Mild-mannered Engineer as 21st Century Superhero?

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This undated publicity image released by Marvel shows Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man, in a scene from "Marvel's Iron Man 3." "Marvel's Iron Man 3" was one of several upcoming films to receive spotlight treatment with an ad that aired during Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Marvel)
This undated publicity image released by Marvel shows Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man, in a scene from "Marvel's Iron Man 3." "Marvel's Iron Man 3" was one of several upcoming films to receive spotlight treatment with an ad that aired during Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (AP Photo/Marvel)

My summer childhood memories are awash with Marvel Comics' STEM-driven (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), super-sized heroes Spiderman, Fantastic Four, X-Men and of course, the devastatingly handsome entrepreneur-engineer Tony Stark: Iron Man. Superheroes made the "impossible" possible with their out-of-the-box applications of science, technology, engineering and math to vanquish evil and protect the good. Thanks to Marvel Studios and distributor Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Iron Man is going to do more than just deploy technology to battle the bad guys; he is inspiring would-be scientists, engineers and innovators of the 21st century to take on the Grand Challenges of their generation.

Growing up near Disney headquarters in Burbank, 'imagineering' was literally in my backyard; I thought every kid had talented animators like Frank Thomas (think Snow White, Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Lady & the Tramp) sketching pictures at the elementary school fair. With Caltech's JPL-NASA nearby, 'imagination engineers' who innovated the race into space were next-door neighbors; their genius creating technologies that carried larger-than-life astronauts like engineer Neil Armstrong and scientists John Glenn and Sally Ride into the history books. Looking back, I now understand that the unique confluence of engineering and entertainment in my little town of La Canada was both amazing and rare.

Fast forward to 2013 where finding 21st-century heroes in science, technology, engineering and math amidst a pop-sports culture that "tunes out" STEM subjects is a major societal challenge. The glamour of engineering has gone underground despite the fact that STEM-driven visionaries like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Gordon Moore (Intel) Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar) and Henry Samueli (Broadcom) transformed the world we live in through their engineering genius. Inexplicably, their remarkable personal stories have not morphed them into popular heroes for today's average kid.

Enter Tony Stark.

When Disney asked the Broadcom Foundation to invite its top three thousand national middle school Broadcom MASTERS nominees to compete in the Iron Man 3 Inventor and Innovation Fair in partnership with Marvel Studios, the Discovery Science Center, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and Visa Signature, the connection between a STEM competition and the blockbuster summer movie Iron Man 3 was crystal clear.

Because multimedia entertainment has become a ubiquitous aspect of informal, out-of-classroom education, a movie like Iron Man 3 can be a powerful catalyst for a kid to stay engaged in STEM learning. After all, 'Iron Man' Stark is an engineer, inventor and a superhero to boot. Although his storyline may be fiction, the Iron Man ethos can inspire kids to apply knowledge of science and engineering to create technology that changes the world.

Just like Tony Stark, Iron Man 3 Inventor and Innovation Fair competitors between the ages of 11 and 14 have been challenged to apply their STEM knowledge to solve 'real-world' problems identified as the Grand Challenges for Engineering™ by the National Academy of Engineering, including eco-friendly carbon sequestration, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, engineering better medicines and "reverse-engineering" the brain (recently brought into focus through President Obama's BRAIN Initiative). Their projects will be proudly on public display throughout the entire month of May at Disney's world-famous El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, Calif.

Make no mistake about it; the Iron Man 3 Inventor and Innovation Fair has critical importance to fair sponsors: STEM education is the life blood of their companies' futures. Disney relies heavily upon computer programing (applied mathematics) by its modern animators to achieve powerful illusion on the silver screen as well as engineering genius to design and insure the safety of entertainment theme parks enjoyed by millions worldwide. As one of the world's largest fabless semiconductor companies with global customer roster that includes elite technology brands such as Apple, Cisco, Dell, DirectTV and Samsung, Broadcom shares this concern. Without a steady, abundant stream of kids who continue their studies in math, science and engineering, our society will be without the talent needed to fulfill both business and social missions of the future.

The Iron Man 3 Inventor and Innovation Fair is intended to be a high impact opportunity for STEM inspiration among middle schoolers at a pivotal point in their education when they opt to stay with, or fall away from science and math studies. This is especially true for kids 'off Main Street' who may not have the opportunity to learn about STEM-related careers through interactions in their homes or communities. Finding inspiration in a superhero like Iron Man can actually bring on the "aha" moment for a young person whose movie-going experience turns on the light bulb about applying his or her text-book learning to invent cool, game-changing technologies.

Disney has been capturing our imaginations with mythological stories of unlikely heroes overcoming life's obstacles for generations. By teaming up with Marvel for the Iron Man 3 Inventor and Innovation Fair, Disney is raising the stature of a new kind of hero: the engineer, inventor and innovator. Their summer release of Iron Man 3 promises to strengthen popular appeal of a person who relies on science and technical knowledge to engineer solutions to big challenges. So I am off to the movies this summer -- and counting on Iron Man 3 superhero Tony Stark to inspire young people to embrace the importance of STEM learning that will enable them to become scientists, engineers, innovators and heroes in the next generation.

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