Pushing for more engineers and scientists through film

STEM_Big Hero 6_engineer_2

In recent years, the US has strongly favored education programs that focus on creating more engineers and scientists. Education advocates have opened up debates on how to get children more interested in STEM fields, an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. They are also interested in learning how to integrate these subjects into children’s everyday lives. I was recently reminded of this national drive while watching the Walt Disney Animated Studios movie “Big Hero 6” (released in fall 2014).

The film tells the story of a young robotics prodigy named Hiro Hamada who forms a superhero team to combat a masked villain. The adventures of young Hiro, his puffy white robot Baymax, and the thousands of swarms of microbots that the 14-year-old boy presents at a robotics center in a university, can easily be connected to the US’s efforts to reduce the country’s STEM shortage.

A review published by Pluggedin.com summarizes the movie’s plot in the following way:

Hiro Hamada is a pretty brainy kid. He’s only 14 and already a high school graduate. But his big brother Tadashi still isn’t sure Hiro’s really living up to his full potential. All the teen’s been doing lately is spending time entering homemade robots in back-alley battle-bot tourneys. He needs to go to college! He needs to do more with his big brain! So Tadashi (they lost their parents years earlier) takes Hiro to the University of San Fransokyo science lab to get him interested in “real” science. It works. For a while. But then Tadashi is killed in a fiery accident, and Hiro withdraws into grief and depression. Now it’s up to Tadashi’s invention—an inflatable, balloon-like, health care robot named Baymax—to bring Hiro back to life. And when Baymax indirectly helps prove that Tadashi’s death wasn’t so much an accident as the result of a nefarious plot, Hiro is spurred into action.

Whether intentional or not, the plot highlights some of the aspects of the movie that make it a perfect fit for the US’s interests in promoting STEM careers for children. Hiro is a tech geek, he participates in robotics projects at school, and puts his brain to work in practical ways. It’s everything the STEM advocators could hope for. One of the final sections of the review concludes:

Yes, [Big Hero 6] tells the tale of a group of science geeks who use their gifts to battle evil in a city-crunching finale. But it consistently delivers the sense that there’s more at play than that. It’s less about powered-up whiz-bang and more about “somebody has to help.” It’s less about superheroes and more about exploring the idea that a diverse group of friends become something of a makeshift support system—a family—for a kid who’s lost everything and everyone.

I am absolutely confident that the final lesson of the movie reflects a common concern in US education. Someone has to help. We can see the effort to raise a new generation of engineers and scientists—of workforce heroes!—in animated heroes like Hiro.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor

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To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here.

For counterarguments on the existence of a STEM crisis, read Robert N. Charette’s article “The STEM Crisis is a Myth,” published by IEEE Spectrum.


Inside photo: Justin Lewis/Getty Images

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