The world of "Arrow" and "The Flash" is filled with a lot of superpowered metahumans, shadowy assassins, and vigilante heroes. But there's also a kind of real-life superstar who exists in the DC television universe -- the passionate, excitable science nerd.
"Arrow" first started the trend in its premiere season by bringing in tech wiz Felicity Smoak, who quickly went from being a helpful voice in Oliver Queen's ear to becoming one of most important members of the team. Now she's the CEO of the biggest company in Star City (which was previously run by billionaire robotics expert Ray Palmer), and works alongside the algorithm-creating genius Curtis Holt. Meanwhile, "The Flash" literally takes place in a laboratory, where forensic scientist Barry Allen regularly hangs out with the crew of S.T.A.R. labs -- engineering wunderkind Cisco Ramon, bio-engineer Caitlin Snow, and physicist Martin Stein, as well as science enthusiast Patty Spivot and Earth-2 Flash Jay Garrick.
While each of these characters are radically different from each other, they have some very important things in common: They all love science, they're all very, very good at what they do, and they're all consistently the most relatable people on both shows. Cisco Ramon might get overly excited about what Barry can do, but rather than make fun of him for geeking out, "The Flash" often encourages you to geek out along with him. Which isn't difficult to do, because c'mon! How awesome are supersonic punches? So awesome!
Not only does the DC TV universe have the potential to inspire science and tech enthusiasts, but it's employing a fair number of them as well. "Arrow" newcomer Echo Kellum, a self-proclaimed science nerd and comic fan who grew up idolizing Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking (and scientist supervillains like Lex Luthor and Professor Zoom, too!), says that he feels "right at home" playing Curtis Holt.
"I love that all the DC shows are really going there with trying to push science to its limits and open up portals to different worlds and stuff like that, because I think that’s some of the things that we love the most as comic book fans," Kellum told MTV News. "And I think right now is such a good time for nerds in general, like all this really scientific stuff and really delving deep into it is really, really cool for someone like myself."
Getting to root for the science nerds both on and off-camera isn't just a refreshing deviation from what we tend to expect from TV, but it also makes "The Flash and "Arrow" downright essential viewing for those who want to see more kids grow up to be coders and scientists themselves. After all, the media greatly affects not just the way kids view science as a possible future career path, but also they way they learn, even from a very young age.
As part of her research for the UC Riverside Department of Psychology, Dr. Rebekah Richert is currently studying how pre-school and kindergarten aged kids pick up problem solving skills from the television they watch. She's found that programs like "Dora The Explorer," "Sid The Science Kid," and "Go Diego Go," are particularly effective, specifically because they're not afraid to portray their characters as smart in the first place.
"What we find is that children are more likely to learn those problem solving techniques, if it’s a character they trust," Richert told MTV News over the phone. "If they think those characters are smart, intelligent characters who solve these problems, as opposed to characters who accidentally happen on to a solution or characters who otherwise might not be portrayed as particularly intelligent. So there is something about characters that are portrayed as smart, that children are more likely to learn from."
Obviously the kids who'd be watching "The Flash" or "Arrow" are older than those that Richert studies, but that doesn't mean they aren't also susceptible to media influence as well. Right now the United States is failing to produce skilled STEM workers who will be able to keep up with future demand, says the National Math and Science Initiative; part of this is due to a decline in STEM education, but it also could be to the pervasive stereotype that paints scientist as awkward, pocket protector-wearing weirdos.
"I think we give children a lot of conflicting messages about what science is and what it’s about," she said. "We really value science education... but we portray [scientists] as nerds or not socially likeable. So we get these conflicting messages out there that we value science but also if you’re a science person, you don’t have all the same positive characteristics as if you’re not. So I think shows that can build that in even adult examples of people who are scientists, but also fun and cool and [who] care about the people around them, can really do a lot of good."
But Cisco, Felicity, Curtis, Caitlin and the rest of the geeks in the DC TV universe are important for more reasons than just their intelligence or their ability to have fun. In addition to dispelling the stereotype of scientists as asocial losers, they're also presenting a very diverse group in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity (Curtis is gay), religious affiliation (Felicity is Jewish), field of study and family background. That could be groundbreaking for the kids who don't usually get a chance to see positive scientific role models that look like them, whether on screen or in real life.
It's no secret that Hollywood currently has a problem with diversity, and for some the lack of media representation can dramatically affect self-confidence levels -- recent studies suggest black children and white girls are more likely to develop low self-esteem than their white male peers based on the amount of TV they watch. Girls of all races are also much more likely to have a negative opinions of science and technology than boys are. However, when girls are shown well-rounded female characters in scientific or leadership positions, their confidence in themselves is actually less likely to decrease in comparison.
The entertainment industry isn't the only place where women and minorities are woefully underrepresented in the workplace, either -- according to data from the National Science Foundation, there's also a startling lack of diversity in scientific and egineering fields as well. Women have earned about half of all bachelor's degrees in science and engineering since the late '90s, but as of 2013 only 29% of women are employed in those fields. That same data also found that people of color have the highest rates of unemployment in scientific and engineering fields; black people only make up 4.8% of the science and engineering workforce, and people with hispanic heritage only make up 6%.
So could the cast of "The Flash" and "Arrow" inspire young women and people of color with role models to pursue real careers in science, engineering, and technology? It's certainly happened before. Former astronaut Mae C. Jemison once claimed that her desire to go into space came from watching the African-American Starfleet officer Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) on "Star Trek"; many women also cite their love of "The X-Files" character Dana Scully as their reason to pursue careers in medicine or even law enforcement, in a phenomenon known as "The Scully Effect."
"We do follow the people we grow up watching, to some extent," Echo Kellum said, citing his own love for Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. "And what’s great about this stuff being in comic books and popular culture is that [it] can actually translate to helping other humans in the future -- like kids being interested in science and trying to figure out the mysteries that are here in our world. So I hope Curtis can do that, and I also believe that he will do that for some people."
Of course, getting to watch Felicity save the day with a computer or see Cisco churn out new inventions isn't going to solve all the problems that make STEM education and media representation such fraught subjects. But if they can inspire some kid to think about what cool inventions they could create for themselves in the real world, then that's more than enough reason to keep tuning in and geeking out at S.T.A.R. labs or Palmer Tech every week.