Three MIT professors have been selected as 2017 MacVicar Faculty Fellows, awarded for exceptional undergraduate teaching, mentoring, and educational innovation. This year’s honorees are: Caspar Hare, a professor of philosophy; Scott A. Hughes, a professor of physics; and Maria Yang, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.
Now in its 25th year, the MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was created to honor the legacy of Margaret MacVicar, who served as 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 2017 fellows, the program now sponsors 46 professors.
Provost Martin A. Schmidt selected the recipients, 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 three fellows will be recognized this Friday, MacVicar Day, at a symposium titled, “Pushing Boundaries: A Legacy of Learning through Exploration and Discovery.” Freeman will introduce the 2017 fellows and moderate the panel. Speakers include Anantha Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and department chair; Neil Gershenfeld, a professor of media arts and sciences; Anne McCants, a professor of history; and Ian A. Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering and the Jerome C. Hunsaker Professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and students who have collaborated with them.
Panelists will share their experiences with undergraduate research, primarily through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). UROP was established by MacVicar in 1969 and is one of her most far-reaching and enduring educational initiatives. The panelists will also discuss the impact that MacVicar’s revolutionary idea has had on teaching and learning and address the future of undergraduate research.
The MacVicar Day symposium will take place on Friday, March 17, 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 program and reception are open to the entire MIT community.
Hare received a BA in independent studies from Wesleyan University in 1994 and a MA in philosophy from Stanford University in 1998. He began teaching at MIT in 2003 as a philosophy instructor and completed his PhD in philosophy at Princeton University the following year. Hare was promoted to assistant professor in 2004 and associate professor in 2007, received tenure in 2011, and became a full professor in 2015.
“This is an honor. I feel delighted and grateful,” says Hare. “I also feel lucky, for two reasons. First, I feel lucky to have such tremendous pedagogical support — from the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, from the Writing, Rhetoric and Professional Communication Program, and from the Office of the Communication Requirement.
“Second, I feel lucky to be teaching students with a natural affinity for philosophy. Philosophers ask fundamental questions (to do with knowledge, proof, reality, rationality, and so forth), and try to answer them in a rigorous, disciplined way. MIT undergraduates tend to be both fascinated by fundamental questions, and tremendously adept at rigorous thinking. Within a few weeks of being here, I realized that my job was less about feeding them information, more about taking them to the intellectual coalface, then getting out of the way.”
Students value Hare’s ability to balance “getting out of the way” with making sure that they fully grasp the material, no matter how complex or abstract. A nomination from a former student characterized this attentiveness as “incredibly thoughtful ... he demonstrates this both in always being available for office hours and cheerfully responding to being asked to elaborate on certain issues in class. Professor Hare’s patience and mindfulness in ensuring everyone’s complete and thorough understanding of questions at hand are unparalleled.”
Hare’s skillful instruction has had a measurable impact, according to one colleague: “Our second-most-successful introductory course, Problems of Philosophy, also has Caspar’s fingerprints all over it; since he took it over, his course evaluations have been consistently higher than those of any recent teacher. He also managed to nearly double the enrollment figures when he taught the course for the second time. Caspar didn’t change the subject matter; he kept the traditional mixture of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. He simply taught it supremely well.”
Hare has made a mark outside of the traditional classroom setting, as well, says Melissa Nobles, the Kenan Sahin Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences: “Caspar Hare’s course 24.00X (Introduction to Philosophy) was the first introductory philosophy MOOC offered by an American university, and it is also widely recognized as one of the best. It is easy to see why: Both online and in the classroom, Hare empowers his students, helping them gain both critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of the human complexities. He is a master teacher — energetic, engaging, and deeply committed to inspiring MIT undergraduates as he leads them through fundamental questions that shape our understanding of existence.”
Scott A. Hughes
Hughes earned a BA in physics at Cornell University in 1993 and completed a MS and PhD, also in physics, at Caltech in 1995 and 1998, respectively. He joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in 2003. Hughes became an associate professor in 2008 and achieved the rank of full professor in 2014.
