Q&A with Rube Goldberg Toy Designer Todd Anderson and Jennifer George

Mention Rube Goldberg to almost anyone and you’re likely to be met with a smile and probably a story about how they loved learning about the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist best known for his complicated, zany invention cartoons.

Now, Rube Goldberg, Inc. (RGI) is making STEM fun on an expanded scale. In a partnership with Spin Master Corp., RGI is offering toys in an exclusive deal with Target. We had to get the story, so we talked to Todd Anderson, toy designer and brand manager at Spin Master and Jennifer George, RGI legacy director and Rube Goldberg’s granddaughter.

How are Rube Goldberg activity sets unique?

Todd Anderson (TA): We approached this with the aspects of humor and motion in mind. There’s always a task to complete, always in a humorous and complex way. Our toys have real personality and humor as opposed to just the linear aspect of other building kits.

Jennifer George (JG): We also approached the design so that there would actually be trial and error figured into the build; otherwise there is no learning curve. In that sense, the experience is more like that of a real engineer.

TA: When I talked to NPD (National Panel Diary), they classify a STEM toy “as one that possesses a variable that when changed produces a different outcome.” In our kits, changing one variable can produce many different outcomes.

JG: This humorous and whimsical approach to understanding STEM makes the Rube Goldberg play sets unique. Our mission was to get children to tinker, experiment, test and to actively engage them to problem solve. Trial and error untimely gets you to your end goal and success.

Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

What motivated RGI to move into the toy industry?

JG: Actually, Rube Goldberg has been in the toy industry since the 1960s, just without his name attached. Mousetrap, which is based on my grandfather’s cartoons, has sold almost 70 million units since its arrival on the market. There were also hobby kits and puzzles when my grandfather was alive. But when Target approached us to create a STEM-friendly toy, we jumped at the chance.

Tell us about how you tested the toys with real kids before you began marketing them. What did you learn from that process?

TA: We had access to panels and focus groups of kids; some of these were tested with kids of employees of Spin Master as take-home prototypes. This was very intentional testing. We found that these builds were not as simple as a typical construction or science kit and really require active thinking to get the sets to work and we embraced the difference. Our kits are not the easiest to build and that’s a good thing. You learn more when you fail than when you succeed. Every step is a task to complete, and this remains true to the spirit of all Rube Goldberg inventions.

JG: And if you get stuck, we launched a series of “How-to” videos on YouTube to support the consumer and make the overall experience as positive as possible.

TA: In one of our focus groups, a parent was quoted as saying “To my surprise, my son became quickly determined to do the project himself. He worked through the challenging phase and could really celebrate in the success.” This was great to see active engagement like that in our toys.

Images courtesy of Spin Master.

Which set is your favorite, and why?

JG: The Acrobat Challenge! It was the first one designed and the first prototype that I could have in my hands and build myself. But I’m also a big fan of the Speeding Car Challenge because it’s very satisfying when the car moves – and the chicken makes me smile.

TA: I also love the Speeding Car because of the finale. When the car zooms off, it’s a great sense of accomplishment.

Andy Weir: Mission Control

Ever since Andy Weir’s “The Martian” captured our imaginations as a novel and major motion picture, we’ve been hoping for more. Now, venturing onto the small screen, Weir’s got a TV show in the works. He graciously agreed to let us grill him for details.

Q. We’re excited to hear you’re working on a new show for CBS called “Mission Control.” Obviously, many of the details of the pilot are under wraps. What can you tell us about the show?

It takes place at the Mission Control Center in Houston. The main characters are the flight controllers and astronauts running a new (fictional) space station that is the first step toward a manned mission to Mars.

Q. You’ve toured NASA’s mission control in Houston. What was the most surprising thing you learned there that you didn’t know before?

I was impressed [with] how many women work there. The concept of science being an “old-boy” network was really put to lie. They’re very good about being a meritocracy.

Weir soaks up the experience of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. You’ve said that while many kids dream of being astronauts, you always dreamed of being in mission control. What was it about that role that fascinated you?

I just like the data… the details. That sort of thing always excited me.

Q. Is NASA supporting the new series? How are you achieving the same technical accuracy as you were known for in The Martian?

They’re not supporting it in any official capacity. But they’re certainly helpful in answering questions. I’m going for full technical accuracy – even more so than The Martian because this takes place modern-day.

