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Briefings

By David Brindley

Hollywood Engineers
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"On tonight's episode of L.A. Engineer, sexy civil engineer Stuart Wunderkind dazzles co-worker Rosalind 'Roz' Razzle with his mathematical prowess; meanwhile, Gil Bates makes billions when his company, SillyCon Alley, goes public."Illustration by Richard Weiss

Okay, the above plotline is certainly far-fetched, but if a handful of engineers and scientists who are seeking to improve the image and status of their professions has its way, television networks will soon be buzzing with science-related docudramas, a la NYPD Blue and ER. Convincing network executives that science can be must-see TV could be a tough sell, though.
One organization devoted to improving its profession's image, the American Institute of Engineers, has developed a television series called L.A. Engineer, "The show is about people, not things," explains AIE President Martin Gottlieb. "It's a drama-unlike our profession," he quips. Though Gottlieb has been shopping the script around for four years, he's had little luck, and no encouragement. Hollywood mogul David Geffen returned the script in a typical Tinseltown fashion: unopened. Gottlieb's not about to give up, however. "If done properly, L.A. Engineer could improve the status and image of engineers and scientists," he says.

Gottlieb isn't the only one battling against Hollywood's poor portrayal of engineers and scientists. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has dedicated $2 million to encourage positive images of scientists in popular culture, which could lead to more people going into scientific fields and greater public support of science projects.

David Milch, the executive producer of NYPD Blue and co-creator of Hill Street Blues, received a grant from the Sloan Foundation to develop a science-themed pilot series-call it NYPhD Blue-along the lines of his successful cop shows.

Twentieth-Century Fox Television is also developing Killer App, a drama series that depicts the dynamics at a young start-up software company in Silicon Valley. Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau wrote the pilot for the hour-length dramatic series and filmmaker Robert Altman will direct it. Sandy Grushow, president of Fox Television, is enthusiastic about the show. "Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau are each among our country's most insightful provocateurs," Grushow says. "We're very excited to work with them as they turn their sights toward Silicon Valley."

Hyperion Bay, a drama about a computer genius who returns to his hometown to open a software business, was on the WB Network's fall 1998 schedule but went on hiatus after a few episodes. More about heavy breathing than hard drives or hypertext, it returned in January with Carmen Electra added to the cast as the daughter of a computer mogul. The addition of the Baywatch alum may help attract more viewers to the low-rated series but probably won't add much science or engineering to the plots.

At the very least, those efforts are likely to improve scientists' visibility. Only 2 percent of prime-time TV characters in dramas from 1994 to 1997 were scientists, according to George Gerbner, Bell Atlantic Professor of Telecommunication in the School of Communications and Theater at Temple University.

As Milch conceded at a recent conference of scientists and filmmakers sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, "Science is out of reach as perceived by the vast, vast, vast majority of people. There are misgivings in the public consciousness about . . . science."

Even so, these attempts to bring the experiences and exploits of scientists and engineers into the public sphere are bound to bring about some good.

"TV is very influential, it's an important medium," Gottlieb says. "Would it make a difference? Yes, yes, yes."

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Go Climb A Building

Getting paid to hang out may sound ideal. But what if that involves dangling from a rope hundreds of feet in the air? For Kent Diebolt, that's still ideal, and just another day's work.
Diebolt is the founder of Vertical Access, a building inspection firm for engineers and architects that specializes in accessing hard-to-reach places in buildings that may need renovations. Utilizing ropes, harnesses, and rock-climbing techniques, Diebolt and his employees climb up and rappel down buildings and monuments in search of cracks, leaks, and other structural problems that need repair.Photo Courtesy of John Reis Photography

In the four years since he started the Ithaca, New York-based firm, his biggest challenge was inspecting a 350-foot obelisk-two-thirds the size of the Washington Monument-dedicated to Jefferson Davis in Fairview, Kentucky, the Confederate president's birthplace. "The hard part was getting to the corners via the windows at the top," Diebolt recalls.

In fact, most of his work is done on historic buildings, including churches, statehouses, and college buildings. That work also comes from his personal interest in older buildings. He is president of a local nonprofit historic preservation group in Ithaca, and his knowledge of building preservation helps in his inspection work.

One big advantage is that Diebolt's services are sometimes cheaper than traditional methods of reaching out-of-the-way spaces, like scaffolding or mobile cranes. "Although engineers and architects would rather inspect the building themselves, when they can, we offer a reasonable alternative," he says, sometimes at half the cost of scaffolding. Acting as the engineers' eyes, Diebolt and his team carry video cameras to record the inspections and walkie-talkies to communicate with engineers and architects on the ground.

Business has been growing, to about 25 projects last year, and he recently opened an office in the Manhattan-based engineering firm of Robert Silman Associates.

