How do you inspire the next generation of engineers? Tell them a story.

MacGillivray Freeman Films spins a number of tales about humanity’s quest to solve problems through ingenuity in its newest giant-screen offering, Dream Big: Engineering Our World. Presented in 3-D for IMAX and playing now at the California Science Center, this collection of stories from around the world offers less than some of the kids in my audience would have liked in the way of objects seemingly jumping out from the screen at them, but makes up for its two-dimensionality with some stunning drone shots of some of the world’s most breathtaking man-made structures.

MFF turns the film into a collection of short narratives that keep the focus on the humans, such as Menzer Pehlivan, whose life was completely altered after watching her hometown in Turkey get shattered by an earthquake. Pehlivan’s got some of the greatest soundbites, as she talks about the soul of engineering being keeping people safe. It’s that kind of dutiful phrasing that propels the story into more emotional territory; Pehlivan’s shown teaching young students how to build stable structures from marshmallows and straws, but those classroom shots are attached to archival footage of real buildings in Turkey crumpled into rubble. Like the newest crops of IMAX films, Dream Big doesn’t sugarcoat the urgency for science right now, opting for frank talk about death and destruction, even when kids are the film’s target audience. But to soothe these kids to sleep, the film also offers solutions.

Credit: MacGillivray Freeman Films

Credit: MacGillivray Freeman Films

Take Avery Bang’s Haiti story, for example. This segment opens with the camera swooping over a rushing river, children fording across with their shoes above their heads. Then an interview with their dad, who explains the reason he’s volunteered to help Bang and the people from Bridges to Prosperity build a footbridge across the river is because his wife — those kids’ mom — died crossing in that exact same spot just a few years earlier. And now those kids need to wade waist-deep in the same waters every day just to get to school. We watch in time-lapse as the bridge is slowly erected over the river, Haitian men and women learning the art and science of engineering to better themselves as they better their community.

If there’s anything this film reminds me, it’s just how impossible it seems to build something great from nothing but an idea and some work power. It’s so easy to take for granted just what an accomplishment it is to conquer nature that we might forget, for instance, how amazing it is that skyscrapers even exist. But Dream Big shows these objects as they’re built — from skeleton to concrete skin — and it’s glorious.

It does seem like MFF had some issues with presenting archival film in as spectacular a manner as the original footage, so it devised a method of placing those clips in a frame within the frame; even if the clips themselves aren’t 3-D, the screen around them is. The stories are a bit scattershot, with a vague throughline of people helping people with engineering. But Dream Big’s greatest asset is its platform to exalt teachers, such as Freddi Lajvardi, who challenged a fledgling robotics team of mostly Hispanic students (some undocumented) from Carl Hayden High School to enter a competition, where they beat out MIT for first place. These personal stories are the heart of Dream Big, and while they don’t always impress visually on a giant screen, they’re effective at convincing the audience that engineering is a tool for the underdog to come out on top.

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