Q. How is the process of creating a series different from (or the same as) a movie? I know you’re a big fan of Game of Thrones’ George R. R. Martin. Did he give you any advice about writing for TV?

Yes, he did. I asked him for any advice he had. TV is a different universe, for sure. Mainly because everything is a much larger commitment. For instance: casting. You’re not just saying “Hey, come film for a few weeks,” you’re saying, “Hey, come work for us permanently.” That’s a big difference to an actor and it affects everything.

Weir amuses JSC team members with the story behind his story, “The Martian.” Image Credit: NASA/James Blair and Lauren Harnett

Q. What is your role in scriptwriting, producing, and casting?

I wrote the pilot screenplay, then rewrote it with a group of writers, then rewrote it again with another writer. That’s how it goes.

Q. When will the Mission Control pilot begin production? When can we see it on air?

Shooting starts in March. If CBS picks up the show, it’ll probably air in the Fall.

Q. What else are you working on? Another novel? Another movie?

I’m working on my next novel now. It takes place in a city on the Moon. The main character is a woman who is a small-time criminal who gets in way over her head.

Engineer’s Dream Has Wings

Jeanne Deaver’s life was changed her senior year of high school when a teacher offered her advice on college choices. Today, the mechanical engineer and Alaska Airlines pilot credits mentors and teachers for pushing her toward her dreams, even when things seemed bleak. Now she does the same for the next generation of aspiring STEM students. She took time to share her fascinating story with us.

Q. What or who inspired you to pursue an engineering degree?

A. Growing up, my favorite subjects were math and science. Right before I started my senior year of high school, my family moved to South Dakota. I was still undecided about what college to attend or what kind of a career to pursue. Then one day after class, my math and physics teacher, Larry Hines, suggested that the local engineering university, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) might be a good fit for me. His suggestion shaped the course of my life. I attended and earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering.

Q. You’ve said flying is your dream job, but it wasn’t your first career. What did you do when you graduated from college and how did you make the transition?

A. Prior to graduation, I did a college internship at The Boeing Company in Seattle. During the internship program, engineers (from both Commercial and Defense & Space) met with us to discuss career opportunities available at Boeing. During one of these sessions, I learned that some of the Boeing pilots had originally began working at the company as engineers. I was hired into the internship program by a Chief Engineer named Marlene Nelson. One weekend during the summer, she took me up on my first flight in a small airplane. I was hooked! Additionally, I was introduced to Boeing Test Pilot Captain Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, who inspired and encouraged me to look into pursuing flying as a career.

My final year at SDSM&T, I took flying lessons and earned my Private Pilot’s License. After graduation, I returned to Seattle for a full-time position at Boeing. My career started where my internship left off – in Payloads Engineering. During my time at Boeing, I also worked in Flight Test Instrumentation on basic certification for 737/757 and 777 aircraft. My final rotation at Boeing was in Service Engineering supporting narrow body customers (707/727/737/757) in Southeast Asia. I was really enjoying my engineering career, and I also really enjoyed flying as a hobby.

Pilots who are building their time and “paying their dues” do not make a lot of money. Leaving a promising and profitable career to take a step into the unknown was not easy. I had very little time to doubt my decision though because I had so much encouragement. Every time I saw Captain Suzanna or Marlene, they would ask how much flight time I had and what I planned to do next. At the age of 28, it was time to make the transition. My husband Darren (also a Boeing engineer and incredibly supportive of my career change) was working on a project in Phoenix. I took a leave of absence from my engineering job and met him in the desert. Because of the optimal weather, I quickly finished my training and began flight instructing. When Darren’s project ended, we returned to Seattle and I instructed at Galvin Flying Service. The tragic events on 9/11 significantly reduced the need for pilots at the airlines. I was discouraged, but fortunately, I saw Captain Suzanna at an event at the Museum of Flight. She told me to keep going because this was just a temporary setback. I took her advice, instructed a couple more years at Galvin and became Chief Flight Instructor. When the economy improved, I flew Embraer Brasilias and Canadair Regional Jets at SkyWest Airlines. And finally, in the summer of 2012, I started my dream job of flying Boeing 737s for the hometown favorite… Alaska Airlines!

“This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor … and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.”

