Inside ‘Dream Big,’ the Engineering Doc That Wants to Reach Every US School
The Imax documentary “Dream Big” started out with one ambitious goal: Make engineering flashy, appealing and cool.
“The American Society of Civil Engineers came to us and said, ‘We have a problem,’” explains Shaun MacGillivray, an executive producer and president of MacGillivray Freeman, the studio behind the film. “They said, ‘There’s a lack of engineers, and we especially need to inspire more minorities and women.’”
The finished film mixes dramatic visuals of engineering marvels in big cities and remote landscapes, like the Great Wall, with inspiring stories from all over the world. Menzer Pelivan, an engineer who designs buildings in earthquake-prone areas, describes living through the collapse of her Turkish apartment building as a child during a devastating quake. Engineer Avery Bang was recruited to talk about her work building a bridge in Haiti so kids could walk to school. And there’s even an underwater robotics underdog to root for.
Narrated by actor Jeff Bridges, the film has already reached more than three million people in Imax theaters, and MacGillivray estimates another 25 million will eventually tune in (it’s also streaming on Netflix). After the film wrapped, producers decided to get even more ambitious. They now aim to show the film in every single school in the country through a massive outreach program. Along with the DVD, they’re including free engineering lessons and activities for schools to take the learning further.
EdSurge recently caught up with MacGillivray and Mary Jane Dodge, another executive producer and director of theater marketing for MacGillivray Freeman, about the film and what students and teachers can take away. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: What ages or grade levels is the film right for?
Mary Jane Dodge: The sweet spot is around 9- to 12-year-old kids, or third through seventh grade. But the film also appeals to high school because of the robotics competition and the solar car challenge in the film. Our Girls Night Out program, where girls meet women engineers, was aimed at middle schoolers. To get kids interested in careers in engineering, you have to start early!
At a runtime of about 40 minutes, the film is short for a full-length documentary.
Shaun MacGillivray: The reason why films like this are 40 to 45 minutes is because when they play in an Imax theater, like at a Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History in New York, they are typically playing them on the hour, and they are trying to get as many kids as possible in there.
The movie seemed to mix a lot of big ideas with a lot of practical classroom stuff, like making buildings out of popsicle sticks and marshmallows. Was the goal to mix those really flashy big ideas with classroom application?
Dodge: Making this film for kids was one of our top priorities, and we wanted to show that engineering was really fun. The film was the centerpiece of an entire movement where we put together 50 hands-on activities and design challenges, and started several programs with engineers. So the whole idea was to see the film, and the film will get you inspired and motivate you, and then teachers in the classroom or the museums or the engineering societies will do activities with you, because that’s when you learn how fun engineering is—when you actually do it.
So the movie is about two years old now. Why are you still putting so much promotional muscle behind it?
MacGillivray: Our first film “To Fly!” still plays at The Smithsonian today. These films play for a long, long time. And many of these movies, the principles and the inspiration are really timeless. When we think about a project and think about working with partners, it’s basically how much impact can we have with a specific film and campaign. Our big push right now, as you’ve heard, is getting into every school across the country.
What are the logistics of that?
Dodge: From the very beginning this was not a one-year plan, this was a multi-year plan. For the first two years, we showed it exclusively in giant screen theaters, and many of those theaters that opened with in 2017 have never taken it off of their schedule because the teachers have responded so positively. “Dream Big” is really a good title for this project, because in the beginning we dreamed, “Could we actually get a DVD in every school in America? And what would that take?”
We have sent the DVD to 75,000 schools. We started that in December and January. And the reason we didn’t send it to 100 percent at that time was because the film was still playing in giant screen theaters in some locations, and we wanted to make sure the theaters had access to their audience as well. The remaining 25,000 copies will be sent out in late June, early July, and then we will have reached 100,000 schools.
Our partner ASCE, which are Civil Engineers, started a program with us a year in advance for engineers to adopt a school. There’s about 150,000 members of ASCE, but we had all of these other organizations join in too, like mechanical engineers and electrical engineers. They could adopt a school near them and buy the DVD for $5 per school. ASCE also has sections and branches and chapters doing sponsorships too. In Louisiana, the ASCE section bought all of the DVDs for every school in the state. The idea was that kids see the film, and the engineers go to the schools and work with the kids. They do the activities, they do mentoring. Really, the whole idea behind this film is to get kids to want to be an engineer, so having engineers as mentors is really important.
