In 2011, E&S published a story highlighting the recipients of the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, named for the late Richard Feynman, one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists and original thinkers of the 20th century.
In honor of the Institute’s first TeachWeek Caltech event—occurring October 19–23, 2015, we thought we would revisit and update that earlier article to include the honor’s four new recipients, who—like those who came before—were recognized for their ability, creativity, and innovation in teaching.
Want to nominate the next Feynman Prize recipient? Applications can be found here.
“Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation.”
— Richard P. Feynman, in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins (1999)
Caltech is known to the world for its research, but to the student, there is nothing so inspiring as a great teacher—one who excites and challenges; one who enlivens the mundane and elucidates the impenetrable with unexpected creativity, patient guidance, and boundless enthusiasm.
Students and faculty nominate Caltech’s best for the annual Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, established in 1993 and named after the legendary physics professor, Nobel Prize winner, and gifted educator—who recognized that teaching can be as enlightening to the instructor as to the students. “I don’t believe I can really do without teaching,” wrote Feynman in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! “When I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, ‘At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I am making some contribution’ . . . The students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.”
The 22 Feynman Prize winners would likely agree.
Professor of English
Considered by undergraduate students taking his history and literature courses as an “an eloquent lecturer” whose “enthusiasm is contagious,” Gilmartin conducts his classes in an energetic seminar style, with student presentations, classroom discussions, and field trips to the Huntington Library. He has “turned his classes into pathways for personal discovery, growth and empowerment,” noted the Feynman Prize selection committee in Gilmartin’s award citation.
Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus
Even after his retirement in 2006, Frautschi continued as a teaching assistant for the freshman Physics 1 class in classical mechanics and electromagnetism. He is the first emeritus professor to receive the Feynman Prize, and the only awardee to be honored for work done as a TA. The Feynman Prize committee praised his “demonstrations, engaging chalkboard cartoons, intellectual puzzles, a warm, engaging conversational style, and old-school professorial charisma, that taken together recall the wizardry of the Feynman lectures.”
Johnson, formerly an assistant professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech and now a professor of astronomy at Harvard University, was recognized for his dedication, passion, and innovation in teaching as well as his ability to inspire his students. He “rocked the boat in the astronomy department, challenging our conceptions of how astronomy, and the sciences in general, are taught,” noted one student who nominated Johnson for the award.
Paul Asimow (MS ’93, PhD ’97)
Professor of Geology and Geochemistry
“As inspiring as he is informative,” as one student nominator described him, Asimow was noted by the Prize committee for his “exceptional energy, originality, and ability to explain complicated concepts effectively.” The committee also praised his “striking innovation” for an advanced graduate class in petrology: He “invites his students to vote on the subject matter of the course on the first day of the term, laying the foundation for the extensive teacher-student interaction that forms a critical part of his teaching style.”
William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of History and Social Science
Kousser, a constitutional-law scholar and an expert on the Voting Rights Act, was lauded by Elizabeth Mak (BS ’11) for “his ability to make the complex and convoluted subject of constitutional law clear and comprehensible to students more inclined to equations than court opinions.” In his award citation, the Feynman Prize selection committee remarked that Kousser’s passion for his subject matter has even “drawn students to change their career path to pursue law, a remarkable achievement in an environment so dominated by science and engineering.”
George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry
“His energetic lectures possessed superb organization and exceptional clarity. . . . They flowed elegantly without flaw, as he guided the class, always finding exactly the right words for his explanations that always seemed to go a step farther, deeper and beyond the normal lecture.”
—Andrey Poletayev (BS ’11)
Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering
Bruck was nominated by his IST 4 (Information and Logic) students for the inaugural term of the class, which covers the evolution of information systems. “Shuki’s lectures do an excellent job in engaging the attention of a class-full of students,” wrote teaching assistant Yuval Cassuto (PhD ’08). “With a teaching style that includes impeccably prepared lectures, detailed and informative slides, and more than a bit of entertainment, Shuki skillfully sets a very inviting stage for the students to grasp the deep concepts of the class.”
