In order to thrive in challenging STEM roles, students and workers need inspiration and passion to reach levels they never thought possible. Purdue University’s Professor of Industrial Engineering Dr. Barrett Caldwell helps them to make those boundary-breaking moments happen.
When it comes to the inspiration and impacts he leaves on his students, Dr. Barrett Caldwell believes that he is setting them up for the future. He recognizes they aren’t children anymore, and he treats them as such by giving them responsibilities and skills, along with the confidence needed to succeed in STEM roles.
“Part of what I can give them is somewhat based on what they bring. One of the things that is most important to me is whether or not the student, the mentee, brings signs of life. People who express that level of enthusiastic, curious questioning and exploration are the people that I really really like to engage with.”
“But more often, it may be giving them the confidence to develop their own understanding of their own strengths. Even if other people don’t see those strengths, for them to have enough confidence to actually try to use them and build on them. So, sometimes that is just listening to them, and recognizing when they are having a challenge and figuring out what’s the best way of helping them meet their challenge.”
“It’s easy when you’re a faculty member to just treat people like kids as though you’re the parent and you have all the answers and you just tell them what to do. But you know, my grad students are adults. I want them to function that way. I don’t want them to just assume that there’s going to be a parent, manager, or a professor all the time telling them what to do and being the adult because they’re supposed to be the adult too.”
“At some point, if they never get that practice, they never learn how to do that. Someday they’re the ones leading the company, or running the organization, or [being] seniors faculty members. They need to have those skills. I want them to be able to start practicing those skills, even as an undergraduate, even as a graduate.”
“I think for a lot of my research career and a lot of my faculty life, I spent a great deal of time trying to demonstrate that I was capable of similar levels of excellence as my colleagues, and I think at this point, this is no longer about what I prove for myself or what I prove as an example, but being able to be in a position that can be both visible and helping to improve the opportunities for the generation to follow.”
Dr. Caldwell has made significant strides in a profession that’s long dealt with a glaring lack of diversity. He became the first African-American tenured professor at Purdue’s College of Engineering, and is set to take over as the interim head of the School of Industrial Engineering. According to the Pew Research Center, just 9% of STEM workers are black, and among employed adults with a bachelor’s degrees or higher, blacks are just 7% of the STEM workforce.
“I would say that when I was growing up, the inspiration was about human space flight. But I also recognized that at the time, there was a great deal of social tension and demand for demonstrations that blacks should be able to have access to and benefit from the educational, professional, and social opportunities that were acquired in other aspects of society,” Dr. Caldwell said.
“For me to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’ve been involved with NASA research and other federal research and written journal papers,’ that’s really great. What I see now is that other people are able to say, ‘Oh, wow, I see this person as a faculty member. I see this person as leading this NASA engagement program. I see this person as an administrative head, at a top-level university, and oh, I can do that too,’ or, ‘If that person can do it, then I have a little bit more encouragement that there will be space for me as well.’”
“One of the obstacles that I have long run into, I joke that sometimes I need a translator. I think about problems a little bit differently than most people, and I have a set of skills and attributes that a lot of other people don’t have.”
Like anyone in the STEM field, Dr. Caldwell has endured his share of challenges in his life due to his way of thinking, problem-solving, and abilities that have ultimately helped him achieve his success.
“Years ago, Apple had this ad campaign, ‘Think different.’ I’ve always loved that campaign because it was people like Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, or Rosa Parks. They were all people who approached the world they were in, but dealing with it differently. I didn’t want [to] just say, ‘Okay, I’m this black person doing this.’ I wanted to actually be able to be innovative and be creative and be a non-standard form of engineer, working on things like information technology, teamwork, and systems. Those were things that were not necessarily that popular when I was an undergraduate or the first few years of my faculty career.”
“Being nonstandard, having to explain that wasn’t just a function of being black, and that it wasn’t because I couldn’t be good enough to be standard. That was an obstacle. I remember a lot of opportunities or a lot of meetings that I would have where someone would know about me, they would see the description of some of [my] accomplishments. But when they would look around the room, they wouldn’t recognize that I would be that person.”
“So the picture of me and the description of those attributes don’t always go together in people’s heads, and I think that’s a barrier. I think that’s something that, as I’ve gotten further on in my career, I can see that my being more visible about that is an opportunity for people to maybe change some of those opinions.”
“I have colleagues who are working on grant programs where you can only have U.S. citizens working on the project. If we had projects in the national interest, for the military or for energy or for cybersecurity or anything like that, and we didn’t have enough American citizens to work on those projects, people would see that there would be a pretty significant problem there.”
In addition to his role as professor, Dr. Caldwell has also served as the Director and PI of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded program which works to carry out further education, research, and outreach in the STEM field.
