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School Turns Engineering Faculty into Superheroes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The George Washington University engineering school's Pinhas Ben-Tzvi as RobotronMan

A recent survey by Intel found that only 28 percent of teenagers had ever considered becoming engineers and that only 5 percent associated engineering with the word “cool.” That’s not terribly surprising given that engineering ranks in the bottom half of professions with which teens are familiar, falling below teacher, doctor, nurse, police officer, chef, lawyer,  musician, professional athlete, scientist, and computer programmer. (But, surprisingly, above journalist, politician and stock broker).

The good news is that giving teens even a small amount of information about what engineers do helps significantly boost their interest. After reading that “engineers were to thank for saving the Chilean miners who were trapped inside their mine for 69 days,” 52 percent said they’d be much or somewhat more likely to consider a career in engineering, according to the survey.

This is where a new series of comic strips from The George Washington University comes in. Its School of Engineering and Applied Science recently launched an effort to boost student enrollment. In the process, it hit upon an excellent way to translate what engineers do to the general public and to teenagers and to make the profession seem pretty exciting: it turned its faculty into superheroes and gave them starring roles in a series of online comic strips.

In the debut strip, “The Adventures of RobotronMan,” a mechanical engineering professor is called away from class to help rescue earthquake victims.  ”This sounds like a job for RobotronMan,” he says, before transforming into his caped alter ego and flying to his destination. “If I don’t make it back for my 12:25 class … someone cover me.” Once on location, RobotronMan unleashes a swarm of tiny robots that help locate victims and lift heavy rubble to free them.

The comic series is not the first “cool jobs” treatment of scientists I’ve seen (here’s one of my favorite efforts from last year’s World Science Festival), but I think it’s pretty imaginative.

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Macrocompassion 5:56 am 08/10/2012

    This adventure of Robotman is not a good example of engineering in practice. Inevitably the engineers role is not to save lives but to make the product (whether its a building or a device for openning eggs) as safe as reasonably possible.

    Thus in the 1930′s a famous cartoon picture showed a aircraft crash with fire-fighters, para-medics, etc. all rushing to give aid at the crash site. But the engineer (with slide-rule) is rushing away from the scene in order to investigate what went wrong and to correct the design fault on similar aircraft. This is more typical of engineers at work.

    Link to this

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