January 5, 2009

Lessons from Tinkerbell

My four year old daughter has fallen in love with Tinkerbell, and of all the heavily marketed mythical critters designed for the entertainment of children Tink is not a bad choice. It could have been Elmo or (God forbid) Barney. Yesterday we rented the new, direct to DVD Tinkerbell movie; we watched it this morning and it was surprisingly good. But what you should ask does Tinkerbell have to do with engineering education?

To provide a little background, Disney is currently marketing fairies of all types to the demographic represented by my daughter. Tinkerbell is one of the marketing tools which also include Pixie Hollow, a quasi-MMORPG for pre-teens. As part of this effort Tinkerbell is getting a new history, friends, and career far beyond that laid out by J. M. Barrie in Peter Pan.

In the movie Tinkerbell, we learn that Tinkerbell's name isn't really Tinkerbell at all, but Bell. Each fairy has a naturally gifted talent--working with animals, bringing the winds, etc.--and Bell discovers her talent is being a Tinker. Bell the Tinker...Tinkerbell. In the movie Tinkers are the engineers of the fairy world, working behind the scenes to enable other fairies to carry out their work of keeping Nature running smoothly. During the movie Tinkerbell rebels against being a Tinker, creates havoc in the land of fairies, saves the day through her engineering talent, and finally accepts who and what she is.

Recommendation: Two slide rules up!

While I'm not one to cheer on blatant marketing to a pre-teen demographic by a mega-corporation such as Disney, Tinkerbell is a wonderful metaphor for explaining the value of engineering (tinkering) to young people. Most of the textbooks for pre-engineering and introductory engineering courses I've read attempt to explain why engineers are important. On the excitement scale these attempts fall somewhere between "waiting for a haircut" and "grab on the way to a long stop in a public restroom". While the stories they tell are technically accurate they lack the warmth, humor, and plain joie de vivre that comes through in Tinkerbell. How often in engineering do we cling tightly to accuracy at the expense of passion? Sure it is necessary to be dispassionate at times, to let the numbers speak, to accept the fact that dreams simply can't be built. But how often do we let the need for dispassion override the power and dignity of the stories we could tell?

In the stage version of Peter Pan Tinkerbell finds doubt fatal. In her movie Tinkerbell struggles with but survives her self-doubt. Like Tinkerbell in the movie our students need to discover for themselves the value of engineering, of enabling the great work of this age. Without stories, without tales of heroes, without a guiding mythology it is hard for many students to discover passion in a dispassionate discipline. As an undergraduate I often doubted that I would emerge from an engineering program with the brighter parts of my soul intact. Like Tinkerbell many young engineers find doubt fatal.

Our discipline has worthwhile stories to tell. We as educators need to recognize that even very young listeners are able to distinguish stories from reality and to do a better job of telling the stories what engineering means as well as the movie Tinkerbell does.

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