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Author: Deanne Bell
RON LATANISION (RML): Deanne, thank you for joining us today. We’re very happy to have this opportunity to talk with you. Let’s begin right at the beginning. You got your undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Washington University in 2002. How did you become interested in mechanical engineering?
DEANNE BELL: As a little girl I loved to tinker and invent and build. I participated in an afterschool -problem-solving program and was on a team of -mainly girls. The team would come over to my house after school and my parents let us build and invent in my backyard. We were very resourceful—we would go to thrift stores, ask them for junk they weren’t using, and take it apart. For example, for a “wash world” theme that we dreamt up, we made a massive musical washing machine with eyelashes that could be played remotely; it spun and shot out golf balls painted to look like -bubbles that played drums. We usually presented our inventions in the context of a skit, so there was a stylistic element to our creations.
Each of us on the team had our different specialties. The engineering side of things resonated with me and another girl and we both ended up becoming engineers. I loved using power tools when I was little.
RML: I can sense that, given your involvement with the DIY Network. Were your mom and dad engineers?
MS. BELL: My father is an electrical engineer and my mother was a math teacher before becoming a full-time homemaker. I was raised in a family that embraced the sciences and engineering, but I was also raised to be very well-rounded. I did lots of sports and music lessons and all kinds of things. I wasn’t necessarily encouraged to pursue engineering, but it was something I really wanted to pursue.
It’s funny, though, because when I was little I didn’t know what an engineer did for a living. I remember being in elementary school and my dad offering to help me with math homework. I scoffed at him and said, “No, Mom’s the math teacher.” For a long time I didn’t know what an engineer was, and I think that’s part of the reason I’m committed now to communicating it to the younger generation, so we can build that identity and give students an idea of what engineering is even at the youngest ages.
RML: That’s certainly something that the National Academy of Engineering shares in terms of our interest in getting young people, particularly young women, involved in engineering. Tell us about Future Engineers.
MS. BELL: I’m an engineer and worked in mechanical design before I became a television host. Between TV shows there was some down time so I found myself collaborating with a local nonprofit to create engineering workshops and I thought, ‘How can I extend this? On TV there is an engaged audience and a lot of students watching. How can I take this further and integrate my engineering work on TV into curriculum?’ That simmered for a long time. And when I was speaking at corporate events I kept hearing “We want to get more involved in STEM but we don’t know the best way to plug in.” Then I thought, ‘How can I combine my experience communicating engineering in the media, and my experience developing workshops for students, and my experience with industry? How can we come up with challenges based on research and emerging technologies to create something fun, new, and relevant for kids out there?’
The idea simmered until one day I decided, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ I saw that NASA had a 3D printer going to the International Space Station and I cold-called NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Manager and said, “I think we should do a national challenge and get students all across the country to design objects for astronauts to 3D print on the Space Station.”
Most people would probably think I’m crazy, but the person I spoke with loved the idea. She had two daughters herself. I ended up bringing in the ASME Foundation. It took a number of months to get a Space Act Agreement in place, which was the critical link to get the first challenge off the ground. And Future Engineers was born.
We hosted the first 3D Printing in Space challenge and it was well received. It happened at the same time federal agencies were coming up with commitments for the White House Maker Initiative—it was the perfect synergy and timing.
Initially, Future Engineers was synonymous with 3D printing challenges. Based on that experience, Future Engineers then applied for, and was awarded, SBIR funding from the US Department of Education to develop an online technology platform that can host engineering student challenges of all kinds.
RML: How does it work? For example, how did the students interface with NASA and how did the challenge roll out?
MS. BELL: We brainstorm to come up with a theme. Sometimes the theme might seem simplistic, but the intent is to develop a challenge where students can participate not only at a very elevated level but also at a very basic level. Everyone can complete the challenge, regardless of experience level.
For example, our second challenge was to design a container to 3D print in space. We had high school students designing hydroponic plant growth chambers, and younger students designing little boxes to collect rocks on Mars. We left it open so that students from kindergarten to 12th grade could participate and feel a sense of accomplishment in completing the challenge.
