The prize is awarded to an EAS professor or lecturer who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching, according to the award citation. A nomination for McKeon read, "She is a firm believer in the importance of having all students, regardless of their ultimate specialty, participate in laboratory coursework. Her courses serve as a solid foundation for graduate level research across disciplines, both technically and with regards to skills relevant to doctoral and industrial research. She takes tough subjects and uses her colorful approach to make the concept easy to comprehend."
The teaching prize specifically recognizes her work teaching two aerospace courses: Ae104, an experimental methods class, and Ae251, a flow control class. In the classroom, McKeon says, she tries to strike a balance between presenting classical, established ideas and having students read up on the latest advances in the field. One of the challenges is keeping students engaged in highly technical, challenging topics. "I enjoy an interactive classroom and I'm a great believer in having a sense of humor. My students will tell you that mine is terrible, but research and classes can be fun as well as challenging," she says. "I also like to draw analogies when I can. Once I get a sense of the class, I try to engage with the students so that the concepts are tailored to the dynamics of the particular group that I'm with."
McKeon's outreach to students goes above and beyond the normal coursework. For the past four years, she has been helping to manage a collaboration between Caltech and Base 11, a nonprofit organization, that brings talented community college students who have been underrepresented or underexposed to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to Caltech. Those students are mentored by Caltech students through summer internships and academic yearlong programs on campus. "Students who come have been really outstanding. They've gone on to great heights in their subsequent internships and many have gone on to four-year college careers. And the research that they've done has been top notch. They've absolutely stepped up their game in an environment that can be quite challenging," she says.
McKeon received the Northrop Grumman Teaching Prize plaque at a luncheon on June 11.
"It's really unexpected but a wonderful, wonderful honor. It's humbling because it's a total privilege to be able to interact with students at all levels in the Institute," McKeon says.
The Northrop Grumman Prize for Excellence in Teaching was established in 2016. The relationship between Caltech and Northrop Grumman extends back to 1930, when the Northrop Aircraft Corporation tested its new single-engine transport plane, the Northrop Alpha, at GALCIT's 10-foot wind tunnel. Northrop Grumman has long supported a variety of programs on campus, including, currently, a collaboration between Caltech and Northrop Grumman engineers on a space-based solar power research project.