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The NUMB3RS are In: Science, Engineering
and Math Well-Represented on TV

By Chris McManes


(Click to Download PDF Flyer)

Some IEEE members believe that all we need to improve public appreciation of engineering is a prime-time TV series featuring engineers. That could very well be true, but quicker than you can calculate pi to 39 decimal places, mathematicians are already in prime time.

NUMB3RS, a CBS Paramount drama, features an FBI agent who enlists the help of his mathematical-genius younger brother to help solve some of the agency’s more-challenging crimes. The younger sibling, a math professor at the fictional California Institute of Science, is able to discern mathematical patterns in criminal activity and use calculations that assist FBI investigators.

Or as CBS describes it, “Inspired by actual events, the series depicts how the confluence of police work and mathematics provides unexpected revelations and answers to the most perplexing criminal questions.”

In so doing, NUMB3RS helps make math look fun and exciting.

Dr. Keith Devlin, a consulting professor of mathematics and executive director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, discussed the show on NPR just prior to its January 2005 debut.

“The one thing they’re trying to do is make mathematics look cool,” Devlin said. “I know it’s cool; all my friends know it’s cool. We do have an image problem, and I think a TV series like this can help get over it.”

NUMB3RS is one of many broadcast, cable and online TV shows that showcase science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Designed for everyone from preschoolers to adults, most STEM-promoting programs are entertaining and educational.

“With the advent of cable TV, the number of channels has expanded and provided many more opportunities for new programs,” said Paul Kostek, IEEE-USA’s first vice president for communications and public awareness. “I think this demonstrates that kids are interested in math and science, but they lose interest because they don’t see how those subjects are used in real life. Shows like NUMB3RS, CSI and even The Big Bang Theory show how math and science can be applied, while also presenting a human side to scientists and engineers.

“Programs like Future File and Build It Bigger show there are still future breakthroughs coming, as well as opportunities to contribute and make a difference.”

NUMB3RS was the most-watched program on Friday nights (10 p.m. ET and PT) its first three seasons and began season four on 28 September 2007. The show’s creators, husband and wife Nicolas Falacci and Cheryl Heuton, won the 2006 Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science and the National Science Board’s 2007 Public Service Award.

Unlike TV shows that are purely fictional and take dramatic license over the edge, NUMB3RS is careful to ensure that its math principles and equations are sound. CBS partners with Wolfram Research, a leading producer of software for mathematical and scientific computation, to provide the series with genuine math to support each episode.

In addition, the NUMB3RS Web site features links to a host of math resources.

“It’s great to see that the producers are willing to work with educators and industry to provide resources about the math used on the show,” said Kostek, who works as a systems engineer with the Boeing Co. in Seattle. “And from the number of resources listed, it’s obvious there’s an interest from viewers.”

So until a crime-fighting engineer is featured in prime time, we’ll have to be content with NUMB3RS, which isn’t so bad considering math is a major building block of engineering. Nonetheless, the profession is still positively portrayed on TV.

Design Squad

Design Squad Offers Resources for Teachers and Engineers to Reach Students

One of Design Squad’s key features is a resource site for engineers showing how they can use the challenges featured on the program to teach engineering to children: “Design Squad is more than a television show – it’s engineers, families, and youth-serving organizations working together to use the show, the educational materials and the Web site to connect kids to engineering.”

George McClure, an IEEE-USA Career & Workforce Policy Committee member who lives in Winter Park, Fla., said Design Squad fits well with IEEE-USA’s precollege initiatives.

“It grabs the attention of middle school students in interesting projects involving math and science that can be performed in organized workshops,” said McClure, a retired communications systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. “Programs such as Design Squad can motivate students to continue their studies of math and science so they can perhaps later choose engineering or science careers.

“If the prerequisites are not acquired, then such careers are foreclosed to those students.”

Design Squad’s 2008 season activity guide offers five new hands-on challenges, bringing to 17 the challenges available to anyone looking to help children think like engineers. The new guide will be available in late January.

To order your copy, e-mail designsquad_feedback@wgbh.org with your name, company, mailing address and phone number. Please indicate if it’s work or home.


WGBH in Boston produces Design Squad, a reality show about two groups of high school students who compete each episode to solve a new engineering challenge. The first episode of the show’s second season will be streamed on Design Squad’s Web site during Engineers Week (17-23 February 2008) and will premiere on TV in April.

John Meredith, who served as IEEE-USA president in 2007 and is a product development engineer with Agilent Technologies in Colorado Springs, Colo., is pleased that the IEEE is a major financial supporter of Design Squad.

“I think Design Squad is a great way for youth to become familiar with the basic engineering principles engineers use in designing products, systems and processes that benefit all of us,” Meredith said. “Hopefully this will spark an interest in some of the youngsters to consider engineering as a career. For those not so inclined, improved technical literacy is another plus.”

“Programs such as Design Squad are valuable because it’s all about the results,” Kostek said. “It’s not about math and science but how they are applied to solve a problem. I think at times people lose sight of this aspect of learning.”

Nate Ball, the host of Design Squad, is a positive ambassador for engineering. A mechanical engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, he is a also former captain of his college track and field team.

At the 15th-annual Discover Engineering Family Day festival, 16 February 2008 at the National Building Museum in Washington, Ball will demonstrate the “Powered Rope Ascender” that he helped create. The device allows people such as rescuers to “reverse rappel” up buildings, cliffs and other vertical surfaces.

More Shows

Each episode of the Discovery Channel’s Extreme Engineering highlights a major, large-scale engineering project some completed, some under construction and some futuristic. Boston’s Big Dig, the widening of the Panama Canal and the concept of building a tunnel across the Atlantic Ocean have all been featured.

Cool Fuel, from the Science Channel, showcases a crew’s trek across American roads without using gasoline. Instead, they use custom-built machines that run on “fuels such as corn whiskey ethanol, garbage and wind.”

Peep and the Big Wide World is an animated PBS series that teaches science to preschoolers. Each 30-minute episode features two stories that illuminate scientific principals.

STEM-related shows aren’t limited to TV. Engineering TV, NASA TV and The Science Network are online.

The IEEE produces IEEE.tv (www.ieee.tv), an Internet-based network that features technology and engineering. Some content is publicly available and some is an exclusive benefit for IEEE members. IEEE-USA contributed Art of the Start: Entrepreneurship for high-tech entrepreneurs in May 2007.

Although CBS’ new comedy, The Big Bang Theory, is meant more to elicit laughs than impart scientific knowledge, the two lead male characters are physicists whose discussions often revolve around observable, physical phenomenon.

Ever since L.A. Law ran from 1986 to 1994, some IEEE members have clamored for L.A. Engineer.

“It’s rather ironic that, after years of listening to fellow engineers calling for programs along the lines of L.A. Engineer, we have so many programs on TV now,” said Kostek, who also chairs the IEEE-USA Communications Committee. “In many cases engineers may not be aware of them, but teachers obviously are and are bringing them into the classroom.

“What makes them work? They show how STEM can be used to solve problems, is not done in isolation and, most importantly, can be fun.”

Here's a list of many — but certainly not all — STEM-promoting TV and video programs. Although series focusing on health often have a scientific or biomedical engineering base, they are not included. And remember, new shows and documentaries air all the time.

Television (Prime-Time Broadcast):

Television (Broadcast and Cable; times vary):

Beyond Tomorrow

Cool Fuel

Future File

Gazing Into Space

Greatest Discoveries http://science.discovery.com/convergence/100discoveries/

Invention Nation

It's All Geek to Me






Chris McManes is IEEE-USA's public relations manager. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org. Opinions expressed are the author's.

Copyright © 2008 IEEE

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