Students enter all challenges online. Everything is online—the challenge, submission portal, curriculum resources, videos, links to free design tools that teachers and students can use in classrooms. Our goal is always to have challenges be free or low cost. Students can participate either at home or in class—we’re now at about 80 percent participation from classes. Students submit their entries to the website and get a gallery page dedicated to their entry. They can see all of the innovative submissions received from across the country.
For the first challenge, students designed objects that they wanted to be 3D printed in space. The winning design, a multipurpose precision maintenance tool, became the first student-designed 3D print in space. The winner, Robert Hillan, was invited to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where he went into payload operations and spoke to astronauts live on the ISS and saw his 3D print floating in space.
RML: What a great experience. So NASA actually printed in space the design that your challenger developed?
MS. BELL: Yes.
RML: This is a great experience for kids. They learn about not only computers and software and design but also interaction with a huge organization like NASA.
MS. BELL: There are also finalist interviews online with judges. Students in the final interview present their designs to experts—and they don’t just get a pat on the head: the experts really dig in and ask about how the students created the design, how it could be useful, or how it could be improved.
The 3D printing challenges were actually part of NASA’s research in terms of thinking about how they’re going to leverage 3D printing technologies on future missions. K–12 students have extremely creative ideas, so it’s great that NASA’s public engagement efforts could inspire these young innovators in such a meaningful way.
RML: What’s the frequency of the challenge?
MS. BELL: Well, we’re at a transition point. Recently Future Engineers launched our 2.0 platform, which can host as many challenges as we want simultaneously and aligned to all kinds of topics, themes, and education standards, not necessarily space or 3D printing. We plan to work with all kinds of industry partners to come up with challenges that showcase the diversity of STEM. For example, we just hosted a Bright Art Challenge focused on properties of light, a Weather Balloon challenge focused on data visualization and payload design, a Future Creatures challenge focused on adaptations, and a Name That Molecule challenge focused on 3D molecular visualizations. Students’ entries go into their portfolio on our site, and teachers can build classroom portfolios as well.
Currently, we’re hosting a challenge with NASA where K–12 students all across the country are asked to name the Mars 2020 Rover. The contest is open in fall 2019 so make sure to tell your kids or grandkids to go to FutureEngineers.org and submit a name.
CAMERON -FLETCHER (CHF): You’ve been working so far with NASA as your primary institutional partner, but now you’re branching out to other institutions or companies?
MS. BELL: We started by working with the ASME Foundation, with technical assistance from NASA, and now we have a partnership with NASA on the Name the Rover contest via a Space Act Agreement. Also, the support of the US Department of Education’s SBIR program has been pivotal. But we’re very excited to be branching out to develop partnerships with new organizations to create other kinds of challenges.
CHF: Can you tell us who some of those other entities are?
MS. BELL: Not yet. But I can mention others that we’ve previously worked with on themes or educational prizes. One theme was aligned with Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. Makerbot has graciously donated many 3D printers to schools of winning students. We’ve had students visit with SpaceX engineers at their headquarters. We collaborated with Digital Domain, a visual effects company in Los -Angeles, where the winning students got to suit up in motion capture suits to see how digital models are used to make movies. They made their own movie of themselves on Mars, which was really fun.
For each of our challenges there’s a different theme and we try to come up with educational experiences and educational prizes to illustrate for students what they might do for a living as an engineer and how they can apply the skills they’ve learned in the challenge.
CHF: Do you have any sense of how many students you’ve reached and engaged over the years? And is there any kind of follow-up to create a community of these participants, like an alumni group?
MS. BELL: We definitely have a growing community of students and educators, but once the students graduate from high school we don’t currently have a way to engage them, except as judges. We’re looking at how we can leverage college students as mentors and expand to college challenges as well. We’re excited to bridge that gap, -especially with women in engineering. A lot of research shows that girls need to be engaged before they’re 12, so we try to do challenges that engage students at the youngest ages to get them excited and inspired, to help create an engineering identity and then keep building on the momentum to strengthen the pipeline as students get older. We recently completed a research study using six prototype challenges with middle school classrooms, which showed significant gains in enjoyment of engineering. The gains were primarily driven by girls, so we’re on a good path.
CHF: You acknowledged earlier that there are separate challenges for, say, kindergartners and other youngsters as opposed to high school participants. Are there different criteria or are different submissions selected from different age groups?
