Skip to main content

Feynman Teaching Award (w00t!)

My division chair stopped by my office a couple weeks ago and urged me to be present at the next faculty meeting, during which there would be a discussion on online learning. Given that i served on the ad hoc committee addressing this issue, I guessed the request made sense. However, since I wasn't the chair of the committee, and given that there was no real reason for my chair to know I was on this nonstandard committee, the in-persion request was a little odd.

The campus-wide faculty meeting went well, with Prof. Djorgovski (Astro) among those who talked about the success and challenges of online learning. Then came the next action item: announcing the Feynman Teaching Award. To my surprise:


Planetary Astronomer Wins Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA, Calif.—John A. Johnson, assistant professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been awarded the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Johnson was recognized for his dedication, passion, and innovation in teaching as well as his ability to inspire his students.

The Feynman Prize was established "to honor annually a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching." Caltech faculty members, students, postdoctoral scholars, staff, and alumni may nominate a faculty member for the prize. A committee appointed by the provost then selects the winner.

According to the official citation, Johnson "immediately emerged as exceptional—a 'true outlier,' in the words of a committee member."

"Richard Feynman's writing inspired me to pursue physics and astronomy," Johnson says. "It is an amazing honor to have my name in any way associated with his."

Johnson was lauded for his creative teaching methods, in which he eschews traditional lectures and problem sets and instead has students work on problems in small groups. At various times, he has required students to explain what they were learning in a class blog, forbidden discussion of grades, emailed YouTube videos that illustrate the day's material, and brought in guest lecturers to discuss the course material and provide career advice.

"My goal is to help the students take ownership of their learning by guiding them rather than lecturing them," explains Johnson, who says he learned his teaching philosophy from physicist Ronald Bieniek at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. "I'm very pleased to hear that my students feel I accomplished this goal, and that we all had such an enjoyable time in the process."

In a nomination letter, one student wrote that Johnson "rocked the boat in the astronomy department, challenging our conceptions of how astronomy, and the sciences in general, are taught." Another student wrote, "Classroom experiences that are intellectually engaging, practical, and entertaining are incredibly rare. Through his teaching style, attention to detail, and unique course structure, Professor Johnson provides just such an experience."

Many students cited Johnson's "life-changing" influence beyond academics. One called him "a remarkable teacher who can not only enlighten students in the classroom but also sculpt their spirits for their future careers." A graduate student said, "He reminded me…why I wanted to be a scientist in the first place."

Johnson, whose research focuses on searching for planets around stars other than our sun, earned his BS in physics in 1999 from the University of Missouri-Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) and his PhD in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, he joined Caltech's faculty in 2009. In 2012, he won the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, a David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, and a Lyman Spitzer Lectureship from Princeton. Johnson says, however, that of all the awards he has received this past year, he's most proud of the Feynman Prize.

The previous four winners of the Feynman Prize are Paul Asimow, professor of geology and geochemistry; J. Morgan Kousser, professor of history and social science; Dennis Dougherty, the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry; and Jehoshua (Shuki) Bruck, the Gordon and Betty Moore Professor of Computation and Neural Systems and Electrical Engineering. The first Feynman Prize was awarded for the 1993-1994 academic year. Nominations for next year's prize will be solicited in the fall.

Written by Marcus Woo

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:


It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…