What America needs now: “Action Heroes” with pocket protectors

Last night as I read and prepped for Great Books, my daughter was watching A Beautiful Mind in the next room.  Now and then my attention trailed vaguely along after the film, and suddenly I made one of those random connections that sometimes occurs when you’re not deliberately thinking about something. 

 In this case, I realized that not only did Ron Howard direct A Beautiful Mind, but he also directed Apollo 13.   

  Lately I’ve read lots of hand-wringing articles about how the United States needs to encourage young people to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).  One way to achieve this might be to seek help from Hollywood – in particular, director Ron Howard and his long-time producing partner, Brian Grazer, two men with an amazing talent for bringing  math and engineering to life.

 Consider the scene in Apollo 13 when Gary Sinise and other engineers have to find a way to make the Command Module’s square-shaped lithium-hydroxide canisters (that remove carbon dioxide from the air) compatible with the Lunar Module’s round receptacles.  Although the box-office appeal of watching people fit square pegs into round holes might seem ridiculous, Howard makes that scene as gripping and triumphant as any car chase or game-winning touchdown. 

 In A Beautiful Mind, which won the 2001 Academy Award for Best Picture, Howard dramatizes John Nash’s breakthrough mathematical insights with compelling cinematography and film editing tricks that immerse viewers in the thrill of “discovering” the number patterns themselves.

 Although it would be an overstatement to say that Ron Howard is America’s foremost STEM-fields visionary, he clearly “gets” STEM and has a remarkable ability to render its cerebral nature visible.  For many bright, creative young people to consider STEM-field careers, they need an introduction that animates the possibilities and shows how exciting something like hydraulics actually can be. 

 Sometimes you have to see and “feel” something to believe it.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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