MS. BELL: Sometimes we use the same criteria for the different competitive age groups, but we select a junior and a teen winner. With our new platform, we can do a kindergarten-only challenge or a high school challenge, or only DC public schools or only Florida students, for example. We can design challenges for different ages, grades, demographics, or regions.
Education standards are aligned to different grades so we make sure our challenge themes align to grade-appropriate standards. Our focus is on creating challenges that can be done as a classroom activity. Teachers are amazing so we strive to support them as best we can.
CHF: You’ve mentioned engaging girls and you just used the word demographics. Do you have outreach efforts to other demographic groups, like under-represented minorities or socioeconomically disadvantaged kids?
MS. BELL: We do public engagements focusing on different demographics. We’ve focused a lot on girls and women to date; for example, in 2017 we were at G.I.R.L., the Girl Scouts National Convention where we collaborated with the ASME Foundation to teach over 2,000 girls to use CAD. And last year we helped coordinate an event in Washington at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, where local students asked an astronaut questions live as she was on the International Space Station.
Also, most of our challenges involve multimedia content. I’m a TV host and we make launch videos for our challenges as well as educational media for the website. We make sure that the media we create is representative of engineers of all kinds. We’re committed to diversity and to making sure our challenges are accessible and free so that there’s no barrier to entry to participate in engineering.
RML: We’ve spent a lot of our time talking about a topic that is of great interest to us and to the NAE: encouraging young people to become involved as engineers. What you’re doing sounds very commendable.
I’d like to turn the conversation to your TV hosting. How did you make the transition from being a practicing engineer with Raytheon and then with a startup in Boston to TV host?
MS. BELL: It was a leap of faith. I was working in Los Angeles. I’m from Florida originally and went to college in St. Louis. I got my first job offer for a job in LA and came here. I was working as an engineer at Raytheon. It was wonderful—I had fantastic mentors, I was given a lot of responsibility, I was thrown in the fire.
Of course, there’s another industry in Los Angeles: the media industry. I didn’t really have much involvement with it until I went on vacation for a week and saw an ad posted for an engineer to host a television show. I was kind of joking with a friend and I sent in some stuff and gave my landline phone number. A week later I got back from vacation and I had all these messages from the casting director saying “We want to bring you in.”
I put on a suit, brought my resume, went in—and was put in front of a green screen and given a cue card and told to read lines. I thought, ‘Whoa, I have no idea what I’m doing.’ Then they sat me down on a stool and asked me to talk about technology that I had worked on. And I just talked.
I remember the casting agent being really surprised that I existed. I was disheartened by the fact that this person hadn’t encountered many female scientists or engineers when casting for these kinds of shows. But when I asked myself, ‘What female engineer have I seen on TV?,’ I couldn’t think of one. I thought, ‘We need to change this. Women need to have more representation in the media.’
I went through a series of auditions for that show, but the show never got greenlit, it just disappeared.
A year later I decided to take a leave of absence to travel. I’m a big traveler. I had saved my pennies and wanted to hike in Tibet and in New Zealand and just travel. While in the Philippines, I was thinking ‘I really need to get my act together and figure out what I’m doing next in life.’ I was at a hostel, looking at online job boards—and again, an ad popped up: “Looking for an engineer to host a TV show on PBS.” What are the chances of that?!
So I sent in my application from the Philippines, a picture and a few sentences, and I heard from the casting agent. “You look great. Our last audition is in two days in Boston.” I wrote back, “I’m in the Philippines, can you wait?” And they responded, “Let us know if you can make it.”
That night I had a glass of wine with a German pig farmer and he said, “You know what, I think you should go.” And I agreed. I decided, ‘I need to do this.’ I called the travel agency and got everything rearranged. I flew back and arrived in Boston at about 9:00 p.m., auditioned the next morning at 9:00 a.m., and ended up getting the job. That was my very first job as a television host.
CHF: Did you send a thank you note to the German pig farmer?
MS. BELL: I don’t even know his name. But I think about that pig farmer often. There I was on the cusp of taking this big risk, this leap, and I just needed someone to say ‘yes.’ There’re so many reasons to say ‘no,’ to think ‘This is probably a waste of my time. It’s going to cost money. It isn’t going to be worth it.’ I just needed that one person to say yes, to speak to the inner voice in my head to take that leap of faith. It changed my life.
