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Four faculty members recognized for outstanding teaching

Four Princeton faculty members received President's Awards for Distinguished Teaching at Commencement ceremonies June 5.

They are: Eric Gregory, assistant professor of religion; Sanjeev Kulkarni, professor of electrical engineering; Kenneth Norman, assistant professor of psychology; and Alexander Smits, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The awards were established in 1991 through gifts by Princeton alumni Lloyd Cotsen '50 and John Sherrerd '52 to recognize excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching by Princeton faculty members. Each winner receives a cash prize of $5,000, and his or her department receives $3,000 for the purchase of new books.

A committee of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students and academic administrators selected the winners from nominations by current students, faculty colleagues and alumni.

Gregory, who came to Princeton in 2001, teaches a course on "Christian Ethics and Modern Society" that regularly draws large enrollments from inside and outside the religion department. Each week, he leads students in discussions about the most controversial moral and political issues of today -- ranging from abortion to stem cell research to war -- and about the role of religion in public life.

Current and former students nominating Gregory for the award praised his ability to present the philosophical source material in a precise manner without oversimplification. "It is a testament to Professor Gregory's enthusiasm and knack for making complex ideas clear that by the end of the class we were all drawn into the subject matter and able to get on the same page," wrote one student. "I still return to many of the authors of this class, as well as the notes from Professor Gregory's own lectures, in other coursework and to make sense of recent controversies in social and political affairs."

Others commented on his skill in leading classroom conversations on such hotly debated topics. "He was able to keep our precept discussion of highly charged issues such as abortion and gay marriage both civil and productive by creating an open atmosphere of mutual respect in which students were encouraged to share their ideas and beliefs," wrote another student. "This allowed for the healthy debate of the tough moral and religious questions related to the course and added a deeper level to our understanding of these issues."

Gregory also has taught undergraduate classes on "Globalization and the Good Samaritan" and "Love and Justice" and graduate courses on "Political Theology" and "Augustine and Aquinas."

In addition to remarking on Gregory's classroom work, students wrote of his time spent with them at many events on campus, including lectures, film screenings and Office of Religious Life gatherings. "Professor Gregory exemplifies what it means to not only teach students but to learn alongside us," one student wrote.

Kulkarni joined Princeton's electrical engineering faculty in 1991. He took on the additional role of serving as master of Butler College in 2004. The care he takes with individual students in both positions was cited by those nominating him for the honor. He has received several previous teaching awards from his department, the Engineering Council and the engineering school, some for his course, "Introduction to Electrical Signals and Systems."

"Every one of Professor Kulkarni's lectures was concise and organized, and his command of the subject material was impeccable; the 'textbook' for the semester was his typed course notes, which were more helpful for me than most of the published textbooks I have used in other classes," wrote one student who took the class. With Gilbert Harman from the philosophy department, Kulkarni also developed a text for another course, "Learning Theory and Epistemology," which they have taught six times. That book, "Reliable Reasoning: Induction and Statistical Learning Theory," was published in May by MIT Press.

In their nomination letters for the teaching award, other students spoke to Kulkarni's role as a mentor. Over the past 16 years, he has supervised the independent work of more than 80 students -- almost double the department average. He also works with a number of graduate students who serve as teaching assistants for his signals and systems class.

"One might have thought that a carefully worked out syllabus could be taught by 'autopilot.' Not with Professor Kulkarni: He does not stop tinkering with lecture notes, homework assignments and lab sessions, always looking at innovative ways to improve their clarity, complementation and motivation," wrote one graduate student. "His passion for teaching is inspiring and contagious. My fellow teaching assistants and I have aspired to improve our own teaching style, deriving increasing satisfaction in trying to provide students with the same high quality of teaching as his."

Both in the classroom and in the residential college, students marveled at Kulkarni's ability to remember not only students' names but details about their lives. An alumna, who invited Kulkarni to lunch one day, recalled that it was "almost like eating with a celebrity, with so many of his former students coming up to say hello, or waving from a nearby table. He would respond using their name and asking about some particular aspect of what they were involved with, then would often tell me something about that person, how he or she was a student from last year and a great musician in the orchestra, for example. I realized how deeply involved Sanj is in students' lives."

Norman, who has been in the psychology department since 2002, teaches undergraduate courses on "Introduction to Connectionist Models: Bridging Between Brain and Mind," considered a cornerstone of the new neuroscience curriculum, and on "Memory and Cognition." He also has led a freshman seminar on "Memory Distortion and Forgetting."

What students find most memorable about his teaching is his eagerness to engage with students. "I had the impression that he was trying as much to actively learn from our interpretations of the source material and from our questions as we were trying to learn from him," wrote one of the students in his freshman seminar. "Often, professors anticipate questions, and they have explanations that are already neatly prepared. Professor Norman listened to every question completely, thoughtfully and with no preconceived anticipation of its direction. Moreover, he listened to our questions with genuine interest. Professor Norman not only gave us his insights, but he gave us his respect."

Students said that kind of positive energy carries over from Norman's classroom to his laboratory. "Science for Ken is not a competitive but a collaborative effort -- one that involves a group of curious people feeding off of each other's energy and ideas," wrote one student. "Our lab conference room is always full of graduate students pitching ideas to each other, or scribbling statistical formulas all over the marker board and debating the best way to solve a problem. This energy … is a tribute to Ken's spirit."

Graduate students in his lab mentioned the great deal of time he takes to make sure they are heading in the right direction with their work. "Ken will always help me step through ideas and critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses," wrote another student. "He then works with me to understand what next steps need to be taken. The result of my interactions with Ken is that I feel competent and confident as a researcher."

One graduate student summed it up this way: "It all comes down to the fact that he inspires powerful feelings of affection, respect and trust, all the while providing a first-class training in science to all the undergrads, research assistants, graduate students and postdocs that he comes into contact with in the classroom and the lab."

Smits, who joined the mechanical and aerospace engineering faculty in 1981, has taught many undergraduate and graduate classes, but most frequently has led "Mechanics of Fluids," a demanding, required sophomore course. He has written "A Physical Introduction to Fluid Mechanics" as a textbook for the course, and has won several awards from the Engineering Council for his work with the class.

"His way of describing fluid mechanics concepts was both crystal clear and precise," wrote one student. "He has a gift for drawing useful diagrams and pictures on the board, and creating practice problems that make sense. His book was also great, useful both as a first-time introduction as well as a handy reference for other courses."

Another former student added, "His lectures were grounded in practical experience; he could always take complex ideas and mathematics, and break them down into their individual components to provide substantive physical meaning. He is a catalyst for intellectual growth."

Smits, who served as chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering from 1998 to 2004, worked to implement a new graduate general examination process in the department intended to relieve unnecessary stress on students, reduce the time to graduation for MSE and Ph.D. candidates and provide for more flexibility in class scheduling. He has supervised 27 Ph.D. and 21 MSE students and 14 postdoctoral researchers, who now participate in leading academic and industrial research groups around the world.

"Working in the Smits group was an inspirational experience," wrote one former graduate student. "He affords his students a great freedom to explore fluid mechanics and begin to understand the research process, while sharing his extensive experience in a way that helps one pull the pieces of the field together. The breadth of my final thesis area both enhanced my doctoral experience and stands me in good stead as I continue to work in academia and develop my own research program."

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