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03/29/2006 08:00:00

Murray Awarded Feynman Teaching Prize

PASADENA, Calif.-Richard M. Murray was a freshman attending frosh camp at Camp Fox on Catalina Island when he first encountered famed physicist Richard Feynman. "I was sitting down, looking across a field, and a professor sat down next to me and started talking about some shells he had found while he was swimming. Lo and behold, it was Richard Feynman-although I was an engineering student and not in physics, and I'm not sure I knew who he was at the time. That willingness to talk to a student typified his approach to teaching."

Such willingness to engage and encourage students also typifies Murray's own approach, and now Murray, recently named the Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems at the California Institute of Technology, has been awarded the Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The prize, handed out annually, is Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor. With it comes a $3,500 cash award, plus an equivalent raise in annual salary.

The Feynman Prize Selection Committee singled out Murray for his "enthusiasm, responsiveness, and innovation" in the classroom and for his "contribution to the undergraduate experience through teaching outside the conventional classroom."

"I think the field I do research in is very exciting, so I try to teach in a way that conveys the flavor of why I find it exciting," says Murray, whose work includes high-confidence control of cooperative systems and nonlinear control theory.

Murray was also commended for his determination to make sure his students understand the material he teaches. For example, he encourages students to anonymously fill out index cards, dubbed "Mud" cards, at the end of each class, asking questions about anything they found confusing (or 'muddy '). Answers to the students' questions are posted on the class website the same day.

"You have to be willing to take questions, because you know you are going to miss the mark sometimes," Murray says. This commitment to learning is not lost on Murray's students. "In all my classes I have never before had a professor that was so dedicated to answering students' questions and making sure that students understood the material," wrote one undergraduate in nominating Murray for the award. The student, who also praised Murray's "special creativity, innovation, and dedication to the classroom," added, "I can think of no other professor more deserving of this award."

Another student praised Murray for his "infectious and boundless enthusiasm and perseverance for everything he is involved in and an exceptional talent for leadership." Yet another said that Murray is "without a doubt one of the most talented teachers I have ever met."

Murray also served as leader of Team Caltech, the group of about 50 undergraduate students who created "Alice," Caltech's entry in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge autonomous robot race through the southern California desert. In a letter recommending Murray to the prize selection committee, Antony Fender, a lecturer in engineering and also a member of Team Caltech, said, "The students involved in this project received an education unlike anything I've ever seen before," adding that they would "carry this experience with them for their entire lives."

Murray says that he was surprised and "very honored" to receive the Feynman award. "I've known many faculty who received it and always looked up to them as being great teachers. It's a big honor to be among them."

Written by Kathy Svitil