RML: Which show was it?
MS. BELL: My very first hosting job was on a show called Design Squad on PBS. It still exists online, but I only cohosted the first season. It’s basically a reality show where they would give students a design challenge. For example, “You have a red wagon or a tricycle and two drills and you have to make a dragster. You have two days to design and build.” Then we took them to the speedway and tested their cars. The students competed and at the end of all the challenges the student with the most points won a college scholarship. It was produced in Cambridge on the MIT campus, in the solar car garage, I think.
CHF: I see from your website that you’ve been involved in quite an array of activities—Smash Lab and Money Hunters, The Egyptian Job and Rise Up. How on earth did you get involved in each of these?
MS. BELL: I’m fortunate that the momentum just kept going. I got called to host a Discovery -Channel show not long after hosting the first season of Design Squad. Then at some point you get an agent and go from there.
I am a very “niche” talent on TV, but the beauty of science and engineering is that they’re in every-thing. I hosted a show about trying to figure out how an -Egyptian pyramid that was built in the 19th century BC was broken into—I ran a bunch of physics calculations about how certain rocks were moved back when. And then a show on ESPN—who would think you could be an engineer on ESPN? We renovated athletic facilities for schools and my cohost was a professional football player; he worked on the athletics program side of it and I worked with the contractors to renovate the physical facilities. That was Rise Up. It was kind of like a home makeover show but for athletic facilities.
Smash Lab is probably the most sensational show I worked on. I like to say that I specialized in the science of smashes, crashes, and destruction. It was a difficult show to make—and definitely an adrenaline rush every day. We had to stage a massive crash or disaster, use instrumentation to figure out how bad it was, and then invent something that could potentially make it safer. It could be the most ridiculous invention ever. We had a couple of weeks or less to do these big inventions, so it was just proof-of-concept stuff.
We went out and simulated these things in the -desert—I spent a lot of time out in the desert in Southern California. We did one show involving a high-rise escape out of a building that was on fire. There were also big rigs running into things, train crashes, we simulated a logging truck rolling over on a sharp turn, and we simulated the equivalent of a shoe bomb on an airplane. For that one we rented airplanes in the Mojave Desert to conduct the final test. One plane had a blast-proof material applied and the other didn’t. The planes were at ground level, so we had to inflate them to create a pressure differential as if they were at altitude, but we found that the planes were riddled with holes, so first we had to patch the planes, then inflate them, and then our explosives expert initiated the explosions. We used pressure sensors, temperature sensors, and a bunch of high-speed photography to analyze the events, but our attempted solution was a flop against that very difficult scenario.
Most recently I cohosted a show on CNBC called Make Me a Millionaire Inventor. It’s a business show. We worked with hardware inventors who had an idea for a product and maybe had a great prototype but didn’t know how to take it to the next level. We had an in-house product development team who would bring their idea to life with a fully fleshed-out prototype like you would see on a showroom floor. I mentored the inventors on the product development process as well as the process of developing a business plan. At the end of each episode the inventors would pitch their idea to an investor for a chance at getting money to launch their product into a business, and many of them did.
Some of the products didn’t receive an investment on the show but the inventors persevered after being rejected. For example, a nurse named Bobbie Sue McCollum works in the ER where they use bag valve masks to manually put air into patients’ lungs. A nurse is supposed to squeeze it and then wait 6 seconds, then squeeze again and wait 6 seconds, then squeeze again…. But in the adrenaline of the moment the bag might get squeezed too soon and overinflate the patient’s lungs. She invented a device that attaches to the bag valve mask and regulates the reinflation so the nurse knows when it’s safe to squeeze the bag again.
She didn’t get an investment on the show, but she got great advice about the healthcare market and how to pursue licensing opportunities with larger medical manufacturers, and she’s now adapting her business plan to go after these opportunities.
RML: How do inventors find their way to the show? For example, how did Bobbie Sue discover the show and get into your broadcast?
MS. BELL: There was a lot of work by the production company to find inventors that were a good fit. Once the show was on the air, the show itself became a recruitment tool for inventors to reach out.
