03/05/2001 08:00:00

Stevenson Receives Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA, Ca.— "One hopes that students are being taught to think and not just grind through lots of homework," says Caltech's David Stevenson about the importance of teaching. In recognition of his passion for undergraduate education, Stevenson has been awarded this year's Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

The George Van Osdol Professor of Planetary Sciences, Stevenson was honored by a selection committee composed of faculty and students for modifying the existing Geology 1 class into a new elective course within the core curriculum. "I was challenged," says Stevenson, "by the difficulty of constructing a course that would be attractive to a wide range of students, yet not be too conventional–not just a set of lectures. In practice, it's hard to avoid routine approaches; you want students to learn to think, which means that the problems in the exams, homework, and projects should not be merely routine applications of standard book work." The selection committee cited Stevenson's success in avoiding such routine, noting the increase in the class's enrollment, from 20 students at its start to 165 this year.

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. The prize is given each year to a Caltech professor who demonstrates exceptional ability, creativity, and innovation in both laboratory and classroom instruction.

The selection committee cited Stevenson's "lucid and enthusiastic" teaching style, along with his ability to bring together concepts from evolution, biology, and chemistry, thus making Geology 1 "unlike any other course of its kind in the world." Stevenson also incorporated the use of small group projects, each led by an individual professor, along with field trips to give students the opportunity of first-hand observation. The result, the committee noted, was to create "a lasting impression of how geology research is done, how our Earth was created, and how our environment evolves."

Stevenson notes that teaching is also helpful to him. "Teaching helps the teacher as well as the student. This is especially true of people who are more theoretically inclined in their research"—(Stevenson doesn't have a lab)—"because that kind of research is helped by looking at things with a fresh approach."

He admits, too, that teaching can also be fun: "You can think of different applications of the ideas, how it relates to current research, and how it can be valuable to a non-expert."

Stevenson's own research efforts concerning the origin, evolution, and structure of planets, including Earth, are noteworthy as well. In 1998, the American Geophysical Union awarded him its Harry H. Hess Medal for outstanding achievements in the research of the constitution and evolution of Earth and its sister planets. In addition, in 1993 Stevenson was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science, in recognition of his scientific excellence and work of distinction.