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03/30/2007 07:00:00

Caltech's Planet Hunter Mike Brown Wins Annual Feynman Prize for Teaching

PASADENA, Calif.—On a campus where scientific research can be pretty challenging for the uninitiated, Mike Brown's search for new bodies in the outer solar system is as refreshingly straightforward as, well, the brightly colored marble spheres that sit on his shelf. Each sphere represents a Kuiper-belt object he has found in the last few years, including Eris, which led to the demotion of Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet."

Brown's approach to science is obviously to the taste of California Institute of Technology students as well, because they recently threw their support behind his nomination for the annual Feynman Prize, which is Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor. The prize is given to a faculty member each year for "exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction," and is in honor of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, a favorite teacher and still a powerful influence on campus 19 years after his death.

"I'm thrilled," Brown said after the award was announced. "I never interacted with Feynman, but the people who have won the award in the past are the teachers I have a huge amount of respect for. So it's a fantastic honor."

Brown becomes the fourteenth recipient of the Feynman Prize, which carries a $3,500 award and an equal raise in salary. Brown is also probably one of the few recipients thus far who didn't personally know Richard Feynman.

Nonetheless, Brown structures his classroom methods in a manner reminiscent of the award's namesake, who was also noteworthy for his fresh and original approach to teaching. Brown says that paying close attention to methodology, and to coming up with the best educational outcome for his students, is the only way to go.

"Teaching is terrifying," he says. "It's the most stressful thing I do. I have given countless presentations over the years about my research, but talking at the Air and Space Museum [which he did in mid-March] is nothing like the classroom experience."

One challenge in teaching is the Caltech culture itself, Brown says. A difficult school for everyone, especially undergraduates, Caltech is legendary for the sheer amount of homework and the high expectations on students. Not surprisingly, the students in turn are themselves very astute and quite capable of discriminating between really effective teaching strategies and mediocre ones.

"Around here, you always feel like you're just keeping your head above water when you lecture students," he says. "You can't teach and not have some off days, and you know all too well when you're having one-it's easy to see when the students are engaged and when they're not.

"I guess that's why I try so hard to teach well—I hate that feeling of knowing the students realize I'm having an off day."

According to Caltech provost Paul Jennings, who announced Brown's receipt of the award at a recent faculty meeting, Brown has been singled out for the award because of "his extraordinary teaching ability, his skill in exciting his students, and his evident caring about his students' learning.

"Mike is first recognized for his contribution to Geology 1, Earth and Environment, which he has taught since spring 2005," said Jennings. "Although he himself is an astronomer, well-known for his discovery of a large object in the outer solar system with a diameter greater than Pluto, the possible 'tenth planet,' he volunteered to teach Ge 1 because he wanted to learn the geology material himself."

Brown says that one of his innovations in teaching the Ge 1 course was a type of homework assignment that required students to travel to nearby Eaton Canyon in order to answer homework problems by observation. One of the students who supported his nomination added that his lecture style is also memorable: "Attending a fun and engaging lecture to break the monotony of core classes was the best part of our day."

In his graduate-level course, "Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems," Brown is also credited by students for making them feel as if they are part of the scientific process. "We could watch the formation of the solar system unfold in front of us, like a good book that we couldn't put down," a graduate student wrote.

Brown says he loves teaching both the graduate and undergraduate classes. Another assumption he bases his preparations for Ge 1 on is that Caltech's science students can benefit intellectually from a different type of lab experience than the ones they encounter in their major courses.

"Ge 1 is a class for nonmajors," he explains. "At a state university, you often find 'rocks for jocks' courses, which are designed for people who aren't going into science but are just trying to get their degrees. Here, we don't have any nonscientists, so the question is what is going to expand their horizons."

The answer Brown has come up with is that geology for scientists who are not themselves geologists should focus on the field as an observational science. "In geology, you take what you're given-you can't drill to the center of Earth to see what's there, or go back in time to see what happened, so the laboratory experience is different from the one in chemistry or physics or biology."

As for the graduate course, the class is designed to give geologists a bit more physics than they may have had as undergraduates. But like the undergraduate course, Brown has also worried about precisely what experience is likely to be of the most intellectual benefit to scientists working in other fields.

"The graduate course is probably the most intuitively taught physics class on campus," he says. "For me, if you can't talk the equation out, you don't really understand it, so everything in the class is aimed at making the physics accessible to geologists who don't need to get heavily into the theoretical aspects, but really need to understand certain equations to do their work."

The son of a NASA engineer, Brown grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, where the nearby presence of the Marshall Space Flight Center and its legendary director Werner von Braun, as well as the Redstone Arsenal, whetted his appetite for all things space-related. Brown attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, and then changed coasts for a doctorate in astronomy from Berkeley.

As for Brown's reputation as a researcher, one need only read the news to find his name associated with a major discovery. In mid-March, Brown and his graduate students Kristina Barkume, Darin Ragozzine, and Emily Schaller reported in the journal Nature that one of the Kuiper-belt objects Brown previously discovered, 2003 EL61, shows evidence of having been struck by a smaller body 4.5 billion years ago. The discovery is important because it reveals new insights into the dynamics of solar-system formation—knowledge that could help us better understand our own home system as well as systems in those galaxies far, far away.

A faculty member at Caltech since 1997, Brown is currently a professor of planetary astronomy. Among the other classes he has taught are Applications of Physics to the Earth Sciences, Observational Planetary Astronomy, Planetary Interiors, and Introduction to the Solar System.

The Feynman Prize is endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise, with additional contributions from Mr. and Mrs. William H. Hurt, to annually honor a professor who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching. Winners are selected by a committee of students, former winners, and other faculty.

Written by Robert Tindol