RML: Many people have very good ideas, they just don’t know how to implement them in order to solve a problem. We all see problems every day and sometimes you have a sparkling idea that might pan out but people don’t know how to follow through. I just wonder how a person who sees a problem, like the inflation valve in the ER, and then is clever enough to decide that there must be a way to solve this and regulate the device, finds her way to your show. There must be a screening process to determine whether there’s an invention that has some merit or if it’s blue sky and totally unworkable.
MS. BELL: There’s definitely a screening process. There’s screening in terms of intellectual property and what exists on the market, and in terms of viability for the product in the marketplace. And then screening for the TV show: Is this going to make a good TV show about this journey?
I think what’s interesting about Make Me a -Millionaire Inventor is that it illustrates how engineering can evoke emotion. It can empower people. We had these inventors, some of them had been sitting on an idea for 15 years, paralyzed because they didn’t know how to take the next step.
It’s about having the courage to do it and of course the means or the resources. But it’s also about mindset. I’m so grateful every day for my engineering mindset. I’m trained as an engineer to ask the right questions, to find the answers and to figure things out. Great ideas are common to all the inventors we’ve worked with. But engineering is what takes great ideas to the next level.
A lot of people talk to me about inventions and how do you come up with the next big idea. I think sometimes people think too far in advance—they think about how to create the next Facebook—when really almost every prototype is something that’s close to you. With Facebook, it was kids in a dorm room trying to connect with other students in their college. That’s what I tell people: Think of a problem around you that inspires you, solve that, and then figure out how to scale it.
What’s great on the show is that these inventors come in and we show them their prototype—and the tears roll. It’s amazing that engineering can do that for someone. Engineering can take something that’s been an idea that they’ve been working on for so long, it’s so personal to them—and there it is: they can see it, touch it and hold it. It’s awesome to show that engineering can have such an emotional element. It’s one of my favorite shows that I’ve worked on.
CHF: What are some inventions that you’ve pursued as an entrepreneur?
MS. BELL: I stumbled into becoming an entrepreneur with Future Engineers and it took me a while to realize that I’m the founder and CEO of an education technology company. I’m trained as a mechanical engineer but my day-in and day-out work to build Future Engineers is as chief architect of a sophisticated online platform that navigates the complexities of running innovation challenges for students of all ages, at home and in class, on a national scale. We have to deal with privacy, working with minors, student IP, and contest/promotion regulations. I dove into driving the software development and had to wear a million different hats to get Future Engineers up and running. I just filed my first patent application, so I guess I’m officially an inventor myself now too.
I tell people I became an entrepreneur by accident. I was following my passion. I really wanted to inspire more engineering outreach and I thought, ‘How can I best facilitate this?’ Doing in-person workshops was hard to scale, and not cost effective. I decided that a platform was the best way to connect students all across the country on a common goal, a common challenge. And I think students love that they can see how a kid in Boston and a kid in Florida solved the same problem, and they can learn by looking at the innovations of -other students and get inspired. A lot of students who have won our challenges say they participated as a beginner and saw these amazing inventions that -other students were coming up with and that encouraged them to hone their skills.
CHF: So you have repeat participants?
MS. BELL: Yes, very much so.
RML: I get the sense, Deanne, that you have a lot of things going on all at the same time—and you’re handling them all beautifully. That’s in itself quite a story. I understand that you also speak to audiences of young people?
MS. BELL: Yes, I speak to audiences of all ages.
RML: About engineering as a career, or what are you asked to address?
MS. BELL: Often with students I talk about my -journey—my passions, but also my frustrations and how I persevered, and how I now have this crazy job that I love. You can look at my career and see successes and atypical engineering paths that I’ve taken, but there are a lot of times I failed or second-guessed myself or thought maybe I didn’t fit.
In college, there was a time in my junior year when I thought about dropping engineering entirely. I could do the classes just fine, but I didn’t know if engineering was the right path for me. I felt like my career ambitions were very different than my peers.
Thank goodness for a female professor who mentored me in college. She showed me that what I was learning were tools that I could apply in industry and that I would thrive with my personal skills and passions. She was 100 percent right! I try to communicate that to students.
