SavArtScene: STEM education meets art in 'Dream Big: Engineering Our World' documentary

The 12th annual PULSE Art+Technology Festival gets underway Jan. 17 at Telfair’s Jepson Center. It features an awe-inspiring selection of virtual reality, augmented reality and other digital media artworks for minds both young and old to wrap their senses around.

PULSE is one of the few festivals of its kind in the country and its goal from the beginning has been not just to entertain and excite, but also to educate.

Focus on STEM

Conceived the same year the Jepson Center opened by Telfair’s senior curator of education, Harry DeLorme, PULSE has always incorporated educational outreach components into its programming, especially around STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math). This year one of those components is a screening at 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Jepson Center of the IMAX-shot documentary “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” narrated by Jeff Bridges.

“Dream Big” takes viewers on a dizzying, globe-trotting journey featuring an “eclectic, stereotype-bursting engineer cast” that includes a Turkish-American who ditched her plans to be a movie star to become an engineer after seeing her country crumble following an earthquake; a Mexican-American who became a leading Arizona engineer after getting her start with an underdog high school robotics team in competition against MIT and Harvard; a young idealist who is now CEO of her own company that builds much needed bridges in underdeveloped countries; and a British-born structural engineer who uses cutting-edge technology to discover secrets in the Great Wall of China, among other astounding achievements.

The screening is free and will be followed by a panel discussion that will include Avery Bang, one of the engineers featured in the film, along with other notable local engineers like Cody Tharpe, principal of Tharpe Engineering Group, a co-sponsor of the screening with the Society of Women Engineers.

“Engineering is an exciting field, but most people don’t really know what we do,” explains Tharpe. “There are no engineering household names or movies with an engineer as the hero. That’s where films like ‘Dream Big’ come in. It shows that you don’t need to be a science or math geek to be an engineer.”

For the dreamers

One of the most interesting elements of the film, beyond the gorgeous vistas and vertigo-inducing camera angles, is the way it places female engineers front and center.

“Inspiring young women to pursue engineering is one of the reasons I was part of this film,” says Avery Bang, now CEO of Bridges to Prosperity. “One of the most important things for me to do, as an engineer and as a woman, is just to get out there, and to be visible. For young girls, you can’t be what you can’t see. So I feel like it’s almost my obligation just to get out there and be seen.

“I believe that every young woman and girl should understand that they can do this. This is not only for men, this is not only for a certain class of people, it’s not only for people whose parents or uncles or grandfathers were engineers. Engineering is very accessible, and I think that accessibility can build belief. Ultimately, engineering is for the dreamers — the kids who build sandcastles and forts and imagine the ship in the playground equipment. In my experience, girls are some of the best dreamers and become some of the most creative engineers.”

Local educators like Grace Herrington, STEM coordinator at Jenkins High School, and Kim Mercer, STEM coordinator at Heard Elementary, are well aware of the potential a STEM education can provide for Savannah’s youth.

“Savannah businesses are requesting that we prepare students for 21st century workplace careers,” explains Mercer. “STEM allows us the opportunity to develop 21st century learners by showing them how to think critically and creatively.

“Girls are afforded the same opportunities as boys, and are just as excited as our boys in our STEM program. Heard girls as well as boys participate in our robotics club, PULSE art exhibit at Jepson, SECME, and Science Olympiad competitions.”

All-inclusive

“As our world is becoming more and more technological, a STEM education is important for everyone,” adds Herrington. “A STEM education teaches students how to think, not what to think, and how to use creative methods to solve problems. In the past, we educated to solve problems for the world as it is. Today we have to educate students for the world as it will be.

“Savannah has a plethora of opportunities for employment in STEM-related fields, and our job as educators is to prepare students for employment in those fields.”

As Tharpe points out, the field of engineering also benefits enormously from diversity on all levels.

“I think only about 10 percent of working engineers are women, and the numbers for people of color hover not too far away. That’s a shame and a loss to the industry,” says Tharpe. “This is a problem-solving occupation and perspectives from all backgrounds only enhance the chances of finding workable solutions.”

This screening of “Dream Big” and the accompanying panel discussion is an excellent opportunity to have a meaningful discussion around not just the issue of engineering in the 21st century, but also the issue of inclusion and opening up previously unimagined possibilities for everyone, particularly young women.

“I had a professor who claimed that engineers were to be the 1 percent of the population that makes life possible for the other 99 percent, which has always stuck with me,” explains Bang, who will also introduce the film this Thursday. “Careers that truly help people are not limited to medical or teaching fields as many assume. If you want to help people, go into engineering.

“I tell people to think big — find your passion within the field and think outside the box, both in terms of what the impact of your existing work is going to be on society and also how you can select your career path to be both interesting and rewarding.”

Tharpe is also excited as a co-sponsor to help inspire young and old alike to perhaps reach higher than they previously dreamed of.

“I want younger people to walk away with a curiosity for engineering and an understanding of its possibilities and global implications” says Tharpe. “And I want educators to feel energized in the importance of STEM education… The film is very powerful and, particularly for girls, is an inspiring example of the life-changing possibilities of engineering.”

Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at savartscene@gmail.com and follow on Twitter @savartscene.

IF YOU GO

What: “Dream Big: Engineering Our World” screening

When: 6 p.m. Jan. 18

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Free

Info: telfair.org

What: PULSE Art+Technology Festival 2018

When: Jan. 17-21

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Free; opening night is $8 for nonmembers

Info: telfair.org

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