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Four professors named 2016 MacVicar Faculty Fellows

Devadas, Grossman, Sipser, and Tang awarded MIT’s highest undergraduate teaching award.
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2016 MacVicar Faculty Fellows: (clockwise from top left) Patty Tang, Jeffrey Grossman, Michael Sipser, and Srinivas Devadas
2016 MacVicar Faculty Fellows: (clockwise from top left) Patty Tang, Jeffrey Grossman, Michael Sipser, and Srinivas Devadas

Each year, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program recognizes professors who exhibit exceptional undergraduate teaching, educational innovation, and mentoring. The awardees this year are Srinivas Devadas, the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Jeffrey Grossman, professor of materials science and engineering; Michael Sipser, dean of the School of Science and professor of mathematics; and Patricia Tang, an associate professor of music and theater arts.

Founded in 1992, the program was created to honor the legacy of Margaret MacVicar, an MIT alumna and professor of physical science who served as the Institute’s first dean for undergraduate education, from 1985 to 1990. MacVicar is credited with numerous far-reaching educational initiatives, including the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Established in 1969 — when MacVicar was just 26 and in her first year on the MIT faculty — UROP has since been emulated worldwide.

The nomination process for the MacVicar awards is rigorous, requiring supporting letters and extensive documentation from several sources, including department heads, faculty, current students, and course evaluations. Provost Martin A. Schmidt selected the fellows, with input from an advisory committee of faculty and students chaired by Dean for Undergraduate Education Dennis M. Freeman. Fellows receive $10,000 annually for 10 years to support their undergraduate teaching. With the addition of the 2016 fellows, the program now sponsors 43 professors.

The Institute will honor the fellows and celebrate excellence in undergraduate education on MacVicar Day, Friday, March 11, with a symposium titled “From Hand to Mind: Advances in Evidence-based Teaching.” Freeman will introduce the 2016 fellows and moderate the panel. Speakers include Martin Culpepper, professor of mechanical engineering; Michael Cuthbert, associate professor of music; David Darmofal, professor of aeronautics and astronautics; Catherine Drennan, professor of biology; Robert Miller, professor of electrical engineering and computer science; and Janet Rankin, interim director of the Teaching and Learning Laboratory.

The symposium will take place from 2 to 4 p.m. in Bartos Theater (Room E15-070), followed by a reception honoring the new MacVicar Fellows from 4 to 5 p.m. in Bartos Lobby. The symposium and reception are open to the entire MIT community.

Srinivas Devadas

Devadas completed a BTech degree in electronics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, India, and earned his MS and PhD in electrical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Devadas joined the MIT faculty in 1988, received tenure in 1995, and was promoted to full professor in 1999. He has also served in several leadership roles in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), including associate head and interim head. In 2012, Devadas was named the Edwin Sibley Webster Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“I’m deeply honored to be selected as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow,” Devadas says. “I thank the EECS leadership over my 28 years at MIT for giving me great freedom in choosing my teaching duties and providing me opportunities to teach with, and learn from, literally dozens of my talented colleagues. I am deeply grateful to all my colleagues who I have partnered with in teaching our wonderful students.”

Devadas’ colleagues appreciate partnering with him, as well. “Srini not only was amazing in class, he also was a great mentor to us,” according to one nomination. “His enthusiasm for teaching was inspiring and contagious. He instilled in us and indeed, in all the teaching staff, the idea that one should tirelessly work to improve the material.”

Another colleague cited the many ways Devadas demonstrated “extreme” dedication in a new subject, 6.S04 (Fundamentals of Programming): personally proctoring make-up exams; meeting after hours with undergraduate lab assistants; helping students debug their code in laboratory sessions — “even though we have lab assistants for that!” — and changing his sabbatical plans so he could teach the new subject next year. “And I couldn’t omit the custom 6.S04 frisbees that he had printed, with guinea pigs on them to symbolize the pilot status of the subject, thrown to students who answer questions in lecture!”

Students perceive Devadas as a caring instructor with an inspiring sense of optimism. One noted that Devadas gave him some sage advice before he left MIT for graduate school, “advice that continues to guide me to this day: the best ideas come from a willingness to approach each problem with an enthusiastic outlook. Simply stated, Prof. Devadas is an incredibly positive person and his attitude resonates throughout his teaching every day.”

Another student was struck by the respect Devadas has for students’ needs, such as granting extensions for unforeseen circumstances like illnesses. Devadas’s response, the student wrote, would be “assuaging the student’s concerns and assuring them that they could finish the assignment at their convenience. At a school that is as high-pressure as MIT, such sensitivity goes a long way in ensuring that students don’t get overwhelmed by classwork.”

Jeffrey Grossman

After earning a BA in physics at Johns Hopkins University, Grossman completed his MS and PhD, also in physics, at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. He was appointed assistant professor at MIT in 2009, associate professor with tenure in 2011, and full professor in 2014.

“It’s an incredible honor to be selected as a MacVicar Fellow — and it’s also a daily privilege to teach MIT’s outstanding undergraduate students,” Grossman says. “The students I’ve taught bring such intellect and curiosity to the classroom, and I believe it’s their passion for learning that makes MIT flourish.

“I love developing new ways for students to touch and feel the key learning concepts, whether it’s a class on thermodynamics, materials for energy, or introductory chemistry. By complimenting core lecture material with hands-on experiences, students think about, remember, and connect the concepts in different ways. It’s really exciting to me to see these connections form and watch our students thrive at the chance to explore the material in the true spirit of ‘mens et manus.’”

