Caltech's 2020 Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching has been awarded to Melany Hunt, Dotty and Dick Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
The Feynman Prize is Caltech's highest teaching award, given annually to a professor who demonstrates unusual talent, creativity, innovation, and an ability to create an inclusive learning environment in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching. "It's a nice honor to be recognized for my interactions with students. It's something that I work on and think about a great deal," Hunt says.
Nominees praised Hunt's holistic and student-centered approach to teaching, and credited her with profoundly shaping how her students think and learn at Caltech and beyond. One nominee described her as "one of the best professors I know" and said that she has every attribute of an "ideal" professor: "interesting content, clear explanations, fun projects, and professor-student interaction." Another nominee said that the impact of Hunt's teaching became even more apparent after they completed her courses, noting that, "Her emphasis on breaking complex, interdependent processes into manageable parts helped us do the same in the workforce … more effectively than our seasoned colleagues."
After earning her bachelor's degree at the University of Minnesota and master's and PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, Hunt joined Caltech in 1988 as an assistant professor. She was named associate professor in 1995, professor in 2001, and Kenan Professor in 2012. She became Hayman Professor in 2013. She served as executive officer of mechanical engineering from 2002–07, and as vice provost from 2007–14.
Among her contributions to Caltech, Hunt founded in 2012 the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO), which supports teaching and learning on campus as well as PreK-12 and public educational outreach. Although Hunt first conceived of the CTLO in 2007, the financial pressures that followed the Great Recession delayed its creation. Hunt worked with then-President Jean-Lou Chameau and then-Provost Ed Stolper to leverage support from the Kiyo and Eiko Tomiyasu Presidential Fund and make it a reality.
Despite her service in Caltech's administration, Hunt has never taken a year off from teaching. Currently, she teaches a thermodynamics lecture course to sophomores. "Students think, 'oh, no. That sounds dry,'" she says. "But then you tell them that they'll be able to figure out the thrust from the engine of a 777 aircraft, or understand how a power plant works. It helps students to get into the material when you take the time to explain the applications for what they're learning."
Hunt says her teaching style was inspired, in part, by her thesis advisor from Berkeley, who always advised students not to get "lost in the math," she says. "It's not enough to just arrive at an answer. You need to stop and consider whether that answer makes sense."
Recently, Hunt launched the Giving Voice project, which creates recorded vignettes that illustrate the challenges that disproportionately affect women in science and engineering labs and classrooms, and pairs them with online supporting materials aimed at effecting change.
"I read a report from the EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] highlighting the harassment women can face in the workplace, and I wanted to get our community thinking about how to improve the working environment for women in STEM," she says.
The Feynman Prize was established in 1993 and has been endowed through the generosity of Ione and Robert E. Paradise and an anonymous local couple. Some of the most recent winners of the Feynman Prize include Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering; Harry Gray, Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry; Brian Stoltz, professor of chemistry; Ellen Rothenberg, Albert Billings Ruddock Professor of Biology; and Kevin Gilmartin, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and dean of undergraduate students.
Nominations for next year's prize will be solicited in the fall. Further information about the prize and a full list of past recipients can be found on the Provost's Office website.