What does an engineer do? If you’re having trouble coming up with an answer, you aren’t alone. In a study of K-12 graders, the majority believed engineers build buildings and fix cars; 10% of the students confused engineers with train operators. Another study asked teachers “What kinds of work do engineers do for their jobs?” Between 25 and 35% of the surveyed teachers selected clean teeth, arrange flowers, sell food and make pizza.
The studies’ results are startling, but what does this have to do with film? The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) recently launched a new website (www.engineeringmessages.org) devoted to changing the conversation about engineering. The NAE worked with a market research and brand development company to create new messages and taglines that challenge common misperceptions of engineering. Which got us thinking, what films support positive messages about engineering?
Turns out, there’s a whole list of films with engineer characters. But simply having an engineer character isn’t going to change the conversation about engineering, now is it? Research has found that adults and teens do not readily associate engineering with problem-solving, creativity or having a positive impact on society. That’s a big hurdle to overcome but we found a few films up to the challenge.
Did you know the Batmobile was created by an engineer? InBatman Begins, Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman) is the mechanical engineer behind all of Batman’s superhero equipment. Fox even developed the technology behind Batman’s cape, a type of “memory cloth” that becomes rigid when electrical currents pass through it. Fox is a problem-solver, he’s creative and he has an amazing positive impact on society; afterall, he’s the man who built Batman.
Another superhero brought his engineering background straight to his alter ego – Iron Man. Tony Stark is one cool, creative, problem-solving engineer. In Iron Man, Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is kidnapped by the Ten Rings terrorist group. During his captivity he works with another engineer, Yinsen (who implanted the electromagnet into Stark’s chest in order to save his life), to create the Iron Man suit prototype, which allows Stark to esape. Stark then develops the suit further and uses it to become a superhero.
Another film proves engineers can be heroes without the mask and cape (or armored suit). A Bug’s Life features an inventive ant, Flik, whose engineering skills save his fellow ants. Flik is a wonderful example of an engineer – especially for children. He’s creative and he loves to solve problems. Flik builds a model bird to scare away the grasshoppers – who demand the ants’ food as payment for “protection.” It ultimately doesn’t work but Flik’s try is commendable. At the end of the film, one of his inventions – a grain harvester – is adopted by the colony for use, which has a positive impact on the ant community.
Of course, these three films aren't the only ones with positive portrayals of engineers. But we think it’s time we hear from you. What films do you see as changing the conversation about engineering?