06/06/2008 07:00:00

Zhen-Gang Wang Receives Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching

PASADENA, Calif.--Zhen-Gang Wang favors the tried-and-true chalkboard for his classroom lectures on thermodynamics and polymer physics. The clarity of these lessons and the admiration of his students have won him this year's Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching at the California Institute of Technology.

"What I teach is traditional topics, so I use traditional means," remarks Wang, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, adding that he was very pleasantly surprised by the news. "Excellent board work" is just one of many praises listed in student evaluations of Wang's classes. "He engaged me as no lecturer ever had before," says Andrew Downard, who came to Caltech from Notre Dame University for graduate studies in chemical engineering. "The class is a journey to seek the truth with basic postulates and a passionate expert in the field to help steer us."

The Feynman Prize is Caltech's most prestigious teaching honor. With it comes a $3,500 cash award and an equivalent raise in annual salary. Winners are selected by a committee of students, former winners, and other faculty.

Wang started teaching at Caltech 17 years ago, having never before taught or even served as a teaching assistant. He knew he was in trouble after his first class, in statistical mechanics: "The level was unreasonably high--the scores on exams were very low. I learned over the years to adjust the level of the presentation," he remembers. "You have to really understand the material well, from several different angles, and then find the best angle that would be suitable for the students."

The hard work paid off, and across the board Wang's students admire his "uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a question and provide an answer based on fundamentals," according to one. They appreciate how he challenges them to sharpen their questions, and how he "sets the intellectual bar high" but gives them the means to reach it.

"I love teaching," says Wang, adding that he finds a sense of nobleness through training the next generation of scientists and engineers. "I enjoy research and I am devoted to it, but it feels more like a hobby. But my research is theoretical; it doesn't have an immediate impact on society. Through teaching, I feel like I'm having a more direct impact."

"Zhen-Gang is already quietly becoming one of the legends of Caltech," raves Julie Kornfield, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech who nominated Wang for the prize. "He profoundly affects our students and transforms the way they think. To me he represents the essence of what Caltech is all about."

The Feynman Prize is named after legendary Caltech physics professor Richard Feynman, who wrote, "I don't believe I can do without teaching," in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! The prize is endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise and an anonymous local couple, to annually honor a professor who demonstrates unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching.

Written by elisabeth nadin