The Big Question

What’s the Best or Worst Fictionalized Depiction of Your Field in Film, TV or a Book?

David Akin
Professor of Aerospace Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering

Best: The episode “Spider” from the HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon.” It showed the engineering design and development cycle for the Apollo Lunar Module from beginning to end, realistically and accurately. Worst: “Armageddon.” If there was any way they could make another technical error, they took it.

Ariel Bierbaum
Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

“The Simpsons” monorail episode is brilliant satire of large-scale transit infrastructure projects. It captures the public’s fascination with mega projects, along with the less savory dynamics of public-private partnerships, path dependency and bureaucratic inertia, and exorbitant spending on boondoggle projects.

Pamela I. Clark
Research Professor Emerita of Behavioral and Community Health, School of Public Health

The 1993 docudrama “And the Band Played On,” based on the 1987 bestseller “And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic” by Randy Shilts, was fictionalized, but the epidemiologic techniques were so on point for investigating a new disease outbreak that I had my undergraduate epi students watch it as a class assignment.

Jeffrey Herrmann
Professor of Mechanical Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering

The movie “October Sky” is a very good depiction of engineering. Although the rocket boys did need to learn math and physics, their efforts to design and test their rocket are truly engineering. The ability to design successful solutions distinguishes engineering from science; this movie highlights that reality.

Alison Jovanovic and Sarah McGrew
econdary Social Studies Program Coordinators, College of Education

“Bueller? Bueller?” The dull teacher in the 1980s hit “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” couldn’t be more different from the social studies teachers we develop. Our pre-service program promotes dynamic and creative instruction that puts learners at the center and develops historically and civically minded students.

Michael Pack
Director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Laboratory, A. James Clark School of Engineering

In “Mission: Impossible III,” Tom Cruise plays a secret agent whose cover story is that he’s a transportation engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation. His secret identity is foolproof. His ramblings on traffic theory put everyone to sleep seconds into any discussion about his work—immediately halting any additional questions.

Oliver Schlake
Clinical Professor of Management and Organization, Robert H. Smith School of Business

In my career as a professor and teacher, there has never been a more counter-inspirational character than Ben Stein’s performance as economics teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It is the antithesis of what an obviously extremely knowledgeable teacher should not do to convey his wealth of knowledge to a group of students who a) absolutely don’t want to be there in the first place and b) have no understanding of the relevance of the topic for anything remotely in their current and perhaps future life. The film premiered in 1986, the year of my graduation from high school, and we all had that kind of teacher. I was already starting to teach at a community college, and this teacher was all I aspired not to be. Thank you, Mr. Lorensax, for your unforgettable “Bueller...? Bueller...?, Anybody?”

Peter Sunderland
Professor of Fire Protection Engineering, A. James Clark School of Engineering

In “No Country for Old Men,” Anton Chigurh opens the gas tank of a car, inserts a gasoline-soaked rag and ignites it. Soon, the car explodes. This is completely unrealistic because the head space in a gasoline tank is far too rich to explode.

Erin Thomson
Assistant Director and Lecturer of Science, Discovery and the Universe, College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences

Best college teacher portrayal: Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets Society.”

Jessica Vitak
Associate Professor and Human-Computer Interaction Lab Director, College of Information Studies

“Minority Report” is quite prescient—and one of the scarier takes. It details a future where a “precrime” police unit detects crimes before they’re committed and arrests the future criminals. People reside in a surveillance state, where constant biometric scans make anonymity nearly impossible. The movie also raises important ethical questions around whether intent and action are the same.

Margaret A. Walker
Coordinator, Art Education/Arts Integration, College of Education

Pretty much every depiction of an artist or art teacher in the media is terrible and inaccurate, parodied perfectly by the character Geoffrey Jellineck in the show “Strangers With Candy”: “I’m the art teacher. I may be an authority figure, but I have the mind of a child.”

Susan Winter
Associate Dean of Research, College of Information Studies

I like Rupert Giles, who was the school librarian at Sunnydale High in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He was always finding interesting educational materials to help with student projects.


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