Could a new MacGyver (a woman) get more people interested in engineering?

The creator of ABC's popular 'MacGyver' series, along with the National Academy of Engineering and USC engineers, are inviting the public to crowd-source ideas for a 'Next MacGyver' project.

The United States has too few engineers and people skilled in science and math. It seems to have a surplus of people who love to watch TV.

That’s a national challenge, as many see it. But MacGyver could probably solve it.

Heard of him? He’s the late-1980s television character who got out of dangerous jams by creatively using whatever slim resources he had on hand. Maybe a paper clip and a shoelace.

In this case, perhaps he’d use America’s passion for TV to get people interested in science and engineering.

Actually, the creator of ABC's popular “MacGyver” series (1985-92) is trying to do just that, alongside the National Academy of Engineering and the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering.

At a Washington event Thursday, engineering and Hollywood types will launch the “Next MacGyver” project, a contest to generate plot lines for a new TV series, inspired by MacGyver but with an “iconic female engineer” as the lead character.

“Not another MacGyver. Something new. Something better,” says a video promoting the effort.

“Do you think you can out-MacGyver MacGyver? Prove it!” says Lee Zlotoff, creator of the original show. 

The goal is to “crowd-source” this effort, drawing script ideas over the next two months from people who have never been paid to write a TV episode. Five prizewinners ($5,000 each) will polish their pitches with help from Hollywood pros, and hope the idea takes off – not just as entertainment, but as inspiration for a new generation of engineers.

Is this the right idea at the right time? That’s a bit hard to know before a pilot is even written. But many labor economists say the US can use more math and science skills. And in helping to promote the contest, Mr. Zlotoff says, “I literally could not tell you how many times people have come up to me and said ... ‘I went into the sciences because of MacGyver.’ ”

It’s also true that there’s a gender gap in the sciences. The National Academy of Engineering says that less than 20 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees currently go to women.

In truth, the issue may not be as simple or narrow as a “shortage” of STEM-degree grads (in science, technology, engineering, and math). Even as some reports have proclaimed such a shortage, others have called it into question.

Stephen Rose, a George Washington University economist who tracks the evolving US labor market, says the US needs more STEM graduates, but not tremendously more.

More broadly, though, many economists say America’s economic future will hinge in good measure on the quality of its “human capital” – the education and skills of its workers and entrepreneurs. Math and science are vital building blocks.

The US is competing with other nations to retain leadership in advanced industries that are founts of high-wage jobs. And it’s not all about being home to the next Steve Jobs. For America to maintain a sense of widely shared prosperity, the many workers who don’t get four-year degrees will need to keep boosting their skills. Education can then open the door to a continuous "up-skilling" by employers of jobs in the US economy. After all, rising pay hinges generally on rising productivity.

So a "MacGyver"-style show might deliver social benefits – not just by luring a few more engineering majors, but also by inspiring non-engineers toward creative problem solving and practical learning.

In theory, the nations of the world can all grow more educated, innovative, and prosperous together. The more real-life people who have MacGyver-like ingenuity, the better for the world economy.

Yet the current era feels to many like one of unsettling technological change and global competition. Automation has made many once-secure jobs obsolete. Wages for blue-collar men have been stagnating. And although one gender gap is the dearth of women in fields like engineering, another is men falling behind women in educational attainment.

A new report by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project argues that nurturing a healthy US economy in this era “will require a major commitment to increasing education and skill levels and also to fostering business and organization innovation.”

So, OK, maybe a new MacGyver won’t be able to do all that alone. But she might help.

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