In Purdue of STEM education

Dr. Jim Caruthers, University of Purdue

We had an opportunity recently to interview Dr. James Caruthers, Reilly Professor of Chemical Engineering and chief proponent of STEM at Purdue University.  As a decorated, published and widely traveled professor and engineer, Dr. Caruthers represents the pinnacle of balance between academic discovery and real-world application.  His vision, and that of Purdue University is the creation of a vibrant connection between elementary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions, and the corporate world.  In fact, Purdue University President, Mitch Daniels, a petro chemical engineer himself, is credited by Dr. Caruthers as leading the charge in establishing Purdue as a leader in STEM.

M-STEM Cubed is the concept, with manufacturing and medicine rounding out the “M’s” at the end of the equation, and “Motor-sports” as the driving “M” at the front of the equation, making “STEM” cool and engaging at every level.

The result for Indiana is not only a real solution for its manufacturing workforce challenges, but a national model in the making.  Changing the language around STEM from a purely recruitment oriented activity to a vital workforce development initiative targeted squarely at middle school students is not only top of mind, but a, “critical responsibility of the University system.”

Tackling challenges is a normal part of Dr. Caruther’s daily routine, but the challenge that lies at the center of this task is one of the toughest he has faced in years.  Much more difficult than solving the issue of the affordable, practical electric motor is: “How do you engage an eleven-year-old.”  Whatever it is, Dr. Caruthers knows that it has to be cool, and for a top-notch Engineering school in Indiana, what is more cool than Motorsports.

His approach has been effective if not entirely simple – to scale a college level curriculum and it’s electric go-kart competition to the Middle School level.  What he discovered along the way is likely of little surprise.  A generation that has largely lost not only the ability to build things, but much of the interest inherent in pre-video-game life.

“We have a bunch of kids that don’t know how to make anything,” generalizes Dr. Caruthers of the students that are now interacting with his curriculum.  And so they begin each new course with a simple credo that drives the whole process.  You like motorsports, you think its cool, “we are going to teach you how to make this stuff.”  “Motorsports is the cool part, but to make the project succeed, they have to use math and science along the way.”

The Purdue model goes a step beyond creating effective curriculum and driving effective outcome by specifically seeking to address the issue of sustainability.  Dr. Caruthers points out that most federal grant dollars are project based, which means they have a beginning and an end, and therefore are inherently not sustainable.

Additionally, he points out that sustainability requires complete integration with what is being taught and required in the classroom – which means curriculum. He was keen on the point that STEM activities are only as good as their application and integration in the classroom.  “I’m thinking about STEM curricula, not STEM projects … and the one that matters the most is the teacher.”

Yet. there’s a final piece to this whole puzzle, and that is the engagement of industry, or more specifically, the STEM employers themselves. “I believe…unless we get the folks doing the manufacturing involved in the education… we will fail.”  And that is exactly what they are doing.

This coming Spring, STEMJOBS will release an exclusive behind the scenes feature on STEM in motorsports, along with a detailed review of Purdue’s leading K-12 STEM education initiative. To keep informed, follow us on Twitter @stem_jobs and sign up today for access to more informative articles and resources at

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