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How Can We Improve American Science Education?

HOME / THE HIVE: American Science Education / Have an attractive image of scientists/engineers in pop culture

Have an attractive image of scientists/engineers in pop culture


When you think of typical lawyers in pop culture of the last couple of decades, what do you picture? Boston Legal, Ally McBeal, and Law & Order. Doctors in pop culture? Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and House. Scientists & Engineers? Office Space, Big Bang Theory, and Dilbert. Which image would you want to turn into? Our popular culture, and by de facto our society, has made a mainstream image out of the worst examples and experiences of our profession. As a result when teenagers and young adults start to even vaguely think about career paths, many would rather be unemployed than choose a career path where everyone is miserable at work, and can’t find a date when not at work.

There are problems in the science & engineering world: many of us are over-worked, under-paid, have incompetent managers, and need to do tedious tasks all too often. However, anyone that has friends in other professions know that these problems are alive and well in virtually every career in America. Ask a doctor how many forms they fill out per patient or a lawyer how many pages of legal briefs they read for every minute in the court room.

The same thing can be said about the exciting times in many jobs: Ask any engineer working on the Mars rover how they felt when the robot displayed its first images from Mars. What about every engineer working on the Boeing 787 when she made her first flight? It’s the same feeling a lawyer probably gets when they win the case they’ve been working on for the past year.

In addition to the work aspects depicted in popular culture, the typical scientist or engineer has their stereotype played to the hilt: Nerdy, antisocial, and probably has never had sex. In contrast, the characters with other careers have their stereotypes: rich lawyers, attractive surgical interns, and all probably having a one-night stand or two. In reality the average scientist/engineer and the average lawyer/businessman/medical professional are probably much more alike than they are different. I know many engineers that weight lift and look like they go to the gym daily, and I know medical professionals that have no charisma whatsoever. Poor lawyers are plentiful and engineers that are good often become millionaires.

The problem is that our popular culture has shown engineers in the worst possible light, and icons for every other career in the best light. Combine this with an academic process where you cannot coast through and get the science/engineering degree, and you have what we’re seeing: students fighting tooth and nail to get into med school and law school, and many students that could have done fine in engineering if they worked hard deciding to take the easy route and study humanities.
What do I think we need to do? We need to somehow get Hollywood to stop depicting us as losers, and start depicting us in the best light possible, which is probably closer to the truth. We need to exploit the love and fun for our best engineering products like iPhones and Xbox Kinects, and get people interested in how they work, and with the “typical” personalities that make them work. We need to put the humanity and typical human nature in the image of science and engineering. Who’s with me?

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