Screen Play

August/September 2011

Screen Play

Can engineering score by landing a bigger role in movies and on TV?


film strip

Engineering Movies We Love

popcornOctober Sky ? In this biopic of NASA engineer Homer Hickam, a young Hickam learns the intricacies of rocket engineering despite social and familial challenges.

Apollo 13 ? NASA engineers help guide three astronauts in a crippled Apollo capsule back to Earth.

Primer ? Two engineers accidentally create a time machine and grapple with the implications.

Iron Man ? Superstar engineer Tony Stark leads a dual life as a millionaire playboy and self-made superhero Iron Man.

Star Trek (2009) ? Members of Starfleet use their critical thinking skills and cunning to defeat a Romulan bent on destroying Earth.

The Bridge On the River Kwai ? British POWs held by the Japanese in WWII maintain morale by building a bridge on the famed Burma railroad.

Who's the face of engineering on TV?

Some might argue it's Howard Wolowitz. He's an aerospace engineer character on The Big Bang Theory, currently one of CBS's most popular sitcoms. He's also traditionally nerdy and known for his spectacularly feeble attempts at acting the ladies' man in his group of intelligent but socially backward roommates.

Hollywood often relies on clichés and stereotypes the few times it includes or even names engineering characters in its projects. Jonathan Farley, cofounder of Hollywood Math and Science Film Consulting, an advisory group aimed at improving science film accuracy and abundance, says even though there are obvious, plot-based reasons to introduce engineering characters, they just aren't there.

"Outside of Star Trek, I don't recall ever hearing the word 'engineer' in a movie, although obviously somebody is building all these devices that go back in time or to the center of the Earth," Farley says.

Randy Atkins wants to change that. Atkins, with the National Academy of Engineering, wishes more engineers were portrayed like Tony Stark, better known by his movie alter-ego: Iron Man.

Though not often described solely as an engineer, Stark exhibits the dynamic and comprehensive thinking an engineer requires while exuding the charisma stereotypic movie and TV engineers lack.

"Iron Man is literally a rock star engineer," Atkins says.

Engineering and communications experts feel a stronger engineering presence in popular culture could increase interest needed to replace retiring baby boomers and tackle 21st century challenges. Some experts warn of pitfalls, though: Working with a Hollywood that answers to ratings and box office tills first and foremost could prove a pyrrhic partnership, with engineering groups unable to control what their namesakes look and act like on the screen.

Shapeshifting the Stereotype
iron manWhy is Iron Man so popular? It's likely to do less with his engineering prowess than his charisma. He's no Howard Wolowitz, though he might be able to hold his own in a Science Olympiad competition.

The majority of viewers identify more closely with the human conflicts that arise in movie exploits, producers and industry experts say. To get engineers on TV or in theaters, characters must tackle situations with which viewers can identify, not just technical problems, those experts add.

For years, practicing engineers reminded potential students that the profession was all about math, science, technology, and precision, not to mention academically taxing. Recent studies show that it's a message that turns some young people off.

According to Changing the Conversation, the 2008 NAE report tackling engineering's image issues, potential engineers want to hear more about how their work will impact their community or their fellow human, not how challenging it is to join the club. That sentiment matches several studies showing that more Millennials place the meaningfulness of their work over upward mobility or compensation than previous generations.

Hollywood could be a great place to get that new message across to the next wave of engineers, communications and industry experts say. Tastemakers don't rely on technobabble or unnecessary complexity to draw in viewers. The human connections—emotional, almost visceral ones—make TV shows and movies popular.

Anthony Zuiker, creator of the popular CSI brand of TV procedural dramas, echoes that sentiment: "When I created CSI, I had a fear that America might think forensic science was too complicated. I was wrong. In terms of how an audience perceives engineers, I think the key is to create a character who does something that the viewer can relate to. For example, if an engineer had to fix a specific bolt on a roller coaster or people would plunge to their deaths, then that would be something we'd pay attention to. Perception is on the writer first so the audience can take the narrative ride."

Fostering an engineering presence in TV or film can begin a conversation that helps young people see the excitement in engineering and consider it as a career. TV and movie portrayals do influence how the general public views an issue or field, says Maria Ivancin, an assistant professor at the American University School of Communication who's studied engineering's outreach efforts. She cites efforts by the Norman Lear Center's Hollywood, Health, and Society initiative as having been very successful in including health issues in popular shows and, as a result, increasing awareness of those issues in general society, Ivancin says.

"People do learn things by viewing what other people do," she says.

Atkins cites a bump in interest in the forensic sciences as popularity of CSI climbed in the early 2000s. Atkins' nephew even cited the show as his reason for entering the field.

"CSI is a perfect example of a way it can be done," Atkins says.

Engaging the Enemy
Zuiker's thoughts on an engineering character or show match what most producers want in any show.

So how does one sell engineers as personable, interesting people? By connecting producers to real-world engineers, of course.

