Engineers are used to being ignored, but things get especially rough for them around Oscar season.
"Young people today especially are dependent on tech, but they don’t know where it comes from," Randy Atkins, the senior program officer for media and public relations at the National Academy of Engineering, told The Washington Post. "They don’t know it comes from engineers. They don't even know what an engineer is. If you ask them, they might say it's the person who drives the train."
Every year the NAE's Draper Prize — the field's highest honor — is awarded right around the same time as are the Academy Awards. For the man in charge of publicizing the gathering of engineering hot shots, that can get pretty irksome.
"It never gets covered by anybody," he said with a sigh. "And then the next week you've got the Oscars, and all these celebrities get so much coverage."
That was the inspiration behind the new video from Funny or Die, commissioned by the NAE along with the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering. What if cool, young, up-and-coming engineers were followed with the same gusto as singers and actors?
The results, in my opinion, are delightful. Are you not delighted?
Here's what I love about the video: It's exactly as dorky as a parody video about engineering should be. I mean, you can't make a parody video about engineering and have it not be really dorky.
But the folks involved made some conscious decisions that make the video's underlying message pretty great. The engineers aren't just cool young people having Twitter feuds and taking selfies with adoring fans while changing the world with science — they're all cool young women and people of color, too. For now, the Draper Prize goes pretty much exclusively to white men. But the field is changing, and Atkins and his colleagues want to show that.
"The biggest impediment to our future may be how few people — perhaps particularly among the youngest generation — know the fundamental way dreams become basic modern conveniences and lives become more secure. It’s engineering, the silent “E” in STEM education," Atkins said.
When you add up all the different flavors of engineering, you can thank the field for everything from cellphones to rockets to GPS to advances in medicine. In a world where cool young people increasingly rely on technology, it's kind of crazy that engineering isn't better understood. One recent study found that just 15 percent of kids surveyed expressed an interest in getting into the field.
"Obviously the video is geared to high school-, college-age kids, so we wanted people that they’d look up to, someone who’s cool," he said. "Because they are, it’s not a stretch. There are a lot of young, cool engineers. We don’t cover them like they’re celebrities, but they’re out there."
NAE and USC had the same idea when they collaborated on "The Next MacGyver," a competition geared toward creating a new television show about a cool — female — engineer. Five finalists are currently working on scripts to take to the next round.
"The stereotype of an engineer is someone who isn't creative, who sits alone in a cubicle solving equations," Atkins said. "If we're going to solve the Grand Challenges" — a set of engineering projects set forth by the academy as necessary problems for scientists to tackle — "within the next century, that misconception is going to be a problem."
Some of those challenges — improving energy efficiency, providing clean water access, and using biomedical engineering to jump-start health care — could save the planet.
"Engineers are going to be our heroes," Atkins said. "So why don't we treat them that way?"
"Well," he added, "a guy can dream."