ago. Yet we do little to celebrate their creation, or the people who create them. The National Academy of Engineering is trying to do something about that. We now give three $500,000 prizes -- the Draper Prize, the Russ Prize, and the Gordon Prize -- to acknowledge the contributions that engineers make to our quality of life. The Draper and Russ prizes are awarded to living innovators who have created things like those listed above. The Gordon Prize is for innovations in engineering education, the necessary precursor to such invention.

The Draper and Russ prizes have been given for the integrated circuit, the jet engine, the Internet, fiber optics, GPS, the implantable heart pacemaker, and the artificial kidney -- just to mention a few. And the Gordon Prize, which is quite new, has been awarded for fundamental curriculum reform, a new interdisciplinary telecommunications program, and a program that involves student engineers in solving community problems.

As described in this issue of In Focus , NAE is now experimenting with a different kind of prize -- an "inducement prize," which is awarded to the first person or group that achieves some future objective. Charles Lindberg, for example, was responding to an inducement prize for the first flight from New York City to Paris. Our experiment, the $1 million Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability, will be focused on solving problems in sustainable development, and will -- we hope -- serve to get more American engineers thinking about these problems. The first Grainger Challenge Prize will be awarded for a practical and inexpensive technology for removing arsenic from contaminated drinking water, a problem that affects tens of millions of people worldwide.

Prizes are a powerful way that NAE can both draw attention of the public to the accomplishments of engineers, and spur engineers to greater heights in the service of the public.

    WM. A. WULF
    National Academy of Engineering

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences