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Chinatown: Integrating Film, Culture, And Environment In Engineering Education

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Beyond Individual Ethics: Engineering in Context

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.292.1 - 13.292.13



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Paper Authors

author page

Arthur Sacks Colorado School of Mines

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Chinatown: Integrating Film, Culture, and Environment in Engineering Education


Chinatown, a commercial film produced in 1974 by Robert Evans, directed by Roman Polanski and based upon the academy award-winning film original screenplay by Robert Towne1, is a prime example of a film that may be studied and used in the liberal arts curriculum within engineering education to convey the complexity of the human condition and the human context of engineering choices.

As an art form, film has inherent value in: the richness of the human experience captured in it that is shared by its audience; the pleasure and insight the experience of viewing film brings to the audience; the creative integration of narrative, composition, perspective, and technique commanded by a team of producer(s), director(s), writers, actors, cameramen, film editors, set designers, etc.; the cultural moment it expresses and reveals as it is created and produced; and, its staying power as it is viewed, experienced and interpreted over time. Film enables this artistic and technical collective to transform moving image, creating symbols and exploring themes and myth which mirror other art forms, all of which depend upon technologies (writing, painting, design, musical instruments), although film’s scale and dependence upon complex and costly technologies are unique among artistic productions. Indeed, because the production of a major film is so expensive—some reaching to the $100 million mark and beyond—without the potential for mass appeal, commercial films are rarely produced, though smaller scale independent “art” films are not tied quite as much to this factor. Without sufficient movie goers, (and today without DVD and pay per view cable viewings, product placement ads within the film itself, etc.) large scale commercial films could never be made. Given this requirement of mass media appeal and what it means for production cost (e.g., the need for highly paid “stars” who can bring people to the film, high quality sets and original musical scores, etc.), film inevitably must tap into cultural themes which can attract a large audience. In any case, as with all art, film productions inexorably are an expression not only of the individual artists or groups of artists who create them, but also of culture—historical moment, place, values, worldview, etc. As such, it may be used in the education of engineers and those in other disciplines.

This is not to suggest, of course, that film needs to be justified as a utilitarian tool of any sort, as a device for conveying specific, relevant public messages, or as a vehicle for education in the broadest of sense, and as it applies to engineering education specifically. Nevertheless, as will be discussed, Chinatown and films like Akira Kurosowa’s 1975 film Derzu Uzala and many others which could be cited, can be integrated within a liberal arts curriculum to create new ways of seeing and understanding people and their contexts, and they can be particularly valuable to the liberal arts component of an engineering education curriculum. With regard to engineering education, properly selected films can enable engineering students to explore human- environment interactions, the transformative role that engineers and their products and actions have upon people, place and the long-term future of the Earth, and the contextual, human, and ethical dimensions of engineers as professionals, citizens, and individuals.

Sacks, A. (2008, June), Chinatown: Integrating Film, Culture, And Environment In Engineering Education Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3503

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