THE BLOG
07/30/2015 04:26 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

How to Engineer a Lady MacGyver

Engineering (n) : the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people.

Hollywood's quintessential TV show engineer - who was somehow both an 80's everyman complete with feathered haircut and also an action hero possessed of a profound understanding of the pure sciences - was Angus MacGyver. He was a character who could, as my husband likes to say, build a bus out of a triscuit. Created by Lee Zlotoff and played by Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver was the (fictitious) U. S. Department of External Services' secret weapon - an agent who'd solve global political crises each week with no weapons but the resources he found in the crisis itself, plus his trusty Swiss army knife and/or roll of duct tape in a pinch. He was cool, he was smart, he was of great use to society, and he inspired a generation of engineers. According to show creator Zlotoff, "I literally could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and said 'I became an engineer or I went into the sciences because of MacGyver.'"

Now we've got a new crisis to solve: how to get more women into the sciences and engineering, nationwide - how to get young girls to think of themselves as future innovators - because there are grand challenges of our day and we aren't going to solve them with only half the population invited to the table. Teachers and parents can make a difference, of course, in changing the narrative around professions that have been traditionally male-dominated - but as those of us in Hollywood know, stories are where it's at. As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media states in its PSA, 'if she can see it she can be it.' Young girls need to see female engineers on television and in film - cool, smart ones, like MacGyver, normalizing and hero-izing the field.

Enter, the Next MacGyver competition, which crowned its winners earlier this week. A collaboration between USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering, and the MacGyver Foundation (and sponsored by Google, Ford, and the United Engineering Foundation), the goal was crowdsourcing: ask applicants around the world to invent a new TV series concept that would feature America's first iconic female engineer as its protagonist. As the competition's website explains, "We're not looking to reboot the MacGyver franchise or bring back guys with mullets. We're asking, can you out-MacGyver MacGyver?"

I was on hand this week when the twelve finalists (whittled down from nearly 2000 applicants) gathered at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills for the competition's grand finale, a live pitchfest of the finalists' concepts in front of an esteemed panel of judges from the sciences and entertainment, in the hopes of becoming one of five winners who would be picked by the end of the day. Winners received $5000 and were paired on the spot with an established Hollywood producer to mentor them in developing their idea into an original TV pilot script. The impressive panel of judges included Aerospace Corporation president and CEO Dr. Wanda Austin, actress/producer America Ferrera (Ugly Betty), CEO and founder of Revelations Entertainment and president of the Producers' Guild of America Lori McCreary (Madam Secretary), writer/director/producer/biophysicist Valerie Weiss (Losing Control), founder and CEO of GoldieBlox Debbie Sterling, and writer/producer Roberto Orci (Star Trek, Scorpion, Sleepy Hollow, Hawaii Five-O, Fringe).

Emceed by Julie Ann Crommett of Google, the finalists took the stage one after another with five lean minutes each, to pitch ideas ranging from a steampunk heroine thwarting the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution to a team of female engineers and their ex-accidental-cyber-hacker leader communicating virtually to solve crimes around the country, in court and in the lab. You can watch the pitches and see who won HERE, starting at 18:09. Also, check out the fantastic panel discussion on taking projects like these "From Script to Screen" through Hollywood's hoops at 2:37:30, moderated by Bloomberg's Katherine Oliver and featuring Ann Blanchard of CAA, Marci Cooperstein of ABC Family, Danielle Feinberg of Pixar, and Ann Merchant of the matchmaking organization behind the latest Cosmos, the Science & Entertainment Exchange.

It may seem we've come a long way since Father Knows Best's rather horrifying episode in which his eldest daughter sends the community into titters with her proclamation of wanting to become an engineer, but, as any engineer knows who's the only woman in a huge roomful of men, progress is too slow. Megan Smith, the U. S. Chief Technology Officer, chimed in during the judges' deliberations with a warm, rousing, pre-recorded message from the White House stressing the importance of "including everyone as solution-makers." (Watch it at 2:35:00.) And in a transcendant speech to the winners and losers of the competition, and to all of us in the audience and watching the livestream around the world hoping to move the needle on women in STEM, Zlotoff ended the afternoon (3:17:40) with a reminder about the larger ramifications of changing the conversation around who can and should pursue engineering, for the greater good:

"The important part of this competition is not necessarily that we get one of these shows on the air, although that is obviously what we are going to put our energy and intention into trying to do. The important part of this competition is that we had this competition. And the bell got rung, and the song got sung, and the speeches got made, and once again we have said to the world: women need to be part of the solution to fixing the problems on this planet. And if we don't encourage them to do that, then it is at all our peril."