Discovery show issues 'Big Brain' challenges

| Sunday, April 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Joel Ifill wishes there was a Michael Jordan of engineering.

He says he would be surprised if someone could name even one engineer who developed the iPhone or any other hot tech device.

“Engineering has a serious image problem in this country,” says Ifill, 26, of Dravosburg. “I dare you to name just one famous engineer. Most people can't, yet we help build the technology and infrastructure that defines our modern life.”

That's why he is hopeful about the new science and engineering-based reality competition series — “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” debuting at 10 p.m. May 1 on the Discovery Channel. He will be competing, along with Shadyside resident Eric Whitman, for $50,000, which makes his dream “a little closer to coming true.”

“I love a show that promotes engineering, ingenuity, creativity and fabrication,” says Ifill, a welding engineer doing research and development on nuclear reactors for the U.S. Navy at the Bechtel Marine Propulsion Co.'s Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin. “It's long overdue, and I thank Discovery for making it all happen.”

Ifill and Whitman are two of the 10 competitors on the show.

“I think a show like this has been doable for a while, and the world has been waiting for someone to do it,” says Whitman, 27, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University who devotes most of his time to writing software. “I did the show mostly because it sounded like fun. It was. I also gained a lot of experience, learning how to do a lot of things from the other contestants who had different expertise than I do.”

He believes the audience will find “Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” — hosted by Kal Penn of the hit film franchise “Harold & Kumar” — fun to watch, too. “I think we as contestants did a good job building cool stuff, and I think production did a good job finding challenges that were difficult, but not impossible, and that were visually and viscerally exciting,” Whitman says.

The eight-week, hourlong series marks the Discovery Channel's first competition-elimination reality program.

In addition to the cash prize, the winner will receive a one-year contract to work at WET, which bills itself as the industry leader behind some of the world's most innovative water-based designed environments and experiences, including the nine-acre choreographed lake of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Show planners started brainstorming soon after the death of Steve Jobs.

“There was a lot of dialogue about the future of innovation in America, what's next, who is next and where we go from here. We felt it was time to highlight American innovation and ingenuity,” says Nancy Daniels, executive vice president of production and development for Discovery.

“This is a chance to show that America still can lead the world in engineering and innovation and that we can do whatever we put our minds to,” says Ifill. “At the same time, we are regular people who excel outside of spreadsheets and the office.”

The network launched a “massive” nationwide search, including interviews at the nation's leading engineering schools, for the 10 contestants, Daniels says. Thousands applied and the top candidates were sent to Los Angeles for a few days of intensive interviews.

“We were looking for really smart people who have really innovative, forward-thinking, ideas,” she says. In addition to being highly qualified, Ifill and Whitman have “great, interesting approaches and personalities,” she says.

“Pittsburgh truly has some amazing engineering talent,” Ifill says. “We should be proud of the technical talent our city has.”

It was more challenging than it might seem, says Whitman. “The show was a ton of fun. Every week, I got to work with a bunch of brilliant people to build something ridiculous with somebody else's money,” he says.

Daniels calls it a “smart” show that is easy to follow and provides “tremendous entertainment.”

In the first episode, contestants must develop a solution to stop a set of explosives from detonating. These explosives, though, are strapped to the back of two pickup trucks heading toward a high-speed head-on collision. With just 30 minutes on the clock, competitors must propose a solution to complete the challenge.

The expert panel of judges then determine the two strongest engineering concepts based on logic and design.

Other challenges this season include creating a machine that can cook and arrange a meal for a group of famished tourists near the Santa Monica Pier; building a portable bunker that can be deployed in five minutes and is able to withstand fire, pressurized water and high-speed winds from a jet engine; and constructing a robot capable of competing in three different athletic events.

Daniels sees “a very broad” audience for the series, including parents watching with their children. “It's for anyone interested in the future of America,” she says.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or

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