Could television be the secret weapon that gets more girls into science?
There is no shortage of initiatives that aim to get girls interested in STEM careers from an early age. From GoldieBlox’s building kits and storybooks to the 8-week summer camp Girls Who Code teaching teens the fundamentals of robotics and web development. That’s because in order to right the lopsided gender balance in science, engineering, and math, research indicates that it’s important to engage girls while they are young and encourage them to continue to pursue STEM careers. And we all know how important diversity is to business, particularly as it becomes more globally connected.
Yet engineering toys and school programs can’t necessarily stem the tide of media images that continue to push the idea the typical scientist, programmer, or engineer is a white guy working alone. That’s why the USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering and the National Academy of Engineering pooled their resources in partnership with the MacGyver Foundation and together they’re crowdsourcing a concept for a new television show starring a strong female scientist –the next MacGyver.
Five finalists in the competition were selected this week. Each received $5,000 and will be paired with a Hollywood producer who will mentor them as they develop a pilot script in hopes that it will become a successful television series like its namesake, which debuted 30 years ago.
For those readers old enough to remember MacGyver, just hearing the theme song of action/adventure television series likely calls to mind scenes where the secret agent calls upon his encyclopedic knowledge of science to pull together an array of disparate objects (along with his trusty Swiss Army knife) and create tools to get himself out of tight spots.
The show’s creator Lee Zlotoff credits the weekly featuring of the hero’s ingenuity with a far-reaching impact. “I literally could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I became an engineer, or I went into the sciences because of MacGyver,’” he said in an interview on the contest’s website.
David Bushman, TV curator at the Paley Center for Media, which hosted the winners’ event, points out that the organization’s archives are host to images of women in tech and engineering fields across the decades from Father Knows Best and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Halt and Catch Fire. “The inescapable conclusion is that we have come a long way, and still have a long way to go,” Bushman says, “As a powerful agent of social change, television can play a pivotal role in the journey ahead.”
For USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering located in the midst of Hollywood, playing a role in changing the conversation around women in the field has become a vital part of its mission, according to its dean Yannis Yortsos.
“Even though the odds of launching a successful TV show are long, we have no other option but to try, and try hard, at that avenue,” he says observing that television is and has been one of the most powerful agents in changing a culture. “Consider what The West Wing has done for public policy, what CSI has done for forensics science–we have a good sense of the power of this medium to influence human behavior,” he says.
Indeed, anecdotal evidence from Penn State professor of forensics Jenifer Smith said that in 2013 74% of students in the program were women and that women filled the ranks of various labs, making it .
Randy Atkins, the director of communications at the National Academy of Engineering, looks at another side of the STEM debate. “While there has been some debate about whether our country needs more engineers, one thing is certain: engineering needs more women.” Atkins believes that a TV show with a strong female role model can help to reverse the downward trend of engineering bachelor’s degrees earned by women.
It doesn’t hurt that four of the five finalists in the competition are women, including Beth Keser, a career engineer in the semiconductor industry who currently leads the Low Cost Device Assembly Technology initiative at Qualcomm and Jayde Lovell, a STEM communicator for the New York Hall of Science, and ‘resident science host’ for YouTube’s TYT Network.
Yortsos notes that changing the conversation about engineering so that it becomes appealing, particularly to girls and women, is a necessity both for the economy and for future innovation. Today’s world is driven by intellectual property generation, Yortsos explains, and engineering is right in the middle of it empowering society. “Our economy and ultimately our national security will be won on the strength of this competition. And we want all of our society- and notably our girls and women to be equal partners in this evolution,” Yortsos contends.
Here are the pitches from the five winners. Which would you like to see made into a television series?
Beth Keser, Ph.D.
TV Concept Title: Rule 702
In Rule 702., MiMi, an engineering and science prodigy, decides to forego corporate life to pursue a career as an expert witness. She travels across the country to testify in torn-from-the-headlines cases, but in each case she discovers a mystery that requires a keen mind and scientific investigation to find the truth. She leverages her network of close-knit college engineering friends, who are confident and determined women like MiMi, to help her solve these mysteries.
TV Concept Title: SECs (Science and Engineering Clubs)
“A reverse of the typical “high school nerdy kid trying to be cool” stereotype. Now it’s the popular kid playing the fish out of water, realizing she needs to team up with the smart, nerdy, engineering types–and in the process she realizes her own potential. Ultimately engineering is all about designing and making things to solve problems–so a lot teenage girls are practicing engineering without realizing it. I wanted to show them that engineering is not all about robots and bridges. It’s about creativity, and problem solving, and overcoming challenges in new ways. Engineering is a really cool field, and you get to create really cool stuff–look at how much fun MacGyver had!”
Miranda Sajdak, film and TV writer/producer/director
TV Concept Title: Riveting
“A World War II era drama about a young woman named Junie Duncan whose life is thrown into chaos when her fiancé is killed overseas. Devastated by her loss, she joins the Military Engineer Corps, learning and perfecting her trade to help with the war effort. I see my show as a cross between the period drama of Bomb Girls and the structure of The Good Wife each week, Junie will have to tackle a new engineering problem, while major characters develop and grow in a serialized style. The show delves into the major cultural changes happening at the time, while focusing heavily on the homefront, territory that feels somewhat under-explored in the world of World War II projects. Junie will encounter a number of conflicts as she goes from small-town prom queen to factory worker, and ultimately become a major player in changing the course of history, as she becomes involved in work ranging from helping design the Pentagon to working on the Manhattan Project.”
Craig Motlong, creative director at an advertising agency in Seattle
TV Concept Title: Q Branch
“Q Branch was inspired by the amazing women in my family, who are complex, brilliant problem solvers–but, by one reason or another, not engineers. My main character borrows elements from of all of them. Then I drew on some of my own experience to create the world of a spy lab, which I think would be an incredible place to work. My hope is that we can inspire a new generation of women to blaze their own trail through the sciences–because we need their minds more than ever.”
Shanee Edwards, screenwriter, director, produces/hosts the web series She Blinded Me With Science
TV Concept Title: Ada and the Machine
“A stylized steampunk world where Ada Lovelace (considered to be the world’s first computer programmer), adventures through the growing Industrial Revolution that’s taking London by storm in the 1830s. She seizes an opportunity to work for the fledgling Scotland Yard to help take down London’s biggest threat – the Luddites, a gang of violent technophobes who will stop at nothing to keep technology from moving forward. Ada will also create programs for the world’s first computer, the Analytical Engine, a dazzling machine that can ‘think.’ As a writer, my hope is that Ada will be an exciting role model for young women interested in engineering and the sciences.”