Q. How does having an engineering degree and your previous experience at Boeing help you as a pilot?

A. In the modern age of flying, the systems on airplanes are very complex. Understanding how each system functions is an integral part of being a safe pilot. It is so important, that airlines will allocate approximately two weeks of the curriculum to focus on aircraft systems. Many people say that learning a new airplane is like drinking from a firehose. Luckily for me, most of this information was obtained while working on the 737NGs at Boeing. I used the time in ground school to refresh, fill in the gaps, and then focus on other aspects of flying the airplane safely.

An engineering degree is also a safety net. The airline industry is cyclical, and pilots are required to pass a medical examination as often as every 6 months. A well-educated pilot with an engineering degree will have more options if they lose their medical or are furloughed than someone who just obtained a basic degree to meet the requirement for the job.

In my short time at Alaska Airlines, I have been surprised to learn how many of my pilot co-workers have an engineering degree. Becoming an airline pilot is a difficult process. But I believe that the difficult curriculum in an engineering program fully prepares a person for this task. Additionally, a few of my college classmates have continued their education after engineering and pursued careers in patent law, bio-engineering, and finance. I believe the engineering degree was as helpful for them in their new careers as it was for me becoming a pilot.

Q. Please tell us about the importance of mentoring in your life and why it is important for professionals in STEM-related fields to reach out to the next generation.

A. When I was a little girl growing up in western Nebraska, there were very few women in STEM. There were even fewer flying Boeing airplanes at a major airline. I believe the reason I was successful is because of my mentors who provided the guidance and encouragement necessary to help me stay focused. Their words helped shape my inner dialog when things became difficult. I am so thankful to all of them for helping me succeed.

This generation has a lot more opportunities to pursue STEM careers. But they must be made aware of their options to know that they exist. That is why it is important for all of us, as professionals, to look back and offer a hand up to the generation behind us. I give back as a mentor at Raisbeck Aviation High School, through Amelia’s Aero Club at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, and by taking the opportunity to show my workplace to every enthusiastic child who is on my flight.

Engineering happiness

Preston Altree is a Freelance Art Technician at The Character Shop, where the intersection of engineering and art bring robots, animatronics and all kinds of magical creations to life.

He built WALL-E and recently showcased him in “Droid Alley” at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con. Preston graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2014 with a degree in Film and Television Production. During his time there, Preston focused on special effects and producing, interning in New Regency Productions‘ Story Department and completing visual effects sequences at Cantina Creative.

His work can be seen in feature films like “Blue Mountain State: The Rise of Thadland,” TV commercials, and hundreds of Dave & Buster’s restaurants around the country.

What’s it like to work at The Character Shop?

It was incredible. My boss, Rick Lazzarini, is a living legend who has worked on everything from Aliens to Spaceballs. It was a dream come true to learn from him and the rest of his amazing team.

How did you approach the design and build for WALL-E? How long did it take from idea to completion?

I had two amazing mentors, Michael McMaster and Mike Senna (pictured with Preston below), who had both built their own animatronic WALL-Es. I knew from their experiences that this would be exceptionally difficult. Pixar never released official blueprints for WALL-E and since he didn’t exist outside a computer, the only way to make my own would be to compare his size to that of known objects in the film (e.g. a Rubik’s Cube, a cooler, a boot). From this, I found his scale changes throughout the film. After discussing this with my mentors, I decided on a size that was roughly 3/4 scale (so he could fit out the door to my apartment). All in all, it took me a year and four months from concept to completion.

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When you talk to people about your creations, what are they most interested to learn about?

Most people are astounded that WALL-E looks so much like the robot from the movie. WALL-E has such specific parts and colors that make him instantly recognizable: the solar charge panel, the glowing red light, and of course his beaten-up trash compactor door with “WALL-E” printed on it. Matching all of these required countless viewings of the film and hours of research online. A fun part of his construction was learning that the iconic WALL-E yellow is nothing more than striping paint (the yellow lines you see on roads). This makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective, because a robot in industrial environments like WALL-E would obviously be painted with the same industrial colors we see today.

For all of us who wish we had your job, what skills and training did you need?

More than anything, it’s important to do your research and, in the end, experiment. I learned so much by just trying out different things such as paint combinations and materials for WALL-E’s tread system. Many times, these didn’t work at all, but it pointed me in the right direction.