That's where the Science and Entertainment Exchange comes into play. It's a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences that connects writers and producers with the scientists that help make TV and movies more realistic. Since 2009, the Exchange has assisted on more than 300 TV and film projects, including such acclaimed shows as Fringe and films like
TRON: Legacy.

Interactions with engineers and scientists in the lab or workplace show producers that technical professionals are—spoiler alert!—often regular people, too. Writers see things beyond the pocket protector or AutoCAD layout, says Rick Loverd, director of development at the Exchange.

Victories might seem small. Producers of the Syfy series Eureka gained inspiration from a tour of a California lab, Loverd says. One of the lab technicians on the tour had bright pink hair. The following season of Eureka, viewers could see a lab tech with bright pink hair in several scenes. It's such little touches that can go a long way toward humanizing science and engineering in popular culture.

"By creating human interactions between two people, we make an organic connection that allows the writers and entertainers in Hollywood to humanize characters," Loverd says.

And that's where the change starts, Atkins says. No one expects a full-blown one-hour drama solely about an engineer. If engineering can be portrayed as something other than a number-crunching pastime that uninteresting people pursue, it's a positive start.

"I don't think people necessarily need to replicate the character on TV," he says. But naming a character an engineer or mentioning the title in a positive way "gets [viewers] thinking about the career."

Though such inclusion sounds like a short order, it could be more difficult to make sure what appears in TV and film meshes with what engineering advocacy groups are communicating to the next generation. A prime-time lineup of pocket protectors might be the end result, communications experts say.

Meshing with Messaging
While more engineering and science in Hollywood productions can be viewed as a generally good thing, focusing too much on the screen as a panacea for engineering's messaging challenges could lead to unforeseen problems.

When Hollywood producers and writers take over part of what should be a unified messaging effort for the engineering profession, the latter is almost guaranteed to lose control over part of their message, possibly weakening outreach efforts still in their fledgling stages. Writers and producers don't answer to engineer recruiting targets, they listen to ratings and box office takes. What's good for the bottom line might not match with what engineers want to communicate.

"There's creative license. Writers might want to do good and incorporate [engineers or engineering] into storylines, but it's hard to control messages in something like that," Ivancin says.

Creative license could also manifest in ways that could ruffle some engineers' feathers. One example Ivancin gives is the need for a good-versus-evil dynamic in dramatic stories. What's to say the evil character isn't the engineer the industry fought to include in a program? What happens if prolonged collaboration leads to more nerdy engineers on TV?

Loverd at the Exchange agrees, saying the field must balance its approach to Hollywood.

"Ultimately, we can't control content, and we can't try to control content because it will push people away from using us," he says.

Mismatched messaging in media is something engineering is accustomed to. Scott Adams launched the popular Dilbert comic in 1989, and it was syndicated soon after, currently appearing in more than 2,000 newspapers daily. Adams labels Dilbert as a tribute to a profession he admires.

"I looked at [engineers] with great admiration and even envy, whereas the common perception was [society] looking down on them," Adams says. Many engineers have written to Adams saying they identified with Dilbert's struggles with the nonengineers of the world and thanking Adams for simply acknowledging engineers' existence, he says.

Despite that description, some engineers view the comic with disdain and believe Dilbert portrays engineers as "social misfits."

Adams says the negative comments he's received have come from the manager types he portrays in the comic, not engineers.

"I'm careful to make sure [Dilbert and other engineering characters] are portrayed as brilliant," Adams says.

Future Foundations
Engineers and outreach experts acknowledge that an expanded pop culture presence for engineering can be good for the field. Pitfalls do exist, but if managed properly, motion pictures and television can play a positive role in getting the engineering word out, those interviewed for this article say.

The Science and Entertainment Exchange has increased the number of consultations it facilitates in each of its first three years, showing Hollywood wants to improve its science and engineering accuracy, says Marty Perrault, the Exchange's director.

As an outreach tool, visual media like TV shows or movies reach a very wide and diverse audience, Atkins says. Both children and adults consume visual media, and one can influence the other if either misses the initial point. That fits with the broader approach Changing the Conversation suggests.

"I just think if the public in general understands how an engineer can both be exciting and make an impact, that will affect how they converse with their kids, their policymakers," he says. "It will have an effect."

Engineering can't rely on Hollywood alone to do its work, though. In a recent article for NAE's The Bridge, Ivancin stressed the importance of continuity among the various engineering interest groups.

"A concerted effort must be made to convince all stakeholders to use campaign materials and incorporate the message into their activities," she writes.

Without coordination, characters like Howard Wolowitz could be the face of engineering for a long time.

"It's not the solution for everything. It really is just one piece," Ivancin says.





Match these pop culture engineers with their discipline:
Montgomery Scott 1. Montgomery Scott
Star Trek franchise

a) aeronautical engineer


Dilbert comic strip

b) aerospace engineer

Howard Wolowitz 3. Howard Wolowitz
The Big Bang Theory

c) engineer

Steve Douglas 4. Steve Douglas
My Three Sons

d) Starfleet engineer

Tony Stark 5. Tony Stark
Iron Man

e) electrical engineer




Tell Us What You Think
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