WASHINGTON – Talk about a cool dude; he once stopped a sulfuric acid leak with a piece of chocolate, and dismantled a missile using a trombone.
The 1980s US television character, secret agent Angus MacGyver, could do it all. And in 2016 his successor will be a woman, if a US engineering association has its way.
Late last month, the National Academy of Engineering launched what it called the “The Next MacGyver Project,” aimed at coming up with ideas for a scripted TV series featuring a female engineer as the leading character.
Thirty years after that cult series riveted TV viewers, “the objective here is not a MacGyver reboot, but to inspire a new generation of young women interested in science and technology by creating a strong female role model,” said Lee Zlotoff, creator of MacGyver.
The project is joint initiative by Adam Smith, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, and Randy Atkins, head of communications at the National Academy of Engineering.
“After an interview with Lee Zlotoff, Adam called me and proposed that we develop a TV show, and I immediately said yes,” said Atkins.
The name â€“ “The Next MacGyver Project” â€“ was suggested by Zlotoff, who has supported the project from the outset.
“I cannot say how many people told me they got interested in engineering after watching MacGyver,” said Atkins.
“The idea to make a female lead character comes from Hollywood producers we met during the initial phase of the project,” Atkins said.
In the United States engineers of all kinds are in strong demand. But women make up a minority of the sector and their numbers are falling.
In 2004 they accounted for 24% of engineering posts, but the proportion has dropped to 21% these days.
In universities, the numbers are discouraging also: women studying engineering do not reach 20% of all such students.
So what’s the problem? Atkins says it is one of image.
“There’s a strong stereotype around engineering, that it’s a male, geeky profession,” he told AFP.
Atkins also said young people do not even really understand what an engineer is.
“When we tour schools around the country, we ask what an engineer is and most of them can’t give a proper answer,” he said.
But consider Ruth David â€“ a woman who did not need a MacGyver hero.
She is a former official of science and technology at the CIA, a real life Q: the inventor of the nifty gadgets in the arsenal of spy James Bond.
She said “The Next MacGyver” will make a difference.
“The problem is that there’s no female role model,” she said.
David says she was the only woman in her class while studying in the 1970s.
If a stronger effort can be made in schools, David said the drive has to be instilled even earlier among children.
“It’s a cultural problem too. The toys young boys grow up with encourage problem solving, but that’s not the case with young girls’ toys,” she said.
The idea of using pop culture to highlight engineering is not new.
In 1985, Norman Augustine, former chairman of Lockheed Martin, gave a speech calling for Hollywood to develop a series named L.A. Engineer, in line with the popular lawyer series L.A. Law.
“Television is an excellent way to reach out to younger audiences. We are well aware of the impact fictional characters can have,” Zlotoff said.
While Hollywood’s main job is to entertain,” the industry is full of open minded people who want to make the world a better place.”
“The Next MacGyver” has been well received in the entertainment world. Many well-known producers are involved in the project.
They include Anthony Zuiker, creator of CSI; Roberto Orci, a science fiction producer who among others brought back a new version of Star Trek; Clayton Krueger, who worked with director Ridley Scott, and Lori McCreary, director of Revelations Entertainment, the production company founded by actor Morgan Freeman.
Zuiker, whose series has inspired women to work in police forensics, said he is enthusiastic about the project.
“We rarely see women in strong scientific lead roles,” he said.
“Our role is to entertain, but also to inspire young men and women.” â€“ AFP