RML: That’s very important. I think most engineers are not typically in the public eye. They’re great at solving problems, they can bring things to the market, they can build all sorts of interesting devices—but they don’t have the same inclinations or skills to interact with the public that I think can be helpful. You’re providing -public access to the engineering enterprise in a way that can be inspirational to young people. You bring an important dimension that isn’t typical of the engineering community. It just isn’t typical of engineers to be outright publicly visible. And yet, all the things engineers do affect the public—we build engineering systems that serve society—but we don’t necessarily interface very well with society. I think what you’re doing is terrific.
MS. BELL: Thank you.
RML: Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?
MS. BELL: I often talk about imagining the impossible—if you can dream it, you can build it, you can make it happen. You just have to dream it up first. I’m fortunate in that I imagined the impossible of being a TV host and it happened.
In 5 to 10 years I see myself, in addition to being a television host, having a role in producing a television show, being on the creative side of the production as well as in front of the camera—or maybe just behind the camera—and inspiring girls to pursue science and engineering.
I also see an enormous future for Future Engineers. I see us hosting hundreds of challenges, simultaneously engaging students all across the globe, building engineering portfolios, developing an engineering identity with students as young as 5 years old, highlighting the awesome science and technology work that’s being done in our world, and showing students that there is engineering in everything. It’s everywhere around us!
I see Future Engineers having engineering challenges paired with movies, paired with emerging technologies, paired with global challenges or needs, and engineering challenges that inspire students to learn technology tools from 3D design to data visualization to designing augmented reality software—a whole world of engaging students in challenges.
CHF: Thank goodness your mentor talked you out of dropping out of engineering. I have one more question for you, Deanne. Would you like to offer any particular thoughts to the readers of The Bridge?
MS. BELL: I guess to summarize I’ll say that we need to engage students with engineering early and often. This absolutely requires investments in the future, but it also applies to our everyday life. Think about your vocabulary. Just as I can paint something without being a professional painter, or I can nurse someone back to health without being a registered nurse, we all have the -capacity to engineer. Next time you see a young girl or boy iterate, improve, or innovate something new, tell them they were doing engineering. We learn from context and kids need to see and hear more about engineering to build an understanding of what engineers do and who we are. And just because someone becomes a TV host or a politician—or anything, really—it doesn’t mean they left engineering, it means they chose to apply their engineering mindset in a new way, to solve a new problem. The more we celebrate the zillions of things engineers do in this world, the more inclusive and diverse our profession will be, and the greater problems we can solve—together.
RML: Deanne, we want to thank you for this wonderful conversation. I think what you’re doing is truly inspirational. I hope a lot more young men and women will get to know what you’re doing. I have five grandchildren and I’m going to make sure they all tune in to your show because I think this is really important stuff.
MS. BELL: That’s wonderful to hear.
CHF: Deanne, it sounds like you are having fun on company time.
MS. BELL: I am! And I should add that when I auditioned for CNBC I was 8 months pregnant and when I launched Future Engineers I was 8 months pregnant. It has been a journey navigating that as well, but I’m a huge proponent of giving women the flexibility they need. When you do, they will thrive and excel. It’s been great to be able to create my own situation that fits me perfectly, with TV hosting and doing education work, and at the same time building my family. I have a 4-year-old and another who just turned 1.
And if you ever want to talk with another atypical engineer, my husband is a software engineer but works as a visual effects supervisor at Marvel—he recently worked on Avengers: End Game and Infinity War—so we’re an interesting duo. That’s kind of a funny story, actually. When we met, I told him I was an engineer—and he said, “I’m an engineer.” So I added, “But I don’t have a traditional engineering job.” And he said, “Neither do I.” Then I asked him, “What do you do?” He said, “I blow up stuff in movies.” And I said, “I blow up stuff on TV.” It was a match made in heaven. We went on our first date the next day and every day since.
CHF: That’s great.
MS. BELL: Wonderful to speak with you both.
CHF: Thank you, Deanne.
RML: Thank you.
This conversation took place May 14. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
 “The National Aeronautics and Space Act (the Space Act) provides NASA with the unique authority to enter into a wide range of ‘other transactions,’ commonly referred to as Space Act Agreements (SAAs). The Agency enters into SAAs with various partners to advance NASA mission and program objectives, including international cooperative space activities.” (https://www.nasa.gov/partnerships/about.html)