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PHOTO by donna coveney courtesy of david kaiser
Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society and Senior Lecturer of Physics David Kaiser
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Last Friday, four MIT professors were announced as this year’s MacVicar Fellows; William Broadhead, Class of 1954 career development associate professor of history; Leslie P. Kaelbling, Panasonic professor of computer science and engineering; David Kaiser, Germeshausen professor of the history of science; and Nancy L. Rose, Charles P. Kindleberger professor of applied economics. The MacVicar Fellowship recognizes MIT professors for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education. These professors will hold their fellowships for a 10-year term, during which they will receive $10,000 annually for educational activities and other scholarly expenses.

“Overwhelmingly, I’m humbled, and I’m just so deeply honored,” said Kaiser.

This year’s fellows were announced at a symposium on Friday dedicated to Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’64, MIT’s first dean for undergraduate education, and Robert J. Silbey, former dean of MIT’s School of Science . Silbey passed away last October.

According to Mary Z. Enterline, associate dean of the Office of Faculty Support, MacVicar fellows were nominated through a rigorous process that involved, among other components, a primary nomination letter and letters of support from department heads, colleagues, and undergraduates. A committee consisting of students and faculty reviewed the nominations and submitted recommendations to Provost L. Rafael Reif, who made final decisions. Daniel E. Hastings, dean for undergraduate education, said during the symposium that a record number of nominations were submitted for this year’s cycle.

“It was a huge surprise,” said Broadhead. “I had no idea that this was even a possibility. My colleagues had kept it very secret.”

According to Broadhead, who teaches Greek and Roman history in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, undergraduate teaching is an opportunity to introduce students to “material that they might not have expected to encounter.” Each year over IAP, Broadhead takes 10 to 15 students to Rome, an experience that he believes “wakes up” the students to the world around them.

Broadhead enjoys teaching MIT students for their intelligence, curiosity, and humility. “This uniquely MIT combination of qualities … makes them fun and easy to teach, it makes them much more enthusiastic about working on this material with me than I could possibly have hoped they would be, and it means that often they push me in directions that I hadn’t thought of before,” said Broadhead. “I get a lot of questions from MIT undergraduates that you would not expect to get from a more conventional student of ancient history at a liberal arts college.”

Rose, who teaches 14.20 (Industrial Organization and Competitive Strategy), also finds the approach to teaching MIT students a unique experience.

“They’re very curious about the world and very eager to try and take what they’re learning and apply it,” said Rose. “One of the really fabulous things about teaching at MIT is that I have the opportunity to do things in my class sometimes that I can’t imagine I would get to do at a lot of other places.”

In the spring of 2000, Rose managed to bring in as a guest lecturer Andreas Antonius Gonzalez — the chief of staff for Mexico’s then-Secretary of Energy Luis Tellez — who had taken part in reorganizing the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They had discussed this topic extensively throughout the term as an example of collusion in cartels.

“We’d been sitting here during the semester taking about this, and then [Gonzalez] shows up in the middle of my class and gives a 20-minute speech that basically says, ‘Well here’s how we were thinking about it,’ and starts citing the economic models that I’d been teaching the class,” said Rose. “And then, at the end of his presentation, we opened it up and the students got to ask him all kinds of questions. It was one of these moments when you just think, ‘It doesn’t get better than this.’”

Kaelbling, one of the first developers of the introductory computer science course 6.01, sees undergraduate teaching as a “design problem,” optimizing clarity and simplicity while encouraging students to think critically and autonomously.

“I really want to figure out how to get students to be enthusiastic about and engaged in the questions and ultimately to ask the questions themselves,” said Kaelbling. “The reason that we have lab the way we have it is so that we can ask somewhat more open-ended things of the students and so that we can put more of the intellectual burden on them.”

MIT’s unique culture has also shaped the way that Kaiser approaches undergraduate teaching.

“One of the things that I really love about being at a place like MIT is that every student here can do anything,” said Kaiser. “They’re incredible.”

Kaiser’s “quintessential MIT moment,” as he called it, came in September 2000, when he was giving a lecture on medieval Arabic astronomy. As he lectured about a medieval theory on uniform circular motion of planets, one of his students wrote a few lines of code on an archaic handheld device and managed to model and explain the theory.

“That was when I knew I was at MIT,” said Kaiser.