Women In Engineering & “The Next MacGyver”

During one of my periodic bouts of disillusionment with engineering as a career, I remember checking into other options, and reading at the time that the TV show “LA Law” was credited as a major factor in the uptick in law school admissions – apparently it was seen as a plausible depiction of lawyer life.

Makes sense, I suppose: litigate important cases with beautiful colleagues, wear designer clothes, and make out on the conference table after hours. What's not to like?

As practically-minded engineers, of course, we're not swayed by such cotton candy, but our profession could certainly use a boost in the popular imagination.

And in particular among women. Increasing participation by women in the STEM fields has long been a goal of industry, government and academia, but progress has been slow. A 2013 report from the National Science and Technology Council’s Committee on STEM Education found that while women make up the majority of undergraduate students and 46% of the workforce at large, less than 20% of women receive bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects and women make up only 25% of STEM professionals. Even within engineering, women are less likely to study mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering, preferring civil, chemical or environmental.

The reasons for this are complex, encompassing both social and historical factors including parental influence, gender discrimination, and a perception of the industry as a male-dominated environment that is highly impersonal and unsympathetic to women's unique needs.

The consequences can be measured in dreams not realized, inventions not made, patents not issued, or technologies not advanced.

One of the most important ways in which media shapes our perception of the world is by helping to build or break stereotypes. Enter “MacGyver”, familiar to nearly all engineers d'un certain âge .

Running from 1985 to 1992, the series featured secret agent Angus MacGyver using his practical knowledge of science and engineering to devise solutions to seemingly impossible problems in a matter of minutes, using whatever materials were at hand. And his trusty Swiss Army knife, of course. Sample “MacGyverisms” included plugging a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate, and splitting a large boulder using water and a fire extinguisher.

“MacGyver” ran for 139 episodes and spawned 2 TV movies, although its promised big-screen debut seems to be on hold for now. It did a lot to raise perception of engineers in a post-Apollo pre-WWW era, has made a contribution to the English language, been parodied on both “SNL” and “The Simpsons”, and even features in a video game.

What worked then might just work now. “The Next MacGyver” is a screenplay competition co-sponsored by the Viterbi School of Engineering at USC, The National Academy of Engineering, the “MacGyver Foundation, and Lee Zlotoff, the creator of the original TV series.

Figure 1

Concept art for 'Q Branch' (source: The Next MacGyver/Matthew Zikry)

Concept art for “Q Branch” (source: The Next MacGyver/Matthew Zikry)

The competition aims to find the best proposal for a show that could bring a female hero to mainstream TV who, like MacGyver, is an engineer using science-based solutions to overcome obstacles. The stated goal is to produce “that next female hero that will inspire a generation of young women to see themselves as engineers “.

The 5 winners will be awarded $5000 each and teamed up with a TV producer to develop original pilot screenplays.

Currently the competition is down to the top 12 finalists who'll pitch their ideas to the judges on July 28th from 2 – 6pm at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. Go here to find out more.

Several of the finalists are female engineers, including: Beth Keser, PhD, who leads the Low Cost Device Assembly Technology initiative at Qualcomm; Nao Murakami, a PhD candidate in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at University of Washington; and an all-female team with diverse backgrounds in EE, CS and Industrial Engineering. You go, girls!

Will this achieve the desired objective? Let's hope so.

It'll be too late for our daughters, who have already embarked on a variety of non-engineering careers. But our female grandkids…. tell me, is seven too young for a soldering iron under the tree this Xmas?

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