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Hollywood hopes to make engineers cool

TV fans of a certain age may fondly remember MacGyver, a brilliant secret agent who defeated bad guys armed with only a Swiss army knife, a roll of duct tape, and a paper clip or two.

His astonishing knowledge of practical science made MacGyver (which aired from 1985 to 1992) into an engineering icon. Now Hollywood wants to find a new star engineer—this time, a woman—to take over the airwaves. The “Next MacGyver” competition, sponsored by the United Engineering Foundation, also hopes to inspire young women to become engineers. The contest was announced last month by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the University of Southern California’s (USC's) Viterbi School of Engineering, in collaboration with The MacGyver Foundation. The five winners will each receive $5000—and will be paired with an established Hollywood producer to help shepherd the idea into a complete script for a TV pilot. The application deadline is 17 April.

Crowdsourcing a Hollywood TV show is the latest example of using the power of the mass media to shape career choices.  In the early 1990s, Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., suggested in an interview with IEEE that a show called L.A. Engineer could do for engineers what L.A. Law did for lawyers. And then there’s CSI, which made lab-based crime-solving dramatic and sexy—and caused a spike in the number of aspiring forensic scientists.

To learn more, Science chatted with three of the producers who will mentor the winning candidates: MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, and Lori McCreary, CEO and founder (with actor Morgan Freeman) of Revelations Entertainment. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why cast a net for pitches beyond Hollywood?

A.Z.: It starts with President [Barack] Obama. He has lots of passion for this subject of engineering; he’s been quoted as saying it’d be great to do CSI for science or engineering. We’re crowdsourcing with the hope that we’re able to find a specific take or perspective [that can] motivate the endgame, which is to inspire engineers to help our country.

L.Z.: We want to create a show that can provide models for women to consider a career in sciences, in the way that MacGyver inspired a lot of people and CSI inspired people to go into forensic sciences. [But] we all know that getting an intelligent show on the air is akin to a successful landing on Mars. Networks are always hesitating when there’s anything too earnest behind a piece of entertainment—but if it comes from a groundswell of popular interest, that can change the equation. So to really share the concept, and the idea of young people—particularly women—going into the sciences, we said, "Why don’t we reach out to the global population at large?" … [ask] people, "What does it mean to be an engineer?" That has as much value as presumably any show we might be able to get on the air.

L.M: Lee [Zlotoff] and the guys at USC and the National Academy of Engineering … made a compelling argument [about] the CSI effect in television. [Revelations Entertainment produces] this show called Madam Secretary, and one of the reasons it’s so appealing is [that it says to viewers], "Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have a great role model of a diplomat who does things the way I’d want to, or the way my friends and I would if we were in politics?" And maybe that would inspire people to move into government or public service.

Q: What happens once the winners are chosen?

L.M.: The winners are paired with one of five mentors. Morgan and I will have access to one of these projects and we will help develop it into a pitch.

A.Z.: The first step is to get the top five; the second is, "Can this individual write?" And then we have to construct a pitch palatable for TV. There are a lot of “ifs” going forward. Can we actually write a script? Once we have a green light to shoot the episode, do we have the legs or team to support it?

Q: What sort of engineer will make a good central character?

L.Z.:  A lot of people have thought that what we’re looking for is a woman who’s going to be the next MacGyver. That’s not it. We’re looking for an entirely new TV show based around a female character that embodies the characteristics of an engineer. If I had to guess—and this is by no means a direction—the character will probably have several disciplines under their belt. That allows you to go in lots of different directions. What I would encourage people to do, for starters, is go online and look up types of engineers and what they do. When you say engineering to most people, they think of a guy with a striped hat who’s driving a train. People don’t think about engineers as significant elements of civilization and society.

L.M.: I’d love to read something that hits at the soul of who an engineer is: a creator, a problem-solver, someone who thinks outside the box. Along with that main character, we need a really great world, something somewhat familiar to us so that we want to watch every week, but that also has enough corners to explore. When you’re developing the idea, the first thing I’d do is look around. Who’s the most interesting person you know? Find out more about that real person, what would make an interesting story inspired by that person, and then for a couple of weeks invite that person over to dinner. Sit around and tell them the story and have them tell you if it’s interesting or not.

A.Z.: Engineering is a fascinating space. It’s all about ingenuity, innovation—those are the two main things about making the world a better place. CSI was very clear: Investigators are proficient in forensics, and piece together an investigation when the body can’t speak for itself while putting away the bad guy. [But] engineering is that times 500. There are so many ways to skin the engineering cat, if you will. [It could be] anything from robotics, or DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], to developing game apps—there are a lot of different ways to be an engineer.

Q: Why are you specifically looking for a female character?

L.M.: The fact that we’re looking for a female engineer is of interest, but I wouldn’t make that the primary issue. I’m doing a show about a female secretary of state. It informs the character but it’s not about that. Madam Secretary is about a female in a man’s world, but that’s not what people would take away after they see it. I would try not to fall into that trap. We’ve seen those fish-out-of-water characters before. Make sure there’s enough going on around [her] that this doesn’t become the primary reason for conflict.

L.Z.: The goal of a show like this is entertainment, not sermonizing. Some really important core values came out of MacGyver. But I didn’t sit down and say, "I’m going to plug those values in and hope they take hold"; I said, "I’m going to create a piece of entertainment." MacGyver didn’t not use a gun because I had a moral imperative about guns. He didn’t use a gun because, when you take the gun away, all of a sudden it’s like, "How’s he going to solve the problem? How do you turn what you have into what you need?" That is a core value of MacGyver—resourcefulness—and he always had a sense of humor and humility. Those are essential characteristics to solve problems.