Whether it is making a joke or a pop culture reference or talking about his experience as an engineer in the private sector, Dr. Dumitru Caruntu will do whatever it takes during his lectures to ensure his students at The University of Texas-Pan American not only comprehend the lessons, but enjoy what they are learning.
"If the students understand the material they can perform, they can do the work and they like it," said Caruntu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Biomechanics Laboratory at UTPA. "So this is, I'd say, my teaching philosophy: help them learn the material and get them excited. It's not about the grade, it's about what they learn."
Caruntu's passion for sharing his expertise and encouraging students earned him one of The University of Texas System's 2013 Regents' Outstanding Teaching Awards, the Board of Regents' highest teaching award. Caruntu was one of six faculty members from UTPA to receive the award.
He and his fellow UTPA faculty members were among 63 faculty members from the UT System's nine academic institutions selected to share $1.6 million in awards. Each faculty member receives a $25,000 cash award, considered one of the largest in the nation for rewarding outstanding faculty performance.
Caruntu, a native of Romania, said he has always had an interest in science. He earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering from Politehnica University of Bucharest and his bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics from the University of Bucharest.
He has served as a faculty member at Politehnica University of Bucharest, the University of Toledo in Ohio (where he also was a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research associate) before joining UT Pan American in 2007. He is also a licensed professional engineer in the United States and has worked in the private sector in Romania.
Caruntu said he was drawn to academia because it allows him to share his love of science, mathematics and engineering with students and pursue research.
"I've always thought the students who are involved or exposed to research will be better students, they will be better motivated to study, to learn," he said.
Students want to know the relevance of what they are learning, Caruntu said, that is why he uses real problems that engineers solved to show students how the subjects he teaches apply to the real world.
"I am teaching the highest level math for undergraduate mechanical engineering students, so it's not an easy subject for a relatively significant number of students," he said. "We work together, that's the deal, on the first day of classes I tell them that I don't give grades, they have to earn theirs, and that I'm here only to help them do the best they can. ...What amazes me every single time is how from where we started how far they go."
His research in biomechanics, as well as in microelectromechanical and nanoelectromechanical systems, among other areas, also allows him to pull in students who are interested in learning more about what they study in the classroom.
"I always try to attract students toward research and we have various areas we work on," he said. "I've published while here at Pan Am about 45 papers, journal and conference papers and 30 of them are with students, graduate and undergraduate."
With the receipt of a grant from the National Science Foundation two years ago, Caruntu opened the Biomechanics Laboratory at UTPA, in which he and his students study the biomechanics involved in the musculoskeletal system and how factors like obesity can affect joints.
"What a teacher or professor has to do is to inspire students," he said. "You really have to show them the excitement of the profession of their career, but also give them the tools, because what happens is this: you cannot learn something today and use it for the next 50 years; you have to continuously learn, you need the tools to learn permanently, to adapt. ...I think, research-wise, we try to involve our undergrads and the ones who perform well and invite them to stay with us in the master's program ... and help them get into a Ph.D. program."
In addition to providing UTPA students the opportunity to learn about biomechanics and engineering through participating in research, the lab also serves as a platform to educate the community about the University's research and inspire future engineers.
Caruntu and his students have opened up their lab to area school districts and the community to showcase their work and inform them about the benefits and opportunities associated with pursuing a career in engineering.
"I think this is a very important venue to attract students to engineering," he said. "One thing that is also very important is for you to make sure they know the benefits of being in this profession; they have to make a decision and you just have to give them all the information they would need for them to make the right decision. We want to get the best students, so that means we have to go out there and show them what it is."
In letters of support of Caruntu's nomination for the award, current and former students hailed Caruntu as a caring instructor who always took the time to make sure they understood the lessons, no matter how complex they were.
"I believe only people who take the time to understand their students are truly in love with teaching," said Carlos Vasquez. "For Dr. Caruntu, this is not just a job, but also a lifestyle, a lifestyle that helps tens of hundreds of people per year accomplish their goals in becoming engineers."
Eduardo Granados, a graduate student who works with Caruntu on biomechanics research, recalled that his former teacher's classes were challenging yet inspiring because Caruntu knew how to explain the material.
"He brings up pop culture references, or makes light-hearted jokes about the complex mathematical equations that somehow tie in exactly with the subject matter," Granados wrote. "While most other teachers might lead you into a labyrinth blindfolded, Dr. Caruntu guides you through the course like he invented the subject and can oversimplify it to the point where everything makes perfect sense."
Learn more about the Regents' Award winners at this website.