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Professor Krishna Rajagopal, Professor Norvin W. Richards PhD ’97, Professor Rajeev J. Ram, and Associate Professor Anette E. “Peko” Hosoi, were named MacVicar Fellows on Tuesday.
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Associate Professor Anette E. “Peko” Hosoi of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Norvin W. Richards PhD ’97 of the Department of Linguistics, Professor Rajeev J. Ram of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Professor Krishna Rajagopal of the Department of Physics were named MacVicar fellows last Tuesday. The fellowship seeks to recognize excellence in undergraduate education.

The MacVicar fellowship is a yearly award given to recognize outstanding contributions to undergraduate education and provide an opportunity for continued improvement. The fellowship was named in honor of the late Margaret L. A. MacVicar ’64, a former professor of physical science and dean for undergraduate education who founded MIT’s UROP program.

Tenured faculty receive a grant of $100,000 paid in $10,000 installments over 10 years for support of education and research expenses. Junior faculty receive the award for three years initially. The grant is extended to the full ten years if tenure is received.

All four of the fellows spoke highly of the experience of teaching at MIT and working with MIT undergraduates. “[MIT students are] premotivated. You don’t want to damp to enthusiasm they come in with,” said Hosoi.

“The average MIT student is amazing, and then there’s this tail of the distribution that blows you away,” Rajagopal said.

Rajagopal told of a first semester freshman who took Quantum Mechanics II, 8.05. The student was interested in taking the class, and he was allowed to as long as he was aware it was an upper-level class and would likely be difficult. The student went on to score a 179 out of 180 on the final in the class, by far the highest grade in the class.

Rajagopal and Ram see MIT’s commitment to undergraduate education as a strong asset to students and faculty alike.

“People teach better here and it’s valued here and it’s valued in real ways,” said Rajagopal. Being surrounded by other faculty who are not only pushing the frontiers of science in their research, but are also committed to excellence in education is seen as a strong motivating factor by Rajagopal.

Ram similarly praised MIT’s commitment to undergraduate education. “I knew I wanted to teach, that was the highest priority,” said Ram, who initially was looking at faculty positions at smaller liberal arts schools because he was looking for a program with an emphasis on education. Ram had gone to CalTech for his undergraduate degree and received his PhD from UC Santa Barbara.

At MIT, Ram found that “the [EECS] department was very teaching-focused,” something not found at all comparable research institutions. Ram sees the dedication to teaching as one of the great strengths of MIT for both the faculty and the student body.

A recurring theme was the ties between research and teaching. “It’s not right to separate the teaching and the research,” said Rajagopal. “For me, my teaching and my research come from the same place.” Rajagopal’s research is in the field of theoretical nuclear and particle physics. Other fellows echoed the same idea, presenting the idea that research and teaching strengthen each other.

All four fellows seek to instill a sense of understanding in their students, something that often challenges their own understanding of the subject.

Hosoi said “If you can’t articulate your understanding, then you don’t really understand it.” Recognizing the best way to explain complex topics is commonly recognized as one of the greatest hurdles in effective teaching.

Beyond simple understanding, the fellows commonly want to instill interest and passion in their students. Richards says one of the most rewarding parts of teaching undergraduates is seeing that “your lecture has made them think about the world in a different way.”

“Undergraduate education is not professional training,” said Rajagopal, who believes that an undergraduate education should be able to set a strong foundation for later work, while allowing exploration of passions. An education is physics should be given to those who are passionate about the subject, not just who wish to become physicists.

The fellows have employed a variety of teaching styles in their classrooms to best foster understanding. “I try to get them to argue with each other, test hypotheses in class,” said Professor Richards. Richard says it is common for students to come into his introductory linguistics class with little background but many preconceptions about how language works, giving opportunities for exploration of how much people think they know about language actually applies.

Professor Hosoi tries to experiment with her methods to find the best way to teach her classes, which include Mechanics and Materials I, 2.001, and Thermal Fluids Engineering II, 2.006. “Don’t be afraid to try new things, especially at MIT,” where Hosoi says students will tell you what is and what isn’t working. She sees videos as a nearly essential teaching tool — “I don’t know how people taught without YouTube.”

Ram starts lecturing Electromagnetic Energy: From Motors to Lasers (6.007) with a discussion of the iPhone. In 6.007, Ram wants his students to “make the connection between the Course VIII classes and the devices [they] own.” He starts he first class with discussion of what the iPhone can do, from touch screen to accelerometer, and what principles enable these abilities. “MIT undergraduates should graduate knowing how all the cool technology works,” Ram said.

Rajagopal works off a simple blackboard and lecture format. Rajagopal has taught exclusively undergraduate classes since starting at MIT in 1997. “When you’re teaching quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics, you’re opening students eyes to a whole new language,” he said.

One of the main challenges in teaching quantum mechanics is helping students gain an intuition for the topic, something that comes much more easily for classical mechanics. Rajagopal wants his students to gain a deep understanding of what the material is and how it works. “Any one of these subjects has implications all over the place, and I try and make those connections clear.”

Though they have only recently received the grant, some of the fellows have already started considering how to allocate their funds. Professor Richards, whose research includes investigation of extinct and dying languages, hopes to use some of the grant to fund paid positions for undergraduates to perform field work in chronicling such languages

Professor Ram hopes to use money from the MacVicar grant to allow for more lab opportunities. Ram’s goals include “a facility that had the capacity of a clean room that was as accessible as a hobby shop,” allowing undergraduates access to a lab in which they could do work such as building transistors and LCDs. Ram hopes to develop new lab components for classes, starting with a freshman seminar slated for next fall.