Lawrence A. Hanson, Jr., Professor of Chemical Engineering
Wang was selected for “his mastery of thermodynamics and polymer physics, clarity of presentation, and ability to empower students through the knowledge and experience they gain from his teaching.” Students have described his lectures—conducted without notes—as “amazing” and “incredibly clear,” and Wang as having an “uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a question and provide an answer based on fundamentals.”
Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor and Professor of Planetary Astronomy
Brown was singled out for Ge 1 (Earth and Environment) and for Ge/Ay 133, a graduate course on the formation and evolution of planetary systems that always appeared to be “subtly directed by the students,” wrote Colette Salyk (PhD ’09). “The questions, when not immediately answerable, gave the class a feeling that they were involved in helping to solve a mystery.” Although seemingly spontaneous, Brown’s lectures “must have been well thought out and, perhaps, rehearsed,” she noted. “I liked to imagine him like Feynman, parading around an empty classroom.”
Richard Murray (BS ’85)
Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering
Most Feynman Prize winners knew the enigmatic bongo player only as a colleague, but Richard Murray first met him as a freshman on the opening day of frosh camp. As Murray recalled, Feynman “sat down next to me and started talking about some shells he had found while he was swimming. That willingness to talk to a student typified his approach to teaching.” More than two decades after that encounter, Murray received the Feynman Prize for the same willingness to engage his students and his “enthusiasm, responsiveness, and innovation.”
Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus
“The use of the word “classroom” as a metaphor for “teaching” is a bit of a misnomer, as Prof. Brennen’s teaching often takes place in unusual places. My first lessons from Prof. Brennen took place in the middle of nowhere in the Mojave Desert, where we hiked for several miles up the crest of a sand dune and slid down on our behinds to cause the dunes to boom. Prof. Brennen’s enthusiasm, even in hundred-degree-plus temperatures, was an inspiration.”
—Kathy Brantley (BS ’03, MS ’05)
George Rossman (PhD ’71)
Professor of Mineralogy
“George had a way of making everything in mineralogy fun and interesting,” said one former student of Rossman’s introductory mineralogy course (Ge 114). Rossman, the student noted, often brought unusual minerals to class, including a specimen that formed a dipole when squeezed in one direction. “He had one student tie an end with string and put it in liquid nitrogen, being sure not to bang it into the sides of the dewar. Of course the cold squeezed the mineral and it created a dipole and was instantly attracted to the metal sides and just kept banging into one side or another.” Another Ge 114 student said, “George taught me much more than mineralogy. He taught me how to ask deep questions.”
Professor of Applied and Computational Mathematics and Bioengineering
Pierce is the only assistant professor to have been awarded the Teaching Prize, for ACM 95/100—a combined graduate- and undergraduate-level applied mathematics course. His award citation noted that Pierce “teaches without oversimplifying and without intimidating, making the material accessible to this diverse group of students” and “possesses an uncanny ability to anticipate the frustrations and challenges of the students.”
Joseph Kirschvink (BS, MS ’75)
Nico and Marilyn Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology
“Joe doesn’t just think outside of the box; the box is irrelevant. Nothing hinders Joe’s ambitions to do new and exciting science. Ideas that require unprecedented experimental setups don’t phase him a bit; whatever is needed will get designed, built, tested, and utilized. Students learn from example that nearly anything is possible, and that you cannot let conventional barriers hinder the creative scientific process.”
—John Holt (PhD ’97)
Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Planetary Science
Stevenson, who chaired the faculty committee responsible for implementing the revised core curriculum in the mid- 1990s, turned Geology 1—the general ed course on Earth and the environment—into a class unlike any other of its kind. “Dave’s achievement in conceiving and implementing this course is truly unprecedented,” wrote Ed Stolper—then chair of the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences and now provost—in nominating Stevenson for the prize, “and the tangible benefit is quite remarkable.” The three-quarters of the undergraduate population who are not earth scientists leave the Institute with a deeper understanding of our planet and how we learn about it, he noted, “prepared to address . . . important issues that society will be grappling with (such as global warming) over their lifetimes.”