YouTube is your friend too, because if you don’t know how to do something, chances are there’s a YouTube video to walk you through it.

Anything else?

I was inspired to build WALL-E after seeing a video of Johnny Depp and Stephen Graham dressed as their characters from Pirates of the Caribbean visiting the kids at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. WALL-E was similarly constructed to bring to local charities, schools, and Children’s Hospitals here in Los Angeles. I think it’s incredibly important to do what you love but more importantly, share that love with others. I’m not as interested in inspiring the next group of WALL-E builders as I am making the lives and memories of others brighter through what I’m able to put together with just some wood, fiberglass and paint.

See Preston and WALL-E in action here.

 

photos from Preston Altree

A Conversation with Jennifer George

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Q. People know Rube Goldberg as a cartoonist who was trained as an engineer and, for many, the guy we learned about in elementary school who inspired those fun projects to accomplish a simple task with as many steps as possible. But he’s more than that to you. Tell us what he was like as a grandfather.
A. People expect me to describe my grandfather as a nutty-professor with closets filled with bowling balls and palm trees and parrots, but he was actually just what I imagine most grandfathers are like, although he did like to be the center of attention. When I was very little my parents used to tell me I would run from him crying because apparently he didn’t realize how strong his hands were and when he would reach for me to pull me on his knee, his grasp was too strong. As I got older he was more fun to be with and we would draw together, sit in his workroom and sculpt with clay, as he was a sculptor later in life. He taught me how to make paper balloons. He taught me how to shake hands. He told me to look people in the eye and with a firm grip shake their hand and let them know they’re meeting someone. He always smoked a cigar, wore suspenders and a bow tie and he wore shoes when he went swimming. I understood that he was an artist, but it wasn’t until the Smithsonian exhibit in 1970, a retrospective of his work, that I truly understood the scope of what he had accomplished.

Q. Rube Goldberg drew 50,000+ cartoons, but it’s said he never made any of those overly complicated contraptions featured in many of them. Did your grandfather tinker and build as so many engineers do? 
A. According to a recent interview that I heard of Rube and my grandmother Irma, my grandmother said Rube was hopeless around the house and he couldn’t even change a lightbulb. I think all of his tinkering took place in his mind then made its way into his drawings. In fact, I remember spending afternoons at the beach house when I as a kid trying to put together model toy kits (that you can even still today find on Ebay) from his drawings and neither he nor I could build them.

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Q. Your grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize for his political cartoons, but he also encouraged his sons – your dad and uncle – to change their surnames. Can you tell us about that? 
A. Rube was drawing political cartoons during WWII and obviously his last name was a beacon for anti-Semitism. There were apparently threats on the family, and Rube, a non-religious Jew, was very protective of his sons and preserving their anonymity both as the sons of a famous cartoonist and the religion implied by their last name. My father’s older brother Tom, when he was 18 went off to college with a new last name and became Thomas George and my father two years later, in order to keep some family continuity, chose the same last name; he became George W. George. People would joke when they met him that his parents must have had a great sense of humor, little did they know!

Q. What do you think your grandfather would say about current technology, particularly the consumerization of tech? 
A. I am certain he would have thought it would be a boon for chiropractors, massage therapists and neck tie manufacturers as everyone walks around with their heads down!

Q. How do you work to keep your grandfather’s legacy alive? 
A. My father founded Rube Goldberg Inc. almost 30 years ago as a way to preserve and license Rube’s work and a means through which to organize, manage, and grow the competitions. A decade ago, when my father died, the mantle of all this landed in my lap. My father had always wanted to get me involved, but I was very reluctant and had my own career (as a fashion designer) not to mention raising two children of my own that took priority. But when he died, I inherited the Abrams book deal as my father had agreed to do a coffee table book on the work of this father. I wanted to honor my father’s wishes to have this book published and instinctively, I knew it would be the foundation upon which I would build whatever was to become of Rube’s legacy. After immersing myself in the archive, ideas began to flow: a feature film, a toy line, an amusement park ride, from board games to digital games, books and calendars, apparel and home accessories, the sky’s the limit! That’s the for-profit branding side, but my heart sits squarely with the kids and the competitions. Last year we were finally designated a 501c3 non-profit as STEM education is our priority.

jennifer-george-rube-goldberg-quoteQ. What’s your favorite part of the contests RGI holds for students each year? 
A. Meeting the kids and seeing how they solve the annual task. I usually at some point get choked up and start crying, and it’s not because the machine doesn’t work!

