Four professors selected for MacVicar fellowships

Griffith, Miller, Schulz, and Teng recognized for excellence in teaching and beyond

Today is MacVicar Day, a celebration of MIT’s dedication to enriching undergraduate education. As part of the celebration, this year’s MacVicar Fellows are being honored at this afternoon’s symposium.

The four MIT professors to be awarded the high MacVicar honor this year are: Linda G. Griffith, professor of biological and mechanical engineering; Rob C. Miller, associate professor of computer science and engineering; Laura E. Schulz, associate professor of cognitive science; and Emma J. Teng, associate professor of China studies. These professors have been recognized for excellence both in the classroom and beyond. They will hold fellowship status for 10 years and be awarded $10,000 per year of discretionary funds for educational activities, research, travel, and other scholarly expenses.

The Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellows Program was created in memory of Margaret L. A. MacVicar ’65, MIT’s dean of undergraduate education from 1985 to 1990 and the founder of the popular Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The MacVicar Fellows are “a small academy of scholars committed to exceptional instruction and innovation in education,” according to the Fellows Program’s website. They are chosen every year through a three-step nomination process that includes submission of letters by students and faculty, review by an advisory committee and a final selection by the Provost. This year, the advisory committee consisted of Daniel E. Hastings ’78, the dean of undergraduate education, Diana Henderson, the dean for curriculum and faculty support, various MacVicar and non-MacVicar faculty members from different departments, and two undergraduate students chosen by the UA, Aparna A. Sud ’13 and Tech Arts Editor Grace C. Young ’14.

Professor reactions

Griffith said she was so surprised to hear the news that she “about dropped the phone.”

Griffith, who has been a pioneer in developing Course 20, says the creation of the Department of Biological Engineering was “driven by enthusiasm by students.” Griffith says the most rewarding part of teaching at MIT is running into students at conferences who tell her they “learned something and went on to use it” in their careers — her passion to connect the impact of science to the classroom affects her students greatly. As a postdoc, Griffith was diagnosed with endometriosis — a gynecological condition where cells from the uterus grow outside the uterine cavity — and started the Center for Gynepathology Research at MIT to raise awareness of women’s reproductive health problems. Soon, she had students insisting there be some connection to women’s health issues in every core class. In a senior design project class, students came up with ideas to image lesions.

Miller said “it is an incredible honor to be included in the cadre” of the MacVicar Fellows, who “are some of the colleagues that [he] respects the most.”

Miller, who teaches 6.005 and 6.813 and serves as a faculty advisor for 6.470, is an influential figure in user interface at MIT and has been teaching at MIT for 11 years.

“It’s been stupendous,” Miller said. “You have incredibly smart students who have a huge amount of energy.”

Colleagues of Miller say he “embodies the ideal of an MIT teacher — caring, engaging, tirelessly working on behalf of the students, eliciting respect, admiration, and joy from the students.” Miller’s students say his “course was the only one whose lectures I felt could not be missed.”

In 2008, Miller created the undergraduate version of User Interface Design and Implementation, now 6.813. The class has since grown so much that they hold prototyping sessions in Walker Gym. Miller also runs the User Interface Design Group, focusing on crowd computing, UI automation and customization, and software development. In the next few years, he sees the group carrying out significant research in developing tools for online education.

Schulz feels similarly “privileged to be on such an impressive list of past recipients.”

Schulz, who teaches 9.41, 9.50, and 9.85, came from a background in working with students at risk of dropping out of school. She says when she first arrived at MIT, she had trouble “getting used to standing up and talking to the room without anyone walking out or swearing at her.” For Schulz, the best part of teaching at MIT is “the students, without any question.”

“The standard of excellence at MIT isn’t how well you do,” Schulz said. “It’s how you answer questions… a lot of places can be caught up in working for gold stars — everyone [at MIT] sees the world as a big challenge.”

She encourages her students to “get an idea of what [they] care about, and turn it into something real.” Her colleagues say “she sets the highest example for MIT undergraduates on how to be a scientist, an educator and a person who is deeply committed to helping others develop themselves and their potential.”Teng feels “especially honored because Professor MacVicar was a trailblazer for all women faculty.” She echoes MacVicar’s view on teaching: “Our purpose is to direct the best minds toward inquiries and enterprises concerned with the human condition.”

Teng, who received her AB, AM, and PhD degrees from Harvard University, is the force behind the development of Asian Studies courses at MIT such as 21F.075 and 21F.043. She attributes the growth of the Asian Studies minor in the last five years to her students, who asked for HASS-D and CI-H courses in the field. Teng views teaching as a “partnership with students” and tries to be “responsive to student interests and needs as much as [she] can.”

Her colleagues attest to this, claiming there is “no other faculty member who appears always to be with a student... Professor Teng attracts students like a magnet She is a mentor to many.” Teng’s approach to teaching resonates with her students, who say “what has continually impressed [them] about Professor Teng is her ability to simultaneously be an instructor, a mentor, and a confidante to her students.”

Having been a teaching fellow at Harvard before, Teng points out that her students at MIT are “for the most part not humanities majors” and thus bring “interesting, challenging questions from different perspectives.” She loves that MIT students are from “diverse backgrounds and do not bring a sense of entitlement.” Teng’s colleagues say “she brings to the classroom an open atmosphere that welcomes alternative viewpoints; she takes pains in guiding students to find the rich convergence between real life issues and classroom learning.”