But while Diebolt has fun on the job, his number one concern is safety. Employees must pass rigorous training and be re-certified on a yearly basis. He says, "It's not dangerous because safety is paramount."

And though his niche skills aren't likely to become a core class in engineering schools, Diebolt demonstrates that rock-climbing for engineers does have its applications.

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It Pays to Stay in School

The financial benefit of a college education continues to increase, yet in the United States a significant number of people don't even finish high school. Two recently released reports show that not only is the earnings gap growing between college-educated workers and those with only a high school education, but U.S. high school graduation rates are lower than many other industrialized countries.

In the first report, released by the Census Bureau in December, figures show that college graduates with bachelor's degrees earn 76 percent more than those with only a high school education. That figure has grown from 57 percent in 1975 and brings the average college graduate's annual earnings in 1997 (the most recent data available) to $40,478, compared with the average high school graduate's income of $22,895.

The second report, released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris, which helps coordinate policy for 29 of the richest countries, shows that U.S. high school graduation rates have slipped below those of most industrialized countries.

Once the leader in high school completion rates, the United States now trails 22 other industrialized countries, posting a graduation rate of 72 percent, better than only Mexico's abysmal 26 percent rate, according to the OECD report, which was based on 1996 figures. (Only 24 countries reported data for the graduation rate survey.) In comparison, Norway and Belgium have 100 percent high-school graduation rates while Japan boasts a 99 percent rate.

Andreas Schleicher, OECD's principal administrator for the Center for Educational Research and Innovation, emphasized that "it's not the case that the United States is doing worse, but that so many other countries have become better." (U.S. high school graduation rates are actually climbing.)

A glimmer of good news is that college entry rates in the United States, at just over 50 percent, are still the highest among industrialized countries. But that positive news is tempered by the fact that the United States has one of the highest university dropout rates in the industrialized world-37 percent.

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Coursework Clearinghouse

In California's newest university, there is no tree-lined grassy quad buzzing with students. In fact, there's not a single classroom or building. Yet, with more than 25,000 students, and nearly 300 engineering and related courses, plus thousands of others, it's the fastest growing university in the state. So where are all the students? Online. Welcome to the California Virtual University. Cvu2

CVU is atypical in other ways, as well. Though it does offer classes, it doesn't actually confer degrees. Its total staff is five people, headed by a CEO, not a president or provost. And it is accessible only through its Website: california.edu. Still, like any other university, CVU's mission and goal is to provide a wide range of quality courses. But it does that in a new way-by facilitating so-called "distance education," or online courses.

Stanley Chodorow, former University of Pennsylvania provost, is CVU's CEO. "We want to expand education of high quality and great variety to a population that can't take advantage of going to physical campuses," Chodorow explains.

That is achieved by bringing together distance-education courses from more than 100 campuses in California-including the three-tier public college system of the University of California, the California State Universities and its community colleges, along with private universities and colleges. The institutions offering the courses make acceptance decisions, collect any course fees, and grant degrees. In essence, CVU is a catalog, or clearinghouse, for the growing number of online courses that are offered by California-based higher-education institutions. Currently, 111 institutions offering 130 programs and more than 2,000 courses are available, but Chodorow anticipates that those numbers will grow over the next five years to about 240 institutions, hundreds of programs, 15,000 courses, and potentially 900,000 students.

Not surprisingly, computer-related engineering courses are among the most popular subjects that CVU offers. To encourage more engineering students to take advantage of the online curriculum, the university is looking into offering online engineering laboratories where students can do research through the Web pages. Although Chodorow says that "there's something a little weird about virtual tinkering," he admits that "it works" in educating students.

The idea of creating such an online education clearinghouse was proposed by Pete Wilson. The former California governor gathered a board made up of state education officials and private companies that formulated a plan for providing access to quality education to a larger percentage of the state's population.

The board decided to "take advantage of the existing strength of higher education in the state," Chodorow says, and created the CVU Foundation, a private institution funded by philanthropic grants and corporate affiliations. CVU opened its doors . . . er . . . portals, last August. Especially concerned about maintaining the quality of its online education services, CVU offers courses and programs only from California campuses that have been granted accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Don't expect virtual universities to take over the role of traditional colleges, though. The majority of students who have signed up for online classes are interested only in "attending" the university part time by taking one or two classes. Rich Halberg, a CVU spokesman, points out that the majority of the 30,000 visits per week to the university's Website come during the workday. "If you are looking for classes during the day, you're probably a working adult, you're not a typical undergraduate," Halberg says.

Still, the idea of skipping long-winded professors, long registration lines, and the eternal search for a parking space may lead more than a few "typical" undergrads to enroll at Virtual U.



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