Q. NEF focuses on three challenges facing American engineering – the 3Cs – capacity, capability and competitiveness. Capacity is the challenge of making sure we have enough qualified engineers to fill the jobs of today and tomorrow. How do you see competitions like the Rube Goldberg contests playing into solving that challenge? 
A. We reach kids before they even know that they’re studying science and engineering, technology, or math. Our slogan is STEM starts here and it’s true. Little kids in elementary school learn about physics, engineering, timing, addition/subtraction, literally piecing together a Rube Goldberg Machine and it begins the conversation. A little girl who has no idea she likes science, or thinks that science is just for boys, has fun building a Rube Goldberg Machine and learns that’s what science is. Our competitions at every age, elementary through college, pose the same problem to all. We inspire kids to look around them and use everyday objects to solve a simple problem. But we also ask them to create a story around the task; we ask them to be funny and add narrative, connecting STEM education with literacy and storytelling. Rube Goldberg Machines are a teaching tool that also levels the playing field; you don’t need anything but a pile of junk and a great imagination to build an award winning Rube Goldberg Machine. I always say a Rube Goldberg Machine should come from landfill and not contribute to it.

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Jennifer George photo courtesy of Rube Goldberg, Inc.
Contest photos courtesy of RGMC.
Rube Goldberg machine illustrations by Vic Parker.

Building the Future

building-the-future-headhsot-quoteErica Stanley is a software architect and engineer and the founder and director of the Atlanta network of Women Who Code. We asked her what she sees happening in tech and how engineers can help America stay competitive in the global economy.

 


 

Q) You’re an IoT expert. As we see more consumer acceptance and integration of connected things in the home – thermostats, alarm systems and refrigerators – how do you think the Internet of Things will impact technology and society over the next several years?
A) As we continue to build up the Internet of Things, incorporating more connected devices and apps, I believe we’re moving toward our own digital ecosystem–an ecosystem that’s always aware and ready to respond to subtle changes in our environment. For instance, we might have temperature settings that follow us from our home to car to our office and seats, whether in our car, home or office, that respond to our personal posture needs.

I think the technology will evolve in a few different ways. I think our interaction with devices will change from mostly touch-based systems to more organic interaction like voice and gesture control. Big data coupled with machine learning will begin to drive the predictive nature of many of our devices. This means a lot of the actions we now complete through some direct interaction will soon be handled automatically, as the devices in our ecosystem learn more about us. Traditionally, the skill set for hardware and software engineers has been very different. They typically worked separately, on completely different teams. But soon, I think we will start to see more hybrid software/ hardware engineers and technical leaders. We’ll start to see hardware and software engineers collaborating more closely together as the hardware and software requirements for connected devices become more intertwined.

Socially, with so much of our personal information being gathered, the expectations around personal privacy will change. Also, I believe that IoT has the ability to empower us physically, to allow us to take more control of our physical health and capabilities. We’ve already started to see this trend in fitness devices and apps. But I expect to see us control other aspects of our health with connected devices. For instance, there are several devices in the works that will help continuously monitor and communicate blood sugar changes. This has obvious implications for diabetics and pre-diabetics, but also athletes and anyone who is concerned with physical performance and weight loss. I think there are also opportunities to enhance physical capabilities with connected devices, bringing new opportunities to the physically disabled.

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Q) How do you approach developing a new app or software solution?
A) I like to incorporate elements of design thinking from the very beginning and I typically take an agile approach to building the solution. If the project is for a client, I like to work very closely with the client and the team (developers, designers, UX, BAs, PMs, etc.) together so that the entire team understands the problem, understands any tradeoffs and can collaborate on the solution. Then we go through a few rounds of rapid prototyping, whether it’s a wireframe, comps or a clickable prototype and work through them iteratively with the client.

If it is more a personal entrepreneurial venture, we would start with customer discovery to make sure we understand the customer and the market, then begin a process that more closely resembles a design sprint to determine what our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) should include.