Charles Lee Powell Professor of Applied Mathematics, Emeritus
“His eloquence in presentation is such that even when he is teaching a very difficult concept, he is able to lead the entire class through the muck of algebra or notation and reveal the essentials of the idea he is presenting, which leads to maximal understanding in his audience. He doesn’t dress up simple ideas with fancy language, as many math professors love to do. Nor, however, does he oversimplify and present things as less complicated than they really are.”
—Mike Fisher (BS ’99)
“Over and above being a good lecturer,” said Ken Libbrecht (BS ’80), professor of physics, in nominating Hughes (then an associate professor of physics, now a professor of particle physics at Cornell University) for his core quantum mechanics class, “Professor Hughes obviously applies a great deal of creativity to his teaching. He jumps around, throws things, has an evil twin brother, and spends time in nearly every lecture telling insightful stories about physics, and about life in general.”
Then a professor of chemistry and now Class of 1922 Professor of Biology and Professor of Chemistry at MIT, Imperiali was described by Caltech students as “dynamic and intense” with “infectious” enthusiasm. She was singled out for the Feynman Prize as a “lively lecturer” (of both introductory and upper-level chemistry courses) and an “inspirational mentor” to her research students.
R. David Middlebrook (1929–2010)
Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus
Dozens of former students—including working engineers, university professors, and company presidents—wrote glowing letters supporting the nomination of their mentor. For more than 40 years, the beloved electrical engineering professor “did not only teach analog circuit design,” said one, “but a far more important concept: he taught us how to think! . . . he taught us how to concentrate immediately on the essentials of a problem and disregard the ‘non-essentials’ (only to add them in the final stages of the problem). But when you ‘think’ about it, isn’t it the way we should tackle large research problems? Isn’t this the way we should even handle family life matters? Basically, concentrate on the essentials and do not get fooled with the peripherals!!”
Yaser Abu-Mostafa (PhD ’83)
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Abu-Mostafa, the selection committee noted, “has consistently demonstrated that no-frills teaching is not a lost art. Year after year, using only chalk and voice as media, he has tamed Caltech’s challenging curriculum for a very grateful group of students. He takes a multifaceted approach to every topic, often fooling his students into mastering even the most difficult material.”
Then associate professor of mechanical engineering and now corporate director of technology for the Northrop Grumman Corporation, Antonsson created Me 72, Caltech’s engineering design laboratory, with a simple purpose: to help students learn about the “design of new things, and the solution of open-ended, ill-defined problems.” The result was “wonderful,” wrote the late Tom Tombrello, himself a Feynman Prize recipient, in supporting Antonsson’s nomination for the Feynman Prize. “The students work very, very hard; they do not complain; they have a good time; and they learn a tremendous amount. This is truly the essence of extraordinary teaching skill. Dick Feynman never took the ordinary or expected path in solving a problem, and that gave us wonderful new ways of looking at the world. Erik has taught in an unusual way and done what we all strive to do—except the result is better than most of us manage.”
Tom Tombrello (1936–2014)
Robert H. Goddard Professor of Physics
The Feynman Prize selection committee noted two innovative undergraduate courses created by Tombrello in presenting him the inaugural teaching award: Physics 11, a research tutorial that allows freshmen to design and pursue their own research projects, and Physics 10, Frontiers in Physics, which teaches freshmen and sophomores about physical-science research on campus. “The format that Tom created, of having a guest professor describe his research in one lecture and then having the course instructor reiterate, expand, explain it, and answer any questions that pop up, in the next meeting, is truly stimulating for the students,” noted then division chair Charles Peck, “and is yet another example of Tom’s deep commitment to teaching.”
Nominations for the Feynman Teaching Prize are welcome from faculty, students, postdoctoral scholars, staff, and alumni. Guidelines for nominee submissions are here. Please submit detailed nomination packages to the Provost’s Office by December 15, 2015.
Header image courtesy of the Caltech Archives; additional art by Lance Hayashida; likeness of Richard Feynman reprinted with permission of Melanie Jackson Agency, LLC.