East graduate, MIT professor keynotes Diversity in STEM conference

posted on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in  College News

WATERLOO — As a self-professed nerd, Martin Culpepper’s interests drew him to the field of mechanical engineering.

But the Waterloo native credits East High School’s teachers and programs with putting him on the path that led to becoming a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Precision engineering is the focus of Culpepper’s teaching and research at the prestigious Cambridge, Mass., institute, where he has developed expertise in the areas of thermal and fluid analysis.

It’s this focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics that is bringing the 1990 East graduate to Hawkeye Community College on Thursday, when he will be giving the keynote address at the fourth-annual Diversity in STEM Conference. It goes from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Tama Hall on the main campus, 1501 E. Orange Road. Registration costs $25 and can be done online at hawkeyecollege.edu or at the conference.

“I think it’s both important having STEM conferences and then having conferences on diversity,” said Culpepper, who is black. “I think it’s a fantastic idea.”

Annette Staples, a coordinator with Hawkeye’s academic affairs department, cited the conference’s mission statement in explaining why the college hosts the event, which is expected to draw 150 to 175 people.

“To explore strategies to build STEM programs that entice and encourage our underrepresented communities in high-demand careers,” she said. “That’s kind of it in a nutshell.”

Diversity here refers to bringing more ethnic minorities and females into the male-dominated STEM fields. Both high school and college students are encouraged to attend along with educators, manufacturers and other employers as well as any interested community members.

“I’m really glad that they’re doing it,” said Culpepper. “People don’t always know what they want or what they can be unless they know what’s out there.”

Culpepper began figuring that out for himself as a kid.

“When I was young, I was a giant nerd and I used to be ashamed of that,” he said. “But I just couldn’t help it. I wanted to make and build things.”

That impulse was nurtured by his parents, Martin and Terry Culpepper, and both of his grandfathers.

One fixed cars, and Culpepper was fascinated to see inside the engines. The other one collected a lot of old things that were eventually hauled to the junk yard, but not before his grandson spent a lot of time examining the items.

“Somebody had figured out how to craft these super intricate things out of metals,” said Culpepper. “It piqued my interest. I naively thought it would be an easy thing.”

He became the neighborhood kid who fixed everybody’s bicycles — or at least tried. In a precursor to the maker movement, “I started trying to build things on my own,” said Culpepper, even though all he had was tools like a screwdriver and a saw.

After arriving at East, teacher Tony Burns first got him interested in high school competitions where students used their physics knowledge to build and design. Culpepper also took the opportunity to get hands-on experience through industrial technology classes. He worked with a lathe and did casting and welding as well as spending time in the auto shop.

“East was a great place for me,” he said. “The facilities we had at East High School back then were better than what we have on campus at MIT.

“I ended up building and making more things at East High than I did for my bachelor’s degree,” he added. “I would not have ended up here (at MIT) had they not had the facilities at East High.”

Culpepper earned his bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University in 1995. He went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at MIT before joining its faculty in the mechanical engineering department.

His research involves designing everything from “satellites to medical devices to robots to micro and nano devices.” But there’s also a lot of building associated with the classes he teaches. “We spend a lot of time in class, but we also spend time getting dirty (by building),” said Culpepper.

In addition, he is the campuses’ “Maker Czar” — overseeing the 50 places at MIT students can get involved in building on their own time or for research and class purposes.

The conference will include breakout sessions led by people with STEM perspectives from education and industry at the local, state, and federal level. Culpepper hopes it will help participants get some direction and possibly find satisfying careers in the STEM fields.

“People are happiest when they can have careers that they’re passionate about and have fun with,” he said.

By Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier


  1. Diversity in STEM
  2. Martin Culpepper
  3. STEM
Back to top