This passion for striving to make abstract concepts more concrete is a common theme among Grossman’s nominators. “His dedication to inspiring his students to truly learn fundamental principles is noteworthy and exceptional,” wrote one colleague. “One of the ways he accomplishes this goal is by creating hands-on demonstrations that connect with the utmost clarity to the underlying science and engineering being taught in the classroom. For example, in 3.012 [Fundamentals of Materials Science and Engineering] … he systematically designed, tested, and refined a series of thermo demonstrations that illustrate clearly key concepts explored in the classroom. By doing so, he has transformed highly esoteric subject matter into a series of intuitive demonstrations that allows students to connect directly with the underlying science.”

A student nominator described how Grossman helped him when he was struggling to understand the implications of the wave function. “One of his most effective tools is his ability to connect the abstract to its tangible manifestation in the real world … Professor Grossman saw that I needed to take a step back from the board and look at the big picture, so to speak. Upon observing the macroscope, he showed me that the wave function is the link between probability distributions and the behavior of electrons in molecules. The pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place.”

Another student summed up his appreciation for Grossman in this way: “There is nothing better as a student than a professor who conveys passion and excitement about what they are teaching, and Professor Grossman does that better than anyone else I have met at MIT.”

“Srini and Jeff are dynamic and energetic professors,” says Ian Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering. “They are gifted educators who think deeply and strategically about education, and they have exceptional abilities to transfer their enthusiasm for their fields to their students. They are also world-class researchers. I am delighted to see their contributions to education recognized by appointment as MacVicar Fellows.”

Michael Sipser

Sipser is dean of the School of Science and the Donner Professor of Mathematics. He graduated from Cornell University with a BA in mathematics and then completed his PhD in engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. He began his career at MIT in 1979 as a research associate and joined the faculty as assistant professor of applied mathematics. Sipser was promoted to associate professor in 1983 and full professor in 1989. Before his appointment as dean of science in 2014, Sipser served as head of the Department of Mathematics from 2004 to 2014 and interim dean of science from 2013 to 2014.

“I’m honored and grateful to be recognized as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow,” Sipser says. “I’ve always loved explaining things to anyone willing to listen, but teaching MIT students is such a pleasure and a privilege because they are all so wonderfully interesting and enthusiastic.”

Sipser’s colleagues admire what one nominator called his “masterful” teaching style. “He always speaks efficiently but with sentences pregnant with content,” one colleague wrote. “He never tries to impress the audience with technical brilliance (though he could); rather, he brings the audience along for a wonderful ride, drawing attention to the important scenery, without letting technical overgrowth obscure the view.”

Another colleague described Sipser’s courses as “a timeless work of art. Several of us have taught versions of his courses years later, and they retain their power, even when taught by mere mortals. It is a breathtaking experience to watch students’ faces as they learn the material that Mike collected and presented in his course notes and books.”

Sipser’s students related how much he genuinely cares about their learning. “Frequently, when explaining difficult material, Professor Sipser will pause, worried that only a few people are following, and ask for questions or re-explain what just happened at a more conceptual level until he is convinced that everyone in the room understands … These qualities make 18.404 [Theory of Computation] one of the most enjoyable classes I have had the pleasure of taking at MIT.”

The MacVicar award is “long overdue,” according to Tomasz Mrowka, head of the Department of Mathematics and the Singer Professor in Mathematics. “Mike Sipser has been a star teacher at MIT since his arrival. One of the founders of modern complexity theory, his introductory course is nothing short of legendary. He is known for an uncanny knack of finding simple and enlightening ways of explaining complicated content. He has over his years at MIT also applied his skill to teaching calculus with similarly spectral results.”

Patricia Tang

Tang received a BA in music from Brown University and a PhD in music from Harvard University. She joined the MIT faculty in 2001 as assistant professor of music and theater arts, was promoted to associate professor in 2005, and received tenure in 2008.

“It is a tremendous honor to be selected as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow … I am truly humbled,” Tang says. “As an ethnomusicologist, I love many aspects of my job, but my true love has always been teaching. There is nothing more gratifying than sharing my passion for African music with MIT students while hopefully giving them the tools to better understand music and its broader cultural contexts; but in the classroom, I am constantly learning from my students as well — it is this mutual exchange of knowledge and ideas that makes teaching MIT students so rewarding.”

In addition to her teaching excellence, Tang is lauded by her colleagues for the breadth of her contributions to the Music and Theater Arts Section within the School of Humanitites, Arts, and Social Sciences. One nominator wrote, “Patty has been particularly effective as chair of the music curriculum committee, a role that her intelligence, tact, caring, and attentiveness particularly suit her for. In that role, Patty has led the section through what [Professor Emeritus] Ellen Harris calls a ‘quiet revolution’ in its curriculum, ‘completely overhauling the requirements of the music major.’”

“It is in Patty’s nature to truly care about her students,” wrote one former student. “She endeavors to create well-rounded experiences through a number of engaging opportunities that allow participants to be exposed to the potential depth of their exploration, while also defining their own unique perspective and approach. Her excitement is consistently contagious.”

Another student described Tang’s impact outside of the classroom, as co-director of the student ensemble Rambax. “I can say without hesitation that I owe more to this woman than I can hope to grasp in one lifetime … For me, and many other students caught in the tech-school-shuffle, Rambax became a never-ending quest for knowledge of deep rhythmic roots at the foundation of musical creation; an oasis of community in the midst of academic storms; a gust of motivation in an otherwise confusing and competitive environment.”

“I am thrilled Patricia has been selected for a MacVicar Fellow award,” says Melissa Nobles, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “She brings a great deal of knowledge and enthusiasm to her teaching. Her classes on World Music celebrate the richness of musical and cultural expression across the globe, reminding us that music is truly a universal language.”

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