The Princeton University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa will present its annual awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching to Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology, and Zoltán Szabó, professor of mathematics.
The awards will be presented at a ceremony on Monday, May 29.
The students outline the criteria for excellence in teaching as skill in instruction, commitment to working with and building relationships with undergraduates, and the ability to spark students’ intellectual interests. Each winner is presented with a plaque.
Widely regarded as a leading scholar in biological anthropology, Fuentes is known to his students as an “enthusiastic, committed and profound teacher,” said senior Mindy Burton, an economics major who is also pursuing certificates in political economy and finance.
He encourages lively interaction in the classroom, often using his own life and research experiences to generate discussion. Students stay engaged from start to finish, “with many often pausing their notetaking to fully listen and absorb the material,” Burton said. “Through his teaching, he has completely changed how I, and many other students, see the world, making us not only better students but also better people as we carry his lessons into the world.” Students also appreciate that Fuentes is easily accessible outside of class time and office hours.
Fuentes’ research focuses on the biosocial — delving into the entanglement of biology, society and culture. He has conducted research across four continents and two million years of human history. Despite the vast reach of the material in his courses, Fuentes assures students there will be “no surprises” on the exam. “The exams are still meant to challenge you and test your understanding of course material, but he is not trying to trick you,” Burton noted. “This is critical in that it shifts students' energy and preparation for the course towards actually learning the major concepts and details of each lecture and reading, without stressing about minute matters.”
He also keeps his material current. “He is devoted to updating each class with the most recent research, even when it has disproved his prior findings,” Burton said. “This sets a positive example of being committed to truth-seeking, development and lifelong learning.”
Fuentes earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D degrees from the University of California-Berkeley. He joined the Princeton faculty in 2020.
Students appreciate that along with being one of the most prominent geometric topologists in mathematics, Szabó is also approachable and down-to-earth, with an engaging teaching style.
They are drawn from across the department to his classes, said Oliver Thakar, a member of the Class of 2023 and a math major. Szabó's graduate-level topics courses "have become surprisingly popular on account of Professor Szabó’s unique insights," Thakar said. "Undergraduate students from every grade-level, graduate students and postdocs all flock to his inspiring lectures.”
Szabó was as an adviser for his junior paper and senior thesis, and Thakar said the professor routinely takes high numbers of undergraduate advisees. “He is known for always being open to students challenging themselves to find what interests them most,” said Thakar, who has taken three undergraduate classes and two graduate seminars with Szabó.
In class, he explains concepts at a high level but with an informal manner, so “lectures have a very improvisatory feel despite them always being very well-prepared,” Thakar said. A signature way Szabó checks in with students during class, especially for challenging concepts, is to ask them “Is this sort of OK?” “Of course, it always is,” Thakar said.
Szabó joined the Department of Mathematics as an instructor in 1994 after obtaining his Ph.D. at Rutgers University. He spent a year at the University of Michigan before returning to Princeton in 2000. He is a 1990 graduate of Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University.