June 22, 2021 – Future of Work

Purdue University: Transforming how first-year STEM students learn


In response to the pandemic, many universities struggled to adapt.

Not Purdue University.

Long synonymous with innovation, the research university launched an unprecedented project that digitized all first-year STEM courses (45 courses in the College of Science and 10 in the College of Engineering), allowing seamless learning for students on and off campus. The initiative emphasized effective student-to-student connections, artificial intelligence-powered learning analytics, and virtual laboratory instruction. More than 3,000 students used the virtual labs, and each had access to the same materials whether on or off campus.

While particularly beneficial over the last year of hybrid learning, the pilot program will allow Purdue to rethink the undergraduate experience and expand access to experiential learning opportunities. The program offers a model for how students can collaborate and learn virtually without losing the experiential component of STEM courses, and Purdue is eager to share the results of the pilot program with other higher education institutions.

Donna Riley, Purdue’s Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education, says before the pandemic, the university regularly hosted colleagues from around the world who wanted to learn more about its first-year programs. She expects the pilot will drive more interest. “It’s too early to tell where these particular innovations will travel, but already folks have attended our workshops on how to teach actively online,” Riley says.

Provost Jay Akridge says, “I think that flexibility in higher education is something that is going to endure past the time of COVID-19 and will benefit students for many years to come.”

The Charles Koch Foundation supported the project with a $2.3 million grant. The school outlines the program’s success in a recent news story.

University officials say the virtual labs provided more opportunity for creativity because cost and safety were less of an issue. The labs also removed physical restrictions on when students could access the labs or pieces of equipment. For example, a physics course called Modern Mechanics combined hands-on experiments and virtual simulation for the laboratory portion of the course. Students rented kits that included sensors that allowed them to collect data, share it with small groups, and model the physical phenomena.

Moving courses online also allowed Purdue to collect data about how students learn. The university will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify patterns and provide recommendations to educators on how to improve instruction and meet the needs of individual students.

“Purdue is a leader in driving innovations that help learners unlock their potential,” said CKF Executive Director Ryan Stowers. “Their dedication to empowering students ensures they have access to an education that is meaningful and relevant to them. We believe this initiative holds significant promise for the future of learning and are excited to support its progress.”

Learn more about Purdue’s science and engineering pilot program.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education.