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02/27/2002 08:00:00

Caltech's Joseph Kirschvink Receives Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

"I was shocked and stunned," laughed Joseph Kirschvink, a professor of geobiology at the California Institute of Technology, upon hearing he had been awarded the 2002 Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. But, to hear his students tell it, it's clear the honor is an appropriate one.

Indeed, Kirschvink was nominated by two of his current students, Ben Weiss, who will graduate with his Ph.D. in planetary science in 2002, and Tim Raub, a forthcoming 2002 graduate (BS, geology; MS, geobiology). In their nominating letter, they point out that among undergrads, Kirschvink's stature is "legendary," and his earth history and introduction to geobiology classes are popular even among non-majors. "This popularity," they wrote, "reflects Joe's fundamental teaching philosophy: he treats students like colleagues."

To his students it is "Joe," not Dr. Kirschvink. The informality invites questions, they write, and it is those questions that Kirschvink thrives on. Students may interrupt him at any time, and he explains and re-explains concepts, holding to a standard of unanimous understanding among his pupil-colleagues. "Joe's unique philosophy echoes Caltech's purpose to create the 100th scientist," wrote Weiss and Raub, "yet it combines this, successfully, with the noble and perhaps even more difficult goal to 'leave no student behind.' "

The Feynman Prize is presented each year to a Caltech professor who demonstrates exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction. It consists of a cash award of $3,500, matched by an equivalent raise in the annual salary of the awardee. Kirschvink was specifically selected, said Caltech provost Steve Koonin, for "his innovative teaching style and outstanding mentorship, which have inspired a generation of Caltech students."

Kirschvink believes it was his own experience as a Caltech alum—BS and MS in 1975—that contributes to his classroom rapport. "As an undergrad here I know the capabilities of the students," he says. In all his classes, he employs the Socratic method of doubting and questioning statements. It's a technique he learned, he says, from the late Gene Shoemaker (codiscoverer of the Shoemaker-Levy comet that hit Jupiter) one of his professors from his own days as an undergrad.

Kirschvink frequently gets his undergraduates involved in his science projects as well. His research is aimed at increasing our understanding of how biological evolution has influenced, and has been influenced by, major events on the surface of the earth. His major contributions include the "snowball" Earth theory, the theory that the entire Earth may have actually frozen over several times in its history, potentially causing some of the most severe crises in the history of life on Earth, and perhaps stimulating evolution. Another original concept concerns the Cambrian evolutionary explosion, that he believes may have been precipitated in part by a large burst of true polar wander, in which the earth's rotational axis moved to the equator in a geologically short interval of time. The common thread in his research efforts is the study of paleomagnetism and rock magnetism, for which Kirschvink maintains laboratories dedicated to the study of weakly magnetic biological and geological materials.

The Feynman Prize is made possible by the generosity of an endowment from Ione and Robert E. Paradise, along with additional contributions from Mr. and Mrs. William H. Hurt. It is named in honor of the late Caltech Nobel laureate and popular science author, who was lauded for his innovative classroom lectures on physics.