There are certain television tropes about computer scientists that just drive programmers nuts. They include the portrayal of coders as sun-starved and soft-bellied nerds who spend long hours alone in front of their computers. And almost always, those TV characters are male.
So when Disney Junior approached Google and NASA last year for a new series about a space adventure-seeking boy, his smart sister who codes and mother who drives the family spaceship, everyone involved in the project was determined to bury those stereotypes.
They agreed that done right, the show could help get girls interested in the sciences at an early age. After all, the data on gender and careers showed that the media can play a huge factor in girls’ decisions to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, according to a 2014 report by Google.
So the creators of “Miles From Tomorrowland” visited Google headquarters in Silicon Valley and NASA’s Southern California base to talk to tech and space experts about ways to authentically portray the show’s Callisto family.
“We want all kids to get interested in science, but we really felt that it was important for girls in particular to see strong female characters,” said Sascha Paladino, the show’s creator.
Google’s research showed a direct link between the paucity of females in science featured in the media and the low rate of girls pursuing science, technology, engineering and math careers.
The percentage of women entering into computer science studies declined from 37 percent in 1984 to 18 percent in 2009. About 27 percent of all professionals in computer science are women, according to the Google study. It also said girls who feel that television portrays programmers negatively or who don’t see other students like them taking computer science are significantly less likely to get into computing.
At NASA, the Disney team met with experts to help build out the character of the mom, Phoebe, who is the captain of the spaceship.
The character was inspired by astronaut Yvonne D. Cagle, and Disney Junior worked with NASA on astronomy and what it is like to live in space.
At Google, Paladino spent the day with several women engineers who homed in on the character Loretta, Miles’s smart older sister who uses computer code to solve problems that the family encounters during their adventures in space.
They said Loretta shouldn’t pine away alone on her computer engineering tasks. In reality, it’s much more social.
Coders spend most of their time working and interacting in person, they said, in teams to create programs.
They used white boards to show their Hollywood guests what code looks like. It’s not just a string of numbers, they said, and could be portrayed in more exciting ways. The result was a jumbled mess of code when things weren’t going right for Loretta and the family. When they found a solution, the code was presented as elegant and beautiful strings of numbers.
As the show’s creators work on a second season, they are still using Google and NASA advisers.
On Monday, Google’s D.C. office will host a screening of the show with a talk afterward on promoting female engineers.
The panel includes Paladino, Disney executives, astronaut Cagle and some female Google engineers.
“Code is a mechanism to enhance anything you want to do, and that was a big point to get across in Loretta’s character,” said Julie Ann Crommett, who leads Google’s effort to educate the media on computer science. Selfishly, Google believes its efforts with companies like Disney will help create a bigger labor pool for them in the future.
“We want to inspire really young kids to think about being makers of technology and not just consumers of technology,” Crommett said.