Sunday, December 19, 2004

Engineers and Engineering in Popular Culture

Having grown up the child of an electrical engineer (with hardware leanings) and then becoming an electrical engineer myself (with software leanings), I often find it perplexing exactly what other people think engineers do. At an IEEE meeting a few months ago, we were discussing how to “get the word out” about engineering. Popular culture is an amazingly effective way to introduce a large number of people to a basic concept. We started to talk about how television has managed to make being a lawyer or a forensic scientist seem exciting. Why couldn’t it do the same for engineering?

I started to think about all of the examples of engineers in popular culture. There’s Dilbert, though Dilbert is more about how office workers in general are frustrated by their jobs. The History Channel has focused on engineering, though mostly civil engineering. Not to mention the fact that their series, Engineering Disasters, prompted my father to say “So, there’s scientific achievements and engineering disasters.” (More on this later)

Probably the most prominent portrayal of engineers is on Star Trek. Scotty and O’Brien tended to be maintenance engineers – fixing whatever broke. Geordi and Trip are classic tinkerers and at least made efforts toward improving the ship’s systems as well as repairing them. I’m afraid I’m less familiar with B’Elanna, though my impression of her in the early years of Voyager was that she, too, was a tinkerer, if only because she had to learn to do the most with very little. I think Kaylee on Firefly also fits this portrayal of engineers as tinkerers and people who fix things. This may explain why engineers are often asked to figure out what’s wrong with someone’s car.

But what about engineering itself? What examples of engineering exist in popular culture? Consider my father’s comment about “scientific achievements and engineering disasters”. I think this points to the route cause of engineering’s underexposure in popular culture: labeling. There are actually a few good examples of engineering on television; they’re just not labeled as such. Science and engineering are inextricably linked, but scientists are often credited with engineering achievements. While science makes engineering possible, it’s the engineers who apply science to solve problems.

Take, for example, MacGyver. MacGyver was an engineer in that, faced with a problem, he came up with a solution given the materials available to him. But MacGyver in general, and one episode in particular that stands out in my mind, tends to mix up science and engineering. The episode that I speak of was actually on recently, though it’s one of the few that I remember watching when I was younger. MacGyver is helping out with what is deemed to be a physics competition at a college. The idea is to build a barrier that prevents a door from being opened. It must be possible to get past the barrier using scientific principles and logical problem solving. Each competitor builds a barrier, then each tries to beat the barrier of another competitor. It’s engineering through and through. But its called physics. Because it’s not chemistry or biology, so it must be physics. Engineering? What’s that?

A more recent example of engineering in popular culture is Mythbusters. Again, Mythbusters is not explicitly labeled as engineering (though they did consult an electrical engineer one time), but I think it does an excellent job of showing how to methodically reach a solution using scientific knowledge and practical skills. Each myth is researched and the results of said research are usually presented as a starting point for debunking or proving a myth. Then they go through the process of deciding on a design, building models (if they are working on a large system), testing individual components, and then the final test of the myth. They often attack a myth from multiple angles and consider several possibilities for how an event might occur if it were possible at all. Set backs and failures occur, but they learn from their mistakes. That’s all part of engineering.

So there is at least one example of engineering in fiction and one example of engineering in reality tv. So it can be done. We just have to convince Hollywood to get the terminology straight.