Four MIT professors have been named 2015 MacVicar Faculty Fellows, awarded for exceptional undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and educational innovation.
This year’s honorees are Arthur Bahr, the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Literature; Catherine L. Drennan, a professor of chemistry and biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor and investigator; Lorna J. Gibson, the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor of civil and environmental engineering and mechanical engineering; and Hazel L. Sive, a professor of biology.
The MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was created in 1992 to honor the legacy of Margaret MacVicar, an MIT alumna, professor of physical science, and the Institute’s first dean for undergraduate education from 1985 to 1990. Fellows receive $10,000 annually, for a period of 10 years, to support educational activities, research, travel, and other scholarly expenses. With the addition of the 2015 fellows, the program now sponsors 42 professors.
The fellows were selected by Provost Martin A. Schmidt, with input from an advisory committee of faculty and students chaired by Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis M. Freeman. The award is highly competitive and involves a rigorous nomination process, including supporting letters and extensive documentation from department heads, faculty, current students, and course evaluations.
The four fellows will be recognized today, MacVicar Day, at a symposium celebrating excellence in undergraduate education titled, “Undergraduate Education Goes Global: Learning from the MIT-SUTD Collaboration.” The symposium focuses on the ongoing collaboration with the Singapore University of Technology and Design and its impact on undergraduate education at MIT. Hosted by Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis M. Freeman, the panel includes John Brisson, director of the MIT-SUTD Collaboration and professor of mechanical engineering; John Fernandez, professor of architecture; Diana Henderson, professor of literature; Chris Kaiser, professor of biology; Samson Lim, assistant professor of humanities, arts, and social science at the Singapore University of Technology and Design; Lawrence Sass, associate professor of architecture; and MIT senior and mechanical engineering major Karen Hao.
The symposium will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. in Bartos Theater (Room E15-070), followed by a reception from 4 to 5 p.m. to honor the new MacVicar Fellows. The symposium and reception are open to the entire MIT community.
Bahr received a BA in English and French at Amherst College, and completed a PhD in English language and literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of literature in 2007 and was named associate professor in 2011. In 2012, Bahr was appointed the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Associate Professor of Literature.
“Teaching literature at MIT is really the best of both worlds,” Bahr says, because most of his classes are small seminars, like a liberal arts college, “yet you also have the resources and heft of a big research university to support you, not just in terms of research funding but also for pedagogical innovations like HEX subjects and other interdisciplinary ventures like the Ancient and Medieval Studies program.”
Then, there are the students. “The most consistently awesome thing about MIT students is their boundless intellectual curiosity. If you can persuade them of the intellectual rigor of what you’re doing, they’ll follow you most anywhere you want to take them, from Old English grammar to Arthurian romance. Add to that the fact that they actively like stuff that’s weird and hard, and you have a medievalist’s dream job, since that’s what medieval literature is: weird and hard and very cool.”
Colleagues appreciate Bahr’s scholarly accomplishments, collaborative nature, and passion for teaching medieval studies. One nominator described Bahr as a “pied piper to students.” Another noted, “Arthur seems to have made medieval studies cool, in our part of the campus, but with a scholarly, respectable account of authentic medieval textuality — without reducing it to Arthurian legend or Dungeons and Dragons.” During every lecture, a student added, “He comes alive, and his passion for teaching and for the material he teaches becomes very apparent and contagious.”
Bahr makes students feel at ease in the classroom, while at the same time skillfully challenging them to dig deeper intellectually. One student wrote, “He is one of those rare teachers who knows how and when to push his students and does it in such a way that he still remains approachable.” One colleague noted, “Arthur combines personal openness and accessibility with an enviable ability to embolden students to have confidence in their own readings of literature.” Another colleague added, “Arthur’s ability to empower his students [to express their opinions and interpretations of the material] and at the same time to shape their conversation into fruitful coherence is the mark, I believe, of a master teacher.”
“Arthur is one of the most beloved professors in SHASS,” says Deborah K. Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “His piercing intelligence, combined with his droll charm, make him one of the most sought-after teachers we have. Arthur is a master teacher because he loves his subject, always finding new ways to generate puzzles and challenges for MIT students. And Arthur has great respect and admiration for his students, trusting them to push themselves to ever deeper levels of understanding.”
Catherine L. Drennan
Drennan earned a BA in chemistry at Vassar College and a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Michigan. She joined the chemistry faculty in 1999 as an assistant professor and was promoted in 2004 to an associate professor. She was appointed a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2006, and the following year she also became an associate professor of biology. Since 2008, Drennan has been a professor of chemistry and biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor and investigator.
Drennan says that when she first starting teaching introductory chemistry at MIT, very few students seemed interested in chemistry. Moreover, students didn’t see how chemistry was relevant to their field of interest.
“I realized that this was a big problem,” Drennan says. “Thus, I have worked for the past 15 years to develop classroom material that shows the connection between chemistry and other disciplines, and how chemistry can be used to solve real-world problems. The results have been impressive. Students report both an increased motivation to learn chemistry and a better appreciation for the relevance of chemistry in the real world. One student even wrote about the modified lectures, [they] ‘kept me engaged — me, a man, who once swore he would never be engaged.’”
