PASADENA, Calif. – There are numerous requirements before a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology can be awarded a Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. To be nominated, an individual must be someone who demonstrates, in the broadest sense, "unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in undergraduate and graduate classroom or laboratory teaching."
For Niles Pierce, the 2003 Feynman Prize winner, teaching is innate. "I never learned any magic rules for lecturing--I just get up and talk and write in a way that feels natural," says Pierce, an assistant professor of applied and computational mathematics. "I like to explain things clearly. I'm sure my teaching style was influenced by my experiences learning from my mother, who is an extraordinary teacher. Maybe I'm a little unpredictable. I try to feed off the intellectual playfulness of the Caltech student body."
He was "thrilled and surprised" to learn of the award, Pierce says. "I remember the first day I stepped in front of a chalkboard after I arrived at Caltech--teaching was much harder than I expected."
That may be due to Pierce's area of expertise. His lab is focused on the development of computational algorithms--step-by-step procedures for a computer that solves a particular problem--with the goal of designing novel molecular machines that are capable of self-assembling from a collection of molecules, and functioning at the nanometer scale.
Still, Pierce's manner and his method have resonated with both undergrads and graduate students. "I wanted to communicate in a way that students would become excited by the ideas of applied and computational mathematics," says Pierce. "Of course, some material is hard to love, and I try to be honest with the students. If I really like a certain topic, I explain why. If we're talking about a subject that I think is boring, there better be a good reason, and I give it. My favorite lectures are the ones where the material is potentially hard to understand or absorb. It's not much fun to give a lecture if there's nothing challenging to explain and discuss."
Given the tremendous demands placed on Caltech students, he says, it is quite a challenge to generate intellectual excitement every other day during a hectic academic term. "I guess I enjoy that challenge."
Pierce joined Caltech in 1998 as a senior postdoctoral scholar before becoming an assistant professor in 2000. Prior to Caltech, Pierce graduated as valedictorian from Princeton University in 1993, then went to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, earning his D.Phil. in 1997.
The Feynman Prize, awarded annually, consists of a cash award of $3,500 and an equivalent raise in the winner's salary. Past recipients include Professors Joseph Kirschvink, geobiology; David Stevenson, planetary science; Donald Cohen, applied mathematics; Emlyn Hughes, physics; Barbara Imperiali, chemistry; R. David Middlebrook, electrical engineering; Yaser Abu-Mostafa, electrical engineering and computer science; Erik Antonsson, mechanical engineering; and Tom Tombrello, physics.
The prize was established in appreciation of Richard Feynman's contributions to excellent teaching, and is made possible by an endowment from Ione and Robert E. Paradise, with additional contributions from William and Sally Hurt.