MacVicar Day Celebrates Learning, MIT Professors

Five professors were honored on Friday, March 2, MacVicar Day, as the 2007 Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows for demonstrating excellence in teaching. The award includes $10,000 per year for 10 years to be spent on improving teaching methods and course curriculum.

The five Fellows are Associate Professor Yoel Fink of the Materials Science and Engineering Department, Economics Professor Jonathan Gruber, Professor Charles E. Leiserson of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, Professor of Management Science James B. Orlin, and Associate Professor David Wallace of the Mechanical Engineering Department.

All the professors said that they felt honored by the award. Leiserson said that he is “absolutely tickled pink.”

Fink, who teaches both the undergraduate and graduate versions of Electronic, Optical and Magnetic Properties of Materials (3.024 and 3.23), said that he has tried to connect to his students by communicating his passion for the subject, getting his teaching message across, and by caring about the welfare of each student. “Teachers with big egos don’t become good teachers,” he said.

Fink added that though he has not yet given much thought to what to do with the MacVicar funds, managing the quality of teaching assistants is an important concern. “In my experience, TA quality is at least as or more important than the quality of the lecturer.” In that vein, he said that he would like to see a program similar to the UROP program devoted to teaching. Such a program would expose undergraduate teaching opportunities, giving potential future teachers an earlier start and getting more people interested in teaching.

As a Public Finance and Public Policy (14.41) professor, Gruber said that he “bring[s] a real passion to the subject … I think I convey that well because I’m kind of a hyperactive guy.” Though he was not yet sure what he would use the funding for, he said that some interesting ideas, like podcast lectures, were brought up at the MacVicar reception. In any case, he said, the money should be spent on something for students.

Leiserson, who is currently on sabbatical, said that besides spending time at MIT, he is starting a company with one of his former PhD students. The Lexington company, Silk Arts, will develop software for multi-core processors.

Leiserson usually teaches Introduction to Algorithms (6.046J) and Mathematics for Computer Science (6.042J), the latter which he helped to develop. He said that he works hard at teaching, loves the material, and loves the students. He said he plans to use some of the funding for the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program because he has already developed a leadership module as engineering co-director of the program. The award allows him to work on education without having to worry about applying for a grant to fund such work, he said.

Orlin says that he has taught Optimization Methods in Management Science (15.053) every year for at least the last decade, except when he was on sabbatical. He already uses a wide range of teaching techniques, including PowerPoint animations to illustrate algorithms and varying the type of material he presents. He credited his “incredible TAs” with making learning easier as well.

Orlin plans to use his funding to further develop 15.053 by using the Classroom Communicator, a device which takes a poll of the class, and by developing more exercises and applications. The Classroom Communicator is already used in the Technology-Enhanced Active Learning physics classes to help teachers get a sense of whether students understand a concept.

Wallace said that he has “put an awful lot of work into teaching” and tries to use small projects and project-based curriculum to keep students engaged. He said that he thinks the best teaching is that which “combines a thinking component with a doing component,” because it goes beyond textbook learning and helps students retain knowledge longer.

Since he is a professor for Solving Real Problems (2.00B) and a lab instructor for Toy Product Development (SP.778), Wallace said that he will spend the funding on material for class exercises and demonstrations for 2.00B, The Product Engineering Process (2.009), and Product Design (2.744J).

The professors do not seem content to rest on their laurels. Wallace said that he is going to “work hard to live up to the title I’ve been given … There’s lots of work left to do.”

Leann Dobranski, assistant director of the Teaching and Learning Lab, said that each Fellow was initially nominated by a faculty member or student. Candidates must then be endorsed by their department head. Nomination packets also need to include three supporting letters from faculty members and three supporting lettrs from current or former students. This year’s selection advisory committee was chaired by Dean of Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80. Three current MacVicars, an undergraduate student, and an additional faculty member were also on the committee, Dobranski said.

The committee makes its recommendation to Provost L. Rafael Reif, who then makes the final decision on who will be recognized as MacVicar Fellows.

The MacVicars are named for Margaret MacVicar, who was MIT’s first dean of undergraduate education before she passed away in 1991 at the age of 47. The program was begun in 1992.

Examining learning methods

More time was devoted to the topic of education and learning during a roundtable discussion held later in the day. Eight faculty members, staff, and students were on a panel for the conversation that centered around the topic “I learn best when…” Each panel member shared their learning methods with the audience in the Stata Center (Room 32-141).

Their answers ranged from more traditional methods — Julie B. Norman, associate dean for the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming, said that when she was a student, she learned best when she “studied in advance” — to the innovative — Dedric A. Carter, executive director of Engineering Outreach Programs, said he learns best when he “tap[s] into the power of analogies.”

Wallace had audience members guess how he learns best, exhibiting his love of demonstrations by pushing a cardboard replica of himself in order to elicit the response, along with laughs from the audience, that he learns best by “pushing himself.”

Literature Professor Ruth Perry, who is a 2005 MacVicar Fellow, talked about how she sets up an environment to help her students learn. “If I come up with a question and bring it into class … it engages them.”

Deviyani Misra-Godwin ’08 had a special take on learning, since she is studying at MIT this year through the Cambridge-MIT Exchange. At Cambridge, she said, “students don’t talk about work outside lecture … it’s such a social taboo to do that.” She said that she learns best when she can discuss her work with other people. Students at MIT are “much more open about learning and they embrace it,” Misra-Godwin said.

The discussion was moderated by Professor Duane S. Boning ’84, associate department head of the EECS Department, who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees from MIT. He said that he was “delighted to participate” as a discussion facilitator because he has seen learning from different perspectives.