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07/16/1996 07:00:00

Abu-Mostafa Wins Caltech's Feynman Award for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA—Yaser Abu-Mostafa, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Caltech, has received the third annual Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

The Feynman Prize, which is made possible by an endowment from Ione and Robert E. Paradise, is given each year to a Caltech professor who demonstrates exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction. As the 1996 recipient, Abu-Mostafa will receive $3,000 and an equivalent raise in salary.

The selection committee, composed of Caltech faculty including the two past Feynman Prize winners, cited Abu-Mostafa's "unique success in the classroom; he does in a superb fashion what all faculty wish to do—teach students complex material in such a way that they truly understand it. Often this is accomplished by his ability to approach a subject by many different routes so that each student has the best chance to find his/her own optimal vantage point.

"Professor Abu-Mostafa has consistently demonstrated that no-frills teaching is not a lost art. Year after year, using only chalk and voice as media, he has tamed Caltech's challenging curriculum for a very grateful group of students. He takes a multi-faceted approach to every topic, often fooling his students into mastering even the most difficult material. As a graduate student here he began to demonstrate a gift for teaching—undoubtedly encouraged by the learning environment around him. Now he enriches this environment himself."

When he isn't in the classroom, Abu-Mostafa directs Caltech's Learning Systems Group, which brings together students in electrical engineering, computer science, computation and neural systems, and physics, to design electronic systems that can be trained to perform various tasks. Specifically, the group studies the theory, implementation, and application of automated learning, pattern recognition, and neural networks to real-world problems.

In one project, the group applies learning theory to the techniques of forecasting in the financial markets. Another effort involves learning with the aid of "hints"—prior knowledge about the task that is preprogrammed into the system. The Learning Systems Group has pioneered the use of hints in learning. The group's goal is to be able to use the many different hints that may be available in a practical situation.

Abu-Mostafa earned his bachelor's degree with honors at Cairo University in Egypt, his master's degree at Georgia Tech, and his doctorate at Caltech. Upon finishing his PhD in 1983, he joined Caltech's faculty as an assistant professor, became an associate professor in 1989, and was made a full professor in 1994.

Well known on campus as an outstanding teacher, Abu-Mostafa has received the Associated Students of Caltech Teaching Excellence Award in 1986, 1989, and 1991, the Keck Foundation Teaching Award in 1994, and the Caltech Graduate Student Council Teaching Award in 1995. He received an Honorary Medal from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1979 for distinguished graduation from Cairo University, and the Clauser Doctoral Prize for the most original doctoral thesis at Caltech in 1983.

Written by John Avery