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Carl E. Wieman ’73 delivers a talk entitled “Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science” for the 2008 MacVicar Day lecture, held Friday in 32-123.
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Five MIT faculty members were named MacVicar Fellows for their excellence in undergraduate teaching last Friday during this year’s MacVicar Day, a celebration which recognizes contributions to undergraduate education at MIT. The program began in 32-123 with a lecture on science education by Nobel Laureate in Physics Carl E. Wieman ’73. The lecture was followed by an MIT faculty reception hosted by President Susan Hockfield at Gray House, where the five fellows were announced.

At the faculty reception, the awards were presented by Provost L. Rafael Reif to the 2008 MacVicar Fellows — Biology Professor Tania Baker, Materials Science and Engineering Professor Craig W. Carter, Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Sanjay E. Sarma, Literature Professor Stephen J. Tapscott, and Physics Professor Barton Zwiebach.

As each award recipient was presented with a framed certificate, Reif read a few words from their nominators. The most compelling comments were from students, who described each fellow’s dedication and passion for teaching undergraduates.

“Learning from Professor Baker and learning from someone average is like the difference between a 5 star and 2 star restaurant service,” wrote a student about Baker. About Sarma, another wrote, “Sanjay is the man.” One student said of Zwiebach, “I encourage every physics major at MIT to take a class from him; I have taken three, and I still want more.”

All of the recipients expressed gratitude for the honor. Many said that the MacVicar Award is on a different level than any of the other awards they have received in the past because it is based on input from colleagues and, most importantly, their students. Referring to his love for teaching, Carter explained that, unlike his previous awards and honors, the MacVicar Award was like an “award for eating ice cream.”

The fellows praised MIT students, especially the students’ uniqueness and inquisitive nature. Baker said that she loves the fresh perspective that undergraduates bring to her class. Barton said that the best part of his job was “the looks in the eyes of the students getting the material.”

The reception was preceded by Wieman’s talk, titled “Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science.” Wieman is currently aiming to improve undergraduate education as the director of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, according to the MacVicar Day Web site. Speaking in front of a packed audience in Stata’s Kirsch Auditorium, Wieman stressed the need to look towards brain and cognitive research to improve teaching methods.

Wieman began by recalling his memory of the late Margaret L. MacVicar ’64, the former Dean of Undergraduate Education and Professor of Physics in whose memory the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program is named. He recalled having a conversation with her when she was trying to find funding to support undergraduate research in MIT laboratories.

The subject of that conversation became the now-ubiquitous Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). “I don’t think they realized this when they invited me to speak, but I think I was the very first UROP student,” he said. “[MacVicar] was a very friendly, caring, thoughtful, attractive woman physicist.”

Wieman discussed improving science education in the rest of his talk. He explained the difficulties associated with engaging students during lecture, citing evidence from cognitive science research that individuals have a poor ability to retain large amounts of concentrated information. In studies that he conducted, he found that students become more disinterested in physics after taking introductory physics classes.

Wieman suggested involving students in lecture with group discussions and technology such as “clickers,” remote control devices used to gauge students’ understanding. However, he warned that technology in the classroom needs to be utilized properly to be effective.