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MacVicar Teaching Awards Announced

By Dana Levine

Today, six MIT professors will be named as MacVicar faculty fellows, MIT’s highest honor for undergraduate teaching.

This year’s fellows are Professors Rohan Abeyaratne of the department of mechanical engineering, John W. Belcher of physics, Ernest G. Cravalho of mechanical engineering, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Dava J. Newman Ph.D. ’92, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Professor Steven Pinker, and Jacquelyn C. Yanch of the nuclear engineering department.

The MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was established in 1991 to honor Margaret L. A. MacVicar ’65, MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education.

“MIT has a range of teaching awards. This is our highest and deepest honor,” said Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind H. Williams.

Potential MacVicar fellows are typically nominated by fellow faculty members, typically department heads and chosen by a committee of three student and three faculty members.

“These were all spectacular cases,” said Williams. “This award [comes] out of respect for both their intellect and their closeness to their students.”

Non-tenured professor selected

This year, Professor Dava Newman was the first non-tenured faculty member to receive a MacVicar fellowship. MIT has recently created a new category for non-tenured faculty members, which allows them to be honored without interfering with the tenure process.

“[Yanch] is part of the real excitement in the Aero/Astro department. She is from a department that has inspired its junior and senior faculty to build the undergraduate program,” said Williams, and has been instrumental in the recent redesign and growth of the undergraduate nuclear engineering program. “She has tried to emphasize the medical uses of radiation and nuclear engineering,” Williams said.

“When I was an undergraduate, there was one professor that affected my career choice and therefore m whole life. I have tried to pattern myself after him,” said Professor Yanch.

Yanch designed and teaches a class on radiation’s effects and uses, which she hopes to promote to MIT’s general student population. “I would like for more students at MIT to know what radiation is,” said Yanch.

She hopes to use some of the discretionary funding which comes along with the fellowship to “bring undergraduates more into the department on a social level.”

John Belcher’s “work in trying to develop a whole new physics core is so exciting,” said Williams. During his time at MIT, Belcher has attempted to integrate technology into the classroom as an integral part of the teaching process.

“It’s thrilling to have him on the MIT faculty,” said Williams of Professor Stephen Pinker. “He’s done so much work to integrate communications and to build up the cognitive science major.”

Pinker currently focuses a large part of his research on the process of language development in twins and also teaches Introduction to Psychology (9.00).

Pinker has published several bestselling books which contain a large amount of scientific information while remaining readable to the average person. His most recent title is the bestseller “Words and Minds.”

Newly named fellow Cravalho said, “To me, this is the greatest honor that I’ve ever had.” During his long career at MIT, he has pioneered the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program in 1975 and has worked to improve the quality of undergraduate education and life at MIT.

Cravalho noted that while the freshman seminar program had a strong start, it began to sag during the 1970s. “We built it back up to the point where we had 100 such seminars,” he said.

In the mid 1970s, Professor Cravalho served as the associate dean of engineering for a few years. In addition, he served as the faculty resident at MacGregor house for a number of years.

More recently, Cravalho has played a key role in the overhaul of the undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum. He designed and teaches Thermal-Fluids Engineering I and II (2.005, 2.006) mechanical engineering sequence, which has attracted attention worldwide.

“Few of us will have the momentous breakthrough that some of our colleagues have. Our biggest contribution is in the young people we educate. These people are multiplying the impact that I could have had as a single individual,” said Cravalho.

Professor Rohan Abeyaratne was also named a MacVicar fellow as a result of his contributions to the mechanical engineering department.

In 1997, Abeyaratne assumed the position of associate department head of the Mechanical Engineering Department.

In 1988, he received the Graduate Student Council Teaching Award.

“These are individuals who are outstanding teachers,” said Williams. “However, they also have their departments behind them, and that is a tribute to the Institute as well.”

Selection process

While evaluation of classroom teaching is an important part of the selection process, Williams noted that it was “not the only element considered.”

All parts of the review process “include substantial student input and comments,” Williams said. This year, the selection committee had significant student representation, consisting of three students and three faculty members.

The selection committee, chaired by Dean Williams, goes through “quite a long process of discussion” of the various nominations, and eventually makes some final recommendations. These recommendations are sent to Provost Robert A. Brown, who makes a final decision.

A large amount of the committee’s work lies in soliciting nominations and letters of recommendation, which are necessary for a faculty member to be considered for a MacVicar fellowship.

Williams attributed the large number of fellows selected this year to the fact that the committee “did a little more work than usual in encouraging submissions.” She also noted that each nomination stays in the system for three years, and is updated and reevaluated each year.