Hughes says it’s “thrilling” to be selected as a MacVicar Faculty Fellow. “Teaching MIT students has long been an enormous part of what makes the fit to MIT feel so right to me. Our students combine talent and work ethic with a desire to know just because they want to know. In almost all cases, I don’t get the impression that our students are getting their degrees because they just want a credential. Instead, they genuinely want to learn the stuff we are teaching because of their love of figuring out how things work. When I’m burned out with grant proposals or from dealing with persnickety referees on a journal article, I can have a meeting with my UROP students or teach a lecture and come away invigorated and alive. The students are the secret sauce to MIT’s specialness.”
“Scott has the extraordinary ability to translate complex material so that it is accessible and engaging for everyone, undergraduates and seasoned faculty alike,” says Michael Sipser, dean of MIT’s School of Science. “He is the model of exceptional instruction and mentoring.” As a case in point, a colleague’s nomination described the “masterful way” Hughes introduced the subject of general relativity to his students: “As an expert in gravitational physics, he was in full command. He knew when he had to use analogies or present results without rigorous derivation.”
Another colleague wrote, “Scott-the-advisor and Scott-the-emerging-leader are certainly praiseworthy. But it is Scott-the-teacher who is off-scale. Everything Scott has taught has been improved in his hands. Everything. Everything he teaches he has taught better than it has been taught for at least a decade, and in several cases better than it has ever been taught. His reinvention of 8.033, creating an experience for our sophomores that is unique in the world as far as I know, is the biggest curricular innovation that he has made to date, but even without that his abilities as a lecturer are without equal in our department.”
A recent MIT graduate expressed gratitude for Hughes’s “personal warmth as a human being … Whether it was talking about his child’s Halloween costume or questions about death ray-wielding mad scientists in exams, Professor Hughes subconsciously made me feel a little better on the inside, by reminding me that a wonderful world did exist outside the contents of the course he was teaching.”
Yang attended MIT as an undergraduate, completing her BS in mechanical engineering in 1991. She went on to earn a MS in 1994 and PhD in 2000 in the mechanical engineering design division at Stanford University. From 2007 to 2013, she held a dual appointment at MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and in the Engineering Systems Division. Yang was the Robert N. Noyce Career Development Assistant Professor from 2008 to 2013, when she was promoted to associate professor. She earned tenure in 2015.
“The MacVicar program exemplifies MIT’s deep commitment to undergraduate teaching and learning, and it’s a tremendous honor to be named MacVicar Faculty Fellow,” says Yang.
“Maria has elevated design thinking across the engineering curriculum, expanding the way students and faculty alike understand the design process and how ideas come to life,” says School of Engineering Dean Ian Waitz. “She is a marvelous researcher and educator, and an excellent colleague. It is great to see her exceptional contributions recognized in this way.”
Several students commented on Yang’s creative, hands-on approach to teaching design. A recent graduate said, “Maria has done so much to help build the mechanical engineering and product design community at MIT. By continuing to support DPD [the Discover Product Design FPOP], she has helped give freshmen like me an early exposure to a ﬁeld that I might not have discovered otherwise.”
A senior wrote, “In the mechanical engineering curriculum, visual thinking is often superseded by fundamental theory. Many students graduate from the Institute with strong conceptual skills, however struggle when understanding how to apply them physically and practically. Maria recognizes this gap and strives to demonstrate how thinking visually can help one to tackle even system-level issues. The core design skills she imbues in her students prove absolutely fundamental to their success in higher level courses.”
A colleague described the “buzz from the students” when Yang joined the faculty, because she “represented an alternative and refreshing view of mechanical engineering. She presented the engineer as more than just a technology maker. Maria makes engineering approachable to more students by connecting it back to people.”
Yang has garnered praise beyond the Institute, as well. A colleague from the University of Southern California noted, “Professor Yang believes that teaching design is to nurture creative design thinkers. Her teaching has almost always been project-based, encouraging students to empathize with potential users and customers in order to identify opportunities for innovative product ideas, define design problems carefully, generate creative ideas as solutions, and then build prototypes and test them hands-on.” And a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo University wrote, “Professor Yang is quickly rising to be one of the exemplar design educators in the nation.”
Photos: Bryce Vickmark (Yang), Patrick Gilooly (Hare), and Justin Knight