Apr 12, 2012

Start seeing engineers (Navy Notes 3)

I recently read the results of Intel's recent Survey of Teens' Perceptions of Engineering (Dec 2011) hoping to get a topic that would give me a short break from the Navy Notes. As you may recall, I had a great trip in September on the USS Carl Vinson where I learned about the challenges faced by the personnel and how important STEM, particularly engineers was to them. The findings set my mind on a path with a surprising ending:

The survey of over 1000 teens who had computer access showed that they had a generally positive view of engineering, but felt that they were largely unfamiliar with what it really was. When asked what would grab their interest the most (i.e., encourage them to think about engineering as a career), 74% said they would pursue it if it seemed interesting. Over 50% reported that factors like a high salary, having a positive impact on society, and having a variety of job opportunities would be appealing. In fact, nearly half of them said that if they had more exposure to engineering, they would reconsider engineering as a career.

This made me think of a recent talk I heard at The Works museumIoannis Miaoulis, president of Boston Science Museum, got real shock value from the audience when he declared that "the only engineer on prime time TV is Homer Simpson."

Sadly, I have to point out that Mr. Miaoulis is wrong. He obvious hasn't watched a lot of TV -- and he is misrepresenting engineers. First, Homer Simpson is not an engineer. He is a nuclear plant technician, a very respectable field (and very important), but not an engineer. His role is to keep the technology running properly and safely -- something that we trust our technicians to do. They must know about the science and math behind the technology they work intimately with, but they do not have the education to modify the system in significant ways as an engineer would.

Next, I can count at least 10 engineers who have been on television since the 1960s. The real problem is that like good engineering, good engineers fade into the background unless they are malfunctioning (i.e., are the "evil scientist/engineer"). When they are doing a good job, taking on a variety of interesting tasks, and hey, having a positive impact on society, they become invisible. It took a while for even me (ultra-sensitive engineer) to realize they were engineers.

Want to see them with me?

THE EXPLORERS

These are the engineers that many engineers ("geeks") think of. They work for "the Federation" (i.e., they are government employees) and their influence extends out into the universe. Here's what I see in each and how long they have run:

1. Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, Star Trek  1966-1969 (3 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssme-8fnTPM
    I never really watched the original Star Trek until college (I know, I'm not a good stereotypical engineer), but I found Scotty adorable. Engineers of his caliber and personality are a joy to work with -- and they get things done!

2.Geordi La Forge, Star Trek: The Next Generation  1987-1994 (7 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT-wfcujaNE
    I was surprised when LeVar Burton, whom I had known from the children's television show, Reading Rainbow, took on this role. But what a job he did: My husband calls him "the perfect engineer." I love the fact that he is able to be an engineer because of engineering: He wears an ocular prosthetic that allows him to see, and sometimes see things others cannot.

3. B'Elanna Torres, Star Trek: Voyager  1995-2001 (6 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMyHrN_cs60
   I have only started watching this series (yes, I'm again losing geek points) but I find it fun that the engineer is a female (oh, and part Klingon which I guess gives her some of the hutzpah that many women engineers I know have). Eventually, I hear she becomes wife and mother as well. Talk about a very interesting life with a variety of tasks.

4. Charles "Trip" Tucker III, Star Trek: Enterprise 2001-2005 (4 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4-QT_ytCkk
   I am new to this show as well, but within the first few episodes, this cowboy engineer shows strength of character in difficult situations from surviving desert conditions to being stranded on an exploration pod to being -- get this -- the first human male to become pregnant.


THE STEREOTYPES

These engineers are somewhat stereotypical: white, male, not quite muscular, and well, shall we say more seductive in their own minds than in real life. But, they have their charm!

5. Seamus Zelazny Harper, Andromeda  2000-2005 (5 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_57l_s9tGM
   This other Gene Roddenberry inspired space series has the engineer being a resourceful fellow in desperate times. He is pessimistic at times but can be appeased with a technical challenge that will let him make something he finds cool.

6. Howard Wolowitz, The Big Bang Theory  2007-present (5 years and counting)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5PwwLBFrUI&feature=topics
   Perhaps not the role model for engineers, but with his own sense of reality (and awesomeness) he shows himself to be the master of humor. As an aerospace engineer, he often tries to lure women to his lab with promises of working with NASA rover equipment somewhere in space.

THE ROLE MODELS

These are the engineers that are the ones that I like the best because they seem like whole people, not just a position on a ship or a stereotypical personality. However, because they seemed so human, it took me a while to realize that they actually were engineers!

7. Steven Douglas, My Three Sons 1960-1965 (5 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ccUYKv_0PtA
   Most people know this as yet another "father knows best" series reminiscent of the 1950's shows. However, as I watched reruns, I realized that Mr. Douglas was an aeronautical engineer. The 60's was a golden time for this type of engineer. Engineers were considered great "catches" for women: stable jobs, high salary, and reliable personalities.

8. Barney Collier, Mission: Impossible 1966-1973 (6 years)
see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Mission:_Impossible_characters#Barney_Collier
   Barney is one of the coolest members of the Mission Impossible secret agent team. I mean, he does what everyone else does and he designs all the devices and props that are key to their subterfuge. It was apparently controversial for some that he was African American, but interestingly, he was able to fit in everywhere. Apparently, Barney had his start in the Navy before he went on to become an entrepreneur with his own electronics company. Talk about job opportunities!

9. Joe DuBois, Medium  2005-2011 (6 years)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1yURlw8ywM
   I actually find the main character (the medium) a bit annoying. I guess my engineering side can't handle her erratic logic and emotion as characterized in the show. However, her husband, an aerospace engineer, is a pillar of strength. Apparently, the show is based on a real life couple, and lo, the husband really is an engineer, not an interesting literary element, and apparently is the rational supportive touch stone in the relationship.

10. Timothy McGee, NCIS  2003-present (9 years and counting)
see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctBkvMXPaFQ
   It took me a few watches to realize that Timothy McGee has an engineer education (biomedical) in addition to a degree in computer forensics. A very special agent of the Naval Crime Investigative Services, he not only does a variety of interesting tasks which often involve national security, he has creative talents which land him a best-selling mystery. 

So, 10 engineers who have been or are still on prime time TV. And hey, two of the four had their start with the Navy... Go Navy!

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