The end result from either process is a vetted prototype that we can use to begin developing a roadmap through user story mapping. Once we have detailed user stories and other artifacts like acceptance criteria, we work the plan, building the solution one sprint at a time. We use the retrospective of each sprint as an opportunity to engage the client and revisit our goals to make sure we’re building the right solution at each iteration.

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Q) Why is it important for engineers to take the time to mentor the next generation?
A) I can speak from personal experience as mentoring has played a huge role in the course of my career. I was interested in technology early, but growing up, I had no idea how to turn it into a career, or even if I wanted to turn it into a career. Mentors definitely helped me map my career in tech. This mentor relationship is going to be even more important to the next generation of engineers, because we have so many people entering tech from non-traditional means. We see many people opting to forego university education and instead picking up technical skills via code schools and boot camps. Without the guidance, mentoring and community building that takes place for university students, these new developers can easily become isolated, discouraged and confused about their goals in tech. It will take established engineers working with these new developers to build the base of tech talent needed to keep us competitive in this ever growing technical landscape.

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Q) Tell us how groups like Women Who Code and 100 Girls of Code are important to everyone in the STEM fields, not just women and girls.
A) At Women Who Code we work to help women excel in technical careers. At 100 Girls of Code, our goal is to introduce girls ages 8-18 to technology in new and creative ways. These organizations, and organizations like them, provide the network, the support and resources for members of marginalized groups to find their place in tech. We should all want more diverse teams in tech, because diverse teams build better products. They’re more collaborative and innovative. They also have the benefit of finding unique problems to solve and creative ways to solve them, as a result of having more varied perspectives at the table.

Also, we are starting to see shortage of skilled engineers. By 2020, we will have 1.6 million more tech jobs than computer science graduates. We’ll have to do things differently to fill this need. That includes finding ways to appeal to women and minorities, to bring more people, perspective, and ideas to tech. That includes growing and mentoring engineers that may have taken a non-traditional path into tech. Working with Women Who Code has allowed me to work closely with local companies and organizations, engaging the Atlanta tech community in changing our approach to diversity and inclusion.

 

Photo credit: LYNSEY WEATHERSPOON PHOTOGRAPHY

Ghosts Get Real

Q&A with Ghostbusters technical advisor James Maxwell

One of the biggest movies of the summer is the reboot of the 1984 Ghostbusters, this time featuring an all-female lead cast including nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann played by Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon. We wondered who Ghostbusters Director Paul Feig called when he wanted to give the laboratory and weapons in his comedy-fantasy some technical authenticity and the answer is James Maxwell, senior postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science and cryogenic and polarized target physicist at the Jefferson Lab.

 

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Q: Your LinkedIn profile reveals that you study nuclear spin structure, specializing in polarized targets and beam sources for nuclear physics applications. That seems pretty far removed from the production of most Hollywood blockbusters. How did you get involved in the film?

A: The props folks at Ghostbusters approached Davis Saltzberg, consultant on “The Big Bang Theory,” for some science consulting help during filming in Boston. He connected them with a new professor at MIT, and colleague of his from UCLA, Lindley Winslow. She helped the film with several things, like coming up with equations for the whiteboards and populating the sets with scientific papers, and she also gave them a tour of MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science. They took pictures of several labs, including my 3He polarization setup, and showed them to the director, Paul Feig, who saw my lab and apparently said “Get me that thing!” I was in the background of the pictures, so I imagine he pointed at my picture and said “Get me that nerd!”

To rebuild my experiment, I produced machining drawings, borrowed derelict components from the MIT Bates accelerator facility, consulted with my glassblower, and put together lists of components to buy. I helped them put it all together in their Norwood warehouse, then was on-hand at the old Everett High School set location for the first few days of filming, in an advisory role. I got to chat with Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon to explain what my experiment was and how it worked. After that, Paul Feig asked me to diagram their props, like the proton pack, with realistic terminology. Since this hardware is so central to the movie, it led to a bunch of other little bits of consulting.

 

Q: In this video, you said movie creators asked you early on: “How would a proton pack work with as few huge leaps of miraculous science as possible?” How did you avoid huge leaps of miraculous engineering with the gadgets and weapons used by the characters to do battle with ghosts?