Drennan’s efforts to revamp the chemistry curriculum have earned high praise from her colleagues. “In addition to being an inspiring and popular 5.111 lecturer, Cathy has also been very active in introducing various innovations that have enhanced the experience of students taking the class,” explains one colleague. “A particular highlight is the ‘Behind the Scenes’ series of videos that Cathy has led the development of for use in general chemistry courses at MIT (and elsewhere!). Words cannot do justice to these videos.” One student noted, “I look forward to each lecture. Professor Drennan has designed and implemented many innovative and effective techniques that turn each of her lectures into a special event.”
Students are struck by how much Drennan cares about them. “Professor Drennan clearly enjoys the company of her students. She cares about us, wants us to succeed at chemistry and at MIT, and never makes us feel like we are intruding or wasting her time.”
Another colleague cited Drennan’s impact as a scholar: “Cathy…is the ONLY scientist in the country that has Howard Hughes support for both teaching and research!” Another wrote, “Cathy’s accomplishments have been nothing short of spectacular since she has been at MIT. She has carried out daring, high-risk science with amazing success.”
“Catherine Drennan is a passionate and skilled teacher and dedicated mentor to graduate and undergraduate students alike,” says Michael Sipser, the Barton L. Weller (1940) Professor and dean of the School of Science. “Her contributions to the educational mission of MIT are invaluable.”
Lorna J. Gibson
Gibson attended the University of Toronto, earning a BASc in civil engineering. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge. In 1984, she became as associate professor of civil engineering and in 1987 an associate professor of civil engineering and mechanical engineering. She became a full professor in both departments in 1995, and a professor of materials science and engineering, as well, in 1996. Since 1997, she has been the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Gibson has also served as chair of the faculty from 2005 to 2006 and was associate provost from 2006 to 2008.
“I’m honored and delighted to be selected as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow,” Gibson says. “Whenever anyone asks me what is the best thing about being at MIT, I always say, the students! It is a terrific pleasure to teach MIT students and I’m gratified by this award.”
Gibson’s enthusiasm for teaching is a common theme among nominators. One described her lecture style as “mesmerizing,” adding that “her passion for the wonders of engineering and how it solves problems are obvious. She is crystal clear in her thinking and explanations, totally organized, utterly engaging, and shows such respect for the students.”
Another cited her innovative use of in-class demonstrations and real-world examples to illustrate important concepts. “Professor Gibson connects the fundamental aspects of the mechanical behavior of materials to real-world examples that fully engage the student's attention and imagination. In fact, her examples are drawn from a wide range of topic areas including biomechanics, historical events, and various types of art.”
A student wrote, “It was obvious that Professor Gibson’s goal was to help us connect to the material, doing whatever she could to relate the material to examples from nature and industry,” like “how the Boston molasses tank explosion of 1919 is a lesson in fracture mechanics.”
Students also single out Gibson’s keen interest in students. One student wrote, “Not only is Professor Gibson an excellent teacher and mentor, she truly fosters the success of her students and cares about us as individuals.” Another noted, “I will remember her as a teacher and mentor because of that personal care and personal connection she made with me and my peers.”
Ian A. Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering, says, “Professor Gibson is a wonderful colleague. Her excellence and dedication as an educator, a researcher, and a colleague are inspiring. I am very pleased that she has been recognized in this way for her exceptional educational contributions.”
Hazel L. Sive
Sive obtained a BS in chemistry and zoology at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and a PhD in molecular biology at Rockefeller University. She joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor of biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in 1991. She was promoted to an associate professor in 1999 and to a professor in 2004. Sive served as associate dean of the School of Science from 2007 to 2013, and as an associate member of the Broad Institute from 2011 to the present.
Sive says: “It’s really a great honor to be a MacVicar Fellow. I’ve always loved to teach, starting many years ago with my stuffed animals. I love to get across the interest and excitement of biology. I view each student as an individual and try to get the material to personally connect. For me, a class is a community that provides learning, respect, and support. The class travels together through a semester, and the journey is always worthwhile.”
Sive’s students clearly enjoy the journey as well. “Professor Sive walked into class every day with incredible energy and enthusiasm that my friends and I thought were not possible to have at 10 a.m.” one student wrote. “With every lecture, I could feel her passion for biology sweep through the entire classroom, which made it impossible for me to do anything else but absorb her every word like a sponge. I have always loved biology, but Professor Sive has turned 7.013 from a class that I was excited for to one that I gladly woke up for.”
Sive is a dedicated mentor, according to her students. “Professor Sive is very passionate about helping her students (including me) explore and find our place and become who we want to be, rather than who we think our community wants us to be. She both encourages and challenges us … helping us not be held back by internal barriers.” Another wrote, “Everyone could easily see how much she cares about and wants to help [them]. To students, knowing that a professor cares means more than anything else.”
Colleagues say Sive’s accomplishments go well beyond her innovative and passionate teaching style and devotion to students. “Teaching is only the tip of the iceberg for Hazel’s contribution to undergraduate education,” wrote one colleague. Sive has taken leading roles in improving student life in a myriad of ways, such as implementing mid-term advising meetings, developing a “How to Advise Undergraduates” brochure, creating a training program in teaching for junior faculty, advancing women and underrepresented minorities in science, and founding and directing the MIT-South Africa Program.” Another colleague noted, “I have no doubt she will continue to be a force for innovation in undergraduate education.”
“I am deeply grateful for Hazel Sive’s skill as a teacher and mentor,” says School of Science Dean Michael Sipser. “She is a dedicated advocate for students and has been instrumental in expanding their opportunities for learning, both here and abroad.”