From early in life, Martin Culpepper loved figuring out how things work. Which is why one day, when he was about 11, he took apart his Dad’s carburetor.

Two problems: he didn’t have permission; and, he couldn’t restore the device to working order. “There were some mystery pieces left over,” recalls Culpepper; “that was how I got found out.”

His father “went into a little bit of a rage,” says the perpetrator, “and then I had to kind of sheepishly watch as he put the carburetor back together.”

Generally, though, Culpepper’s Dad was highly supportive of his efforts to explore and invent. In fact, such activities were right in line with a longstanding family tradition. “We didn’t have much money,” notes the son, “so if your car or something else broke, you’d fix it yourself.”

Culpepper, soon to receive his PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT, found he could pursue his passion in school as well as out. An Iowa native, he earned his bachelors in mechanical engineering at Iowa State, and later — after scouting out the East Coast with his then new wife — came to MIT.

Take-apart course

Once here, Culpepper kept probing how things work, usually with an eye to improving them. His masters thesis project, for example, was to design and build an innovative sweeper for runways and like surfaces.

By using an augur-like brush, the machine solves the clogging problems that bedevil conventional sweepers. It has been patented, and Culpepper and his associates are seeking a firm to develop it. (“Building stuff is easy,” observes the inventor; “it’s the marketing that’s hard.”)

Given his interests, Culpepper was a natural choice when his department chair asked for a volunteer to teach a short course that involved taking things apart and putting them back together. Moreover, the course — proposed by undergraduate Lee Knight — fit with Culpepper’s desire to try teaching. “I jumped on it,” he says.

The course was offered during the three-plus-week stretch in January called the Independent Activities Period (IAP). An email notice went out to the department’s undergraduates in late fall. “There were about 200 responses,” Culpepper recalls. “I chose 30 people, based on why they said they wanted to take the course.”

Some of the students thought the take-apart options would be limited to things like audio gear and toasters. Culpepper wanted to do better.

“I went out and solicited companies,” he says. “We had a bunch of pumps, we had transmissions, we had brand new car engines. We had VCRs, motors, robot arms, you name it.”

Impact on students

For Robin Evans of Grantsville, Ohio, then a senior mechanical engineering major, the course turned out to have career-shaping significance.

When she signed up, she felt she was strong in theory but lacking in hands-on experience. After the course, Evans says, “I was confident that, given the time and exposure, I could learn how to do things like product development.” Partly as a result, she passed up a planned move into management consulting in favor of graduate work in mechanical engineering.

For Roman Luz, the course was a source of insights he has relied on since. The devices the sophomore engineering major worked on included a pump and a DC motor. Such experiences, he says, taught him that in many devices, “there’s what I call a trick that makes them work, so when I see something new I feel as though I can figure out what that trick is.”

When the course ended, several students promoted the idea of a regular course with the same focus. As a result, next semester’s curriculum will include a Culpepper-designed offering called “How and Why Machines Work.” Among the “cool machines” students will take apart are copiers, lawnmower engines, and various components of a car.

Award-winning design

For many grad students, of course, research is at least as vital to academic success as teaching, and Culpepper has done well on that score. With mentor Alex Slocum, a mechanical engineering professor, and engineers from Ford and an affiliated research firm, he’s devised a brand new way to align major pieces of gear like the block and head of a car engine.

The standard approach relies on straight pins that fit into pre-drilled holes. The new one uses cone-shaped fittings that self-align like a ferry docking in a slip. It thus lets users achieve precision levels of a few millionths of a meter. If it proves out, says Culpepper, “it will enable manufacturers to attain better precision and performance than they can today.”

The invention, now being tested by Ford, has led to a prestigious R&D 100 award for Culpepper, Slocum, and their fellow inventors from Ford and Aesop. Yet while pleased by the device’s success, Culpepper says his most meaningful rewards come from teaching. And comments from former students suggest he has a lot to offer as an educator.

Alicia Hardy is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. She spent last summer helping design a yet-to-be-built space-craft at Boeing, and is contemplating a career in that field.

Hardy, a native of Philadelphia, was in Culpepper’s IAP class, and found it a great experience. “Marty has so much enthusiasm for what he’s doing,” she says, “that somehow it just gets you excited about whatever you’re doing.”