What has the reaction been like?
MacGillivray: For us, we’re really proud of it. We did surveys afterwards and 72 percent of kids who watched this film said they were more likely to become an engineer after watching the film. And obviously, you need to run 10-year studies to be able to see if that actually happens, but that’s very positive that they’re that excited about it afterward.
Dodge: And when we asked the parents, they were even more enthusiastic. It was a higher number: 86 percent of parents thought their kids would go into engineering or hoped they would.
MacGillivray: Yeah, whether that is going to help or not….
Dodge: I know, I know. But it’s something that they haven’t thought of before, so now they’re thinking about it.
Do you think one of the reasons for that interest was because you focused so heavily on architectural engineering, and that’s maybe the flashiest, most visual version of engineering?
MacGillivray: There was a reason that we did that. It was because we were working with the civil engineering organization, and so we focused more on kind of big buildings and all of the engineering that went around that. We did focus on sustainability as well.
I think what made kids super excited about it was the emotional storytelling. It’s the fact that they got inspired, they connected with the characters, and I think many of them could see themselves doing that, whether that was because the actual characters like Menzer Pelivan or Avery Bang, doing just amazing, cool stuff around the world. Or whether it was because of the kids that were in the movie, doing these fun projects that they can say, “Oh, hey, I could do that.”
Women in engineering was a really big focus of the film. How were women involved in the filmmaking process?
MacGillivray: We’ve got about 30 to 35 people on the team here, and I’d say at least half of them are women. Mary Jane was the executive producer on the shoot. When we do any of these films, it’s a family company, and my sister is on every shoot. My mom is on every shoot, and my dad’s on every shoot. I’m on many of the shoots. Honestly, our company couch feels family-oriented in a way.
Can you give an example of the hands-on, curricular resources that are included on that second DVD?
Dodge: In the educator guide, there are 12 lesson plans, and the one for kids in first grade, for example, is called Daylight In a Bottle. Kids learn how you can make light in a plastic bottle without electricity. It’s all simple materials, and then we connect them with videos that show how in developing countries, like in Nepal and some places in Mexico, that’s how they get light.
For high school, we didn’t divide it by grade, we divided it by topic. There’s physical science, chemistry and physics. In one, you learn how to make a greeting card using LED lights, so you actually create an LED lighting system. We put it around a greeting card so they can do it for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Christmas.
Each one of those 12 activities is really in-depth, because one of the amazing things about the timing of this project is that the Next Generation Science Standards include engineering for the first time as part of the science standards. So all of a sudden, teachers in their curriculum had to teach engineering.
All the materials that we created are tied to the NGSS. In fact, one of the creators of the National Science Standards for Engineering was our advisor, so he helped us a lot on the project. In those 12 educator guides, we actually show from the NGSS which curriculum you’re checking off with this activity.
Then, in addition to that, we created a booklet of 50 hands-on engineering activities, and we created 12 original ones that were based on topics in the film. One of the most popular activities is how to design a highway system. If you think about traffic and driving and the highway—that’s a real civil engineering problem. But that turned out to be one of the most popular activities. We also have, from the film, an earthquake activity that people can do, as well. They’re on our website, too. And all of it was vetted by engineers.
Finally, we designed three design challenges that were a little bit more detailed. These are for museums, because a lot of museums have what they call make-it scapes. They’re mostly engineering-oriented, but families as a group go into these little spaces and make something. We have these design challenges, and one of them was how to build an earthquake-safe building.
Teachers have precious little time with students and so much material to cover. Why spend it on this? What’s really the takeaway?
Dodge: We’ve made it really simple for teachers. First of all, teachers use the film to inspire kids, so that makes them want to learn. And then, these activities are really simple. Every step along the way, there’s written in really short, concise ways, the engineering connection, the science connections. So while the kids are doing the activity, the teacher can read through about five or six facts. So they’re learning the engineering principles while the kids are actually doing it.