'Next MacGyver' contest hopes to inspire female engineers

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Remember MacGyver? The man with a mullet who could work his way out of a jam using just some string, a clothes hanger and a pocket knife?

That TV character is thought to have inspired a generation of young men to become problem-solving engineers.

Now, a contest called The Next MacGyver is hoping to launch a TV series that’ll do the same for women.

Screenwriters submitted nearly 2,000 show ideas and Tuesday judges will pick five winners who'll be paired with producers to further develop their pitches.

The plan comes from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the National Academy of Engineering and Lee Zlotoff, the creator of MacGyver.

"We need positive role models," said Wanda Austin, a judge for the contest and the President and CEO of the private space company Aerospace Corporation.

Growing up as an African American in the 1960s, Austin said no one was really encouraging her to study engineering. That didn't stop her, though. She eventually got a doctorate in the field from USC.

Still, she wants girls today to know they can also chose this path and that being good at math "doesn’t mean that you have to consider yourself a nerd or a geek."

Despite the fact that engineering jobs are in demand, only about 10 percent of engineers are female.

Some of this might be due to the fact that TV and movies rarely show women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs.

In fact, a few years back, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analyzed more than 100 top-grossing family films from 2006 to 2011. Not one had a female lead with a STEM job.

Rita Karl works with a PBS program called SciGirls. It’s a reality show where young women tackle real-world engineering problems.

She thinks this lack of STEM role models is a problem for girls looking to study science and math.

"Role models can broaden girl’s view not only of who can do STEM but what is possible in their own lives," she noted.

Karl says research shows that seeing other women in STEM inspires girls, especially when those women are fully realized characters with social lives, hobbies and friends.

That’s why she thinks a well-written female engineer on a major TV show could do wonders for the STEM gender gap.

But even the five winners of the Next MacGyver contest aren’t guaranteed a show. They’ll be given $5,000 and help from a producer, but they'll have to shop their idea around to the networks in hopes of getting picked up.

Shanee Edwards is one of the finalists selected from the hundreds of entries. When she's not writing screenplays, she works as entertainment journalist and an after school science teacher.

Her show is called "Ada and the Machine," a fictionalized drama about the real-life historical figure Ada Lovelace.

Back in the 1840s, Lovelace worked with a sophisticated machine to develop an algorithm that paved the way for modern computers.

"She was a rebel in a time when she was supposed to get married, and be a good Victorian wife, she wanted to have her own contributions to science," Edwards said.

The show takes place in London during the Industrial Revolution, where Ada solves technology themed mysteries with the help of a giant machine known as the Analytical Engine.

Fellow screenwriter Miranda Sajdak also created a period piece that is set in the U.S. during World War II.

It’s an hour long drama called "Riveting" and it follows a young woman who joins the Military Corp of Engineers after her fiancé is killed overseas.

"So we follow her over the series essentially going from small town, wanting to raise a family to becoming an engineer," Sajdak said.

If it reminds you of the 1992 film "A League of Their Own," Sajdak said that’s because that movie changed her life.

"I literally left the theater saying this is what I want to do I want to make media that inspires people the way I feel inspired right now."

If her show idea win the contest, she might get the chance to fulfill that longstanding dream.

The five winners will be announced Tuesday, July 28th at The Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

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