“The idea is to be able to support meaningful student hands-on experiences, [which includes] students conducting research, K12 programs at outreach centers and science museums, faculty starting their research careers on new research programs, and especially students doing internships at NASA centers, at companies, [and] being able to engage in their own experience or their own development of their professional careers, either on a campus or at a NASA center,” Dr. Caldwell said.
While the program has been severely affected by COVID-19 — interns have been forced to work virtually as a result — the professor believes the required changes in operations could prove to be beneficial for the students down the line. “I think one of the things is it helps to show the students, ‘This is what the world of work looks like and will look like.’ They will no longer be quite so confused or quite so uncertain about how to be engaged with a team meeting where the people in the team are meeting from all over the world.”
One of Dr. Caldwell’s beliefs is that graduate students, especially those in the U.S., should be in a greater position to earn scholarships and other compensations. “Right now, in the United States, we do not have a large percentage of graduate students in the sciences and engineering who are U.S. citizens. This is, for me, both a diversity thing as well as a national enterprise issue.”
“If you’re able to go to graduate school and you’re a high quality STEM major working in a STEM field, those research opportunities should be ones that can pay you, pay your tuition, pay you a stipend. It shouldn’t just be, ‘Oh, I’m spending extra tuition money to take additional classes.’ A master’s degree, a research thesis, a doctoral dissertation, that’s about you making new contributions to the field. In the STEM disciplines, those new contributions might turn into research grants, they might turn into new equipment, they might turn into new startup companies.”
“When you see the outcomes of these research studies and ‘Professor invents whitest white paint’ is one of the stories from Purdue, in those projects, most of the time there are graduate students involved in that research that have been paid for their research skill and paid to be part of those research teams.”
“If I were rowing on the river, or if I was doing a research project, or watching a beam vibrate or something like that, those would be moments of beauty and moments of just touchingly achingly wonderful inspiration.”
Aerospace and engineering isn’t the only passion of Dr. Caldwell’s – he’s also developed quite a bit of skill on the side as a creative writer. “Starting in high school, I really liked writing poetry, sudden fiction, [which is] under 3000 words, or longer fiction,” Dr. Caldwell explained, noting he wrote a novella in high school and minored in creative writing as an undergrad at MIT. “I liked structured poetry forms, and I like sudden fiction because of the requirements to tell a good story well in a small number of words.”
“I can play an instrument, but I’m not that great at playing a guitar. I can’t paint all that well. I can sing a bit but it’s as a bass and most of the great songs aren’t written for basses. So, those were not the artistic media that I could really feel comfortable with. But I could feel comfortable with writing, and sometimes I would feel far more comfortable writing out what my emotions were, or what my feelings were, for myself or for somebody else. I would do better writing it than saying it aloud.”
Dr. Caldwell was particularly captured by Haiku — the Japanese style of 17 syllable poetry — as well as a related style called Tanka, which has 31 syllables. “Once I learned about those, I found that was just a wonderfully balanced way of creative expression of beauty and inspiration in a highly structured form.”
The professor’s field has proved to be an especially abundant producer of inspiration and mystique. “I have poems about watching an eclipse. I have poems about watching a rocket launch, I have poems about the diffraction of the sunset light on a river, the beauty of sunrise and sunset, the contrails from an aircraft wing. Anything, to me, is a potential source of beauty.”
“This is an amazing combination of opportunities, maybe even responsibilities, to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is part of being human. Pay attention to this.’ This is what we need to be better, to perform better, to understand more, to respond more creatively and effectively to conflict.”
For Dr. Caldwell, the best aspect of his role is being able to explore while also teaching his pupils. “I get paid to explore. I get the opportunity to watch the light turn on for generations of younger scholars, engineers, and scientists. I get to wander through the frontiers of what we understand as humans, and what we understand to be human.”
Dr. Caldwell also took time to re-evaluate what his own legacy truly meant, and was able to walk away with a satisfying conclusion. “In the past couple of years, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve had a very different opportunity to review what legacy means. One of the things that has been able to be much more tangible to me [has] been my opportunity to see that my legacy is more for other people than I ever thought it to be.”
“To be able to have the opportunity to do things on behalf of Purdue students who haven’t been born yet, or for astronauts that are still in middle school, or researchers that are just learning how to say their words and [know] that my legacy of investigation and curiosity is stuff that might inspire them someday. That is a very different motivation than I would’ve had before, and it is unexpectedly empowering for me to work towards that legacy of making something better for having been here.”
To learn more about the Indiana Space Grant Consortium and its efforts to improve space and aeronautics-related STEM research and education, you can visit here.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.