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Maja Mataric looks for female students who want to be 'The Next MacGyver'

The engineering professor is seeking to lure more young women into STEM fields. The Next MacGyver competition is one way.

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    Maja Matarić, vice dean of research for the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, wants to tap the entertainment industry to attract more young women into scientific fields.
    Courtesy of Will Taylor
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Maja Matarić, vice dean of research for the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering, confronts an almost daily challenge in her efforts to promote engineering and recruit young women into the field.

“Most of the world, including young people, does not understand what engineering is and does, and how exciting and important it is for the future of humanity,” Ms. Matarić says. “It’s our job to communicate that in a relatable way, and popular culture and the entertainment industry are the most powerful, relatable channels to use for the message.”

Matarić, who specializes in robotics, has been named one of the 25 most influential women engineers by Business Insider. She has also played a significant role in recruiting young women into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, boasting a 37-percent female freshman class in the Viterbi program – a rate nearly double the national average.

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One of the latest initiatives to come out of the Viterbi School of Engineering, The Next MacGyver, aims to blend education about the importance of engineering with female recruitment and the intrigue of the entertainment industry.

The Next MacGyver, which borrows the name of the hit 1980s TV show "MacGyver," is premised on the excitement and interest in engineering that was generated by that Hollywood hit. The competition challenges contestants to create ideas for television that would feature female engineers or other female protagonists who use engineering to solve problems.

The competition is a partnership between Matarić and her colleagues at the Viterbi School of Engineering, along with the National Academy of Engineering, The MacGyver Foundation (which aims to encourage and support those who use nonviolence, self-reliance, and sustainability to improve the lives of others), and Lee Zlotoff, the creator of the MacGyver TV series.

“I see firsthand, as a parent and as an educator, the power of the entertainment industry on shaping young people’s ideals and, consequently, career plans,” says Matarić, who serves on the panel of judges for the competition. “I am extremely excited about the possibility to use the power of the entertainment industry and popular culture to share the excitement and fun of engineering with K-12 students and everyone else. “

Submissions for the competition topped 1,800 scripts. The judges now are reviewing the entries. Five winners will each receive a $5,000 award and will be paired with a producer to develop a script.

The program aims to help inspire young women to see themselves as engineers and to break down stereotypes while motivating girls to pursue careers in engineering and other STEM fields.

“I hope we end up with a few truly inspiring shows, and that at least one sticks for a while, to further fuel that interest in creating more – all toward the goal of engaging women in engineering,” Matarić says.

She hopes that the competition will attract interest among those in the entertainment industry as well.

The spirit of The Next MacGyver resonates with Matarić and her own research. Much like the TV show's lead character, MacGyver, who used his scientific prowess for good, Matarić focuses her research on developing robots that help people.

“We work with children with autism spectrum disorders, stroke patients, overweight teens at risk for Type 2 diabetes, and elderly with Alzheimer’s,” she says. “I see people every day who ask for our engineered systems to make their lives better. And I want to share that excitement and promise with young people who are wondering what exciting and meaningful career choices they have.”

Her efforts to recruit young women into engineering have become a personal passion.

“I hope that I can serve as a role model to those women,” Matarić says, “and that by being at a top engineering school in the United States, I can help to communicate the excitement and importance of engineering so we can recruit the next generation of engineers that will be a great deal more diverse than my generation is.”

• For more about The Next MacGyver, visit http://thenextmacgyver.com.

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