A: I wanted to be sure that the proton packs and other ghost fighting tools followed a cohesive system backed by a pseudo-scientific framework. To describe Ghostbusters gadgets in a “realistic” way, I needed a well-defined scientific challenge, and from there I could engineer a solution, choosing which show-stopping impossibilities to ignore in the name of fiction. So I spent some time thinking, what do I think ghosts in this world are? We think that the laws of physics apply everywhere, all the time, but these ghosts apparently change the rules. They clearly don’t appear everywhere, all the time. So I posited that what you might call “manifestations of ghosts in our plane of existence” could be understood as isolated physical phenomena in which significant coupling exists between Standard Model particles and this spectral matter. This would be caused by localized excitation of some sort of spectral ether or field, and you could absorb this spectral energy using a beam of secondary particles generated by high energy protons. This also has ramifications in the way you detect and interact with “psychokinetic energy” using other tools.

With a “scientific” description of spectral apparitions at hand, I could attack each prop and fit it into this world. So for instance, I had to fit all bare components of a proton accelerator on a backpack. You create protons from an electron-cyclotron resonance plasma in hydrogen gas, you accelerate these protons in a miniature superconducting proton synchrotron, you cool the superconducting magnets with cryogens, and you tune and steer the beam in a wand that you point at a ghost.

 

Q: The main techy Ghostbusters character is nuclear engineer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, played by the hilarious Kate McKinnon. Were you able to give her any advice for how a nuclear engineer approaches research in the lab, or work in the realm of the supernatural?

A: I didn’t give her any direct advice along those lines. Kate breaths a hilarious, manic energy into her engineer, but I like to think that her character reflects a little bit of the props that populate her world, like my Helium polarizer. I was ecstatic to find that she even has some dialogue pulled from my descriptions of how you might improve the proton pack in successive iterations from a prototype to formidable ghost-fighting weapon. Mine was the bit that ended with “And to top it all off we got a freaking Faraday Cage” that you can hear in the character’s vignette here.

 

Q: As a senior postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science with a focus on physics throughout your education and career, tell us about the close relationship between physics and engineering. What has been your academic and professional relationship to engineering, and why does it matter to you?

A: An experimental physicist sort rides a line between a theoretical physicist and an engineer, and to do so needs help from professionals on both sides. At MIT, I had the excellent support of the engineers at the MIT Bates Research and Engineering Center, whose experience and expertise were crucial to making my experimental ideas become reality. I learned a ton from the engineers and technicians at Bates, and I use that practical knowledge every day in my current position as a staff scientist at a national lab.

 

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Q: The mission of the National Engineering Forum is to identify solutions to three central challenges facing American engineering – capacity, capability and competitiveness. We acknowledge that one of the ways we can inspire the next generation and increase the ranks of those pursuing STEM degrees and careers is by elevating the status of engineers. Movies like Ghostbusters and characters like Jillian Holtzmann help to do this. Was inspiring young people to love engineering and science ever part of your motivation for being a consultant on Ghostbusters?

A: Absolutely. I can remember being a pretty nerdy kid, and at that time I was obsessed with Star Wars; I would pore over these technical schematics of X-wings and Star Destroyers. When I was working to make schematics of the proton pack for Ghostbusters, I was picturing boys and especially girls studying them carefully, and I wanted to be sure they could look these components up on Wikipedia and learn about the real tools that physicists used to study the universe. People have deep connections with these movies, and it’s the perfect place to sneak in an excitement for science and engineering.

 

All photos provided courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Addressing the 3C’s at Carnegie Mellon University

It’s time to see engineering with fresh eyes.  Carnegie Mellon University’s Dean of Engineering James H. Garrett talks about helping Americans understand why we need a diverse community of engineers to tackle society’s problems.

Explain how the CMU College of Engineering’s approach to engineering education prepares students.

Demonstrating that breaking down boundaries is a disruptive force that often leads to better, more creative and more effective solutions is an important factor in both engaging a student’s interest in engineering and equipping them with the best frameworks and tools to solve our future’s most complex problems.

 How we can increase diversity in the engineering talent pipeline?

As academic leaders and practitioners, we need to be thinking of ways to improve a student’s awareness of the wonders of engineering, and create viable opportunities to act on their interests.

If we make it clear to young people that engineering is a very creative profession, that there are many ways in which to practice engineering and have an impact on society- and, that while they do have to make investments in math and science while they are in middle and high school- it is those investments that help engineers enjoy a very creative and fulfilling career.

More than ever, students become particularly engaged when engineering involves societal outcomes of great import.  Two examples are Phil LeDuc and Jeremy Michalek.  Phil explores the overlap between biological systems and design to confront disease and address hunger.  Jeremy is forging the future of electric vehicles through his synthesis of energy and environmental policy, green design, and systems optimization.

So, we as a community concerned about the “E” in STEM also need to focus on the need to see engineering with fresh eyes and convey the need for a diverse community of engineers with many backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplinary interests as the best way to tackle societal challenges.

How can gatherings like NEF dialogues impact the nation’s future?

It is critical for engineers across the spectrum to reach out to a broader base of individuals in order to move forward in a collective and effective manner.  As the Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering, I am looking forward to continuing to work with the Council on Competitiveness, Lockheed Martin, and all those who have contributed to the NEF regional dialogues.

 

Communicating the wonder of engineering crucial to advancing the enterprise

C. Michael Cassidy, president and CEO of the Georgia Reasearch Alliance (GRA) and cohost of the Atlanta regional dialogue talks about why telling the story of engineering is crucial to finnding solutions to the challenges of capacity, capability and competitivenes – the 3C’s.

How do organizations like the GRA raise the profile of engineers and the engineering enterprise?

GRA shares the story of engineering discovery, invention, and entrepreneurship at our universities, directly and through the communications of our partners. We’ve worked to bring the wonder and impact of engineering to life in online videos as well as speeches, newsletters and other communications. It takes good storytelling in engineering and science to capture the imagination of audiences, which is crucial to deepening appreciation and aspiration for those fields.

What do you think is the best way to enable the next generation of engineers with the capability to address 21st century challenges?

Nothing less than a multi-faceted effort is needed to reach future engineers. Even at a very early age, students must have opportunities to apply what they learn to real-life problems and work on projects across disciplines. They need extra-curricular experiences that enable them to build, invent, tinker and explore. We must also ensure that our teachers have the tools and know-how to make STEM learning interactive – give them the support to keep their students engaged.

How can gatherings like the NEF dialogues impact America’s competitiveness in a global economy?

Such dialogues are catalytic in nature, and we have to view their conclusion as a beginning, not an end. Since engineering is inherent in modern-day problem solving, the NEF dialogues add fuel to a larger conversation about our nation’s future and the well-being of humankind. They also point the way to the action steps we must take. As a result, the collective follow-up to the dialogues is just as important – we have to work to turn conversation into change.

Connections are key to ensuring the future of American engineering

Dr. Gary S. May is the dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and cohost of the Atlanta regional dialogue.  He talked to us about the challenges of capacity, capability, and competitiveness – the 3C’s – and how connecting the classroom to the professional world, while also connecting goverment, industry and education are essential to fostering the continued success of American engineering.

Please explain how Georgia Tech’s approach to engineering education prepares students to address 21st century challenges.

STEM classrooms are ideal laboratories for developing approaches to active learning. Although the foundations of theoretical knowledge are as essential as ever, millennial “digital natives” hunger for relevance and interaction.  As a result, STEM pedagogy is increasingly embracing student-centered groups engaged in project-based work using real-world scenarios. Framing the lessons of STEM in the free-market spirit that has defined our nation connects the classroom to the larger world.

How we can increase diversity in the engineering talent pipeline?

One of the best ways to increase diversity is through proven interventions which include summer bridge programs to ease the transition to college, tutoring, peer mentoring, and course clustering for underrepresented students. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we need to find ways to adopt and adapt these techniques using a systemic and properly resourced approach.  We need to focus on encouraging students to “stay with it” and provide mentoring and role models. While majoring in a STEM field is rigorous, it is extremely rewarding.

How can gatherings like NEF dialogues impact the nation’s future? 

They serve as an industry and government affirmation that engineering is key to long-term economic growth.  Innovation requires public and private sector investment operating synergistically. These dialogues ensure we are on the same page as we go forward and foster awareness of social, economic and cultural forces which affect engineering’s future, such as student demographics and global demands. We need to make sure those issues are raised from all who have a vested interest in our nation’s economic well-being, which is directly tied to engineering.