Engineering faculty recognized for excellence in teaching

Four Princeton Engineering faculty members were honored this year for outstanding teaching and mentoring.

Peter Ramadge, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor of Engineering and professor of electrical and computer engineering, was one of four recipients of the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Peter Ramadge. Photo by David Kelly Crow

The detailed lecture notes that Ramadge distributes every week are legendary. They have proved to be indispensable to the many students who have taken his courses over the years since Ramadge, whose scholarship focuses on signal processing and machine learning, joined the faculty in 1984.

“The level of preparation and care he puts into his lectures is unparalleled,” one graduate student said. He makes the material “accessible for all students, yet interesting and engaging at the deepest levels.” Another agreed: “Professor Ramadge has an extraordinary ability to break down technical material in a way that is easy to understand.”

An undergraduate with a casual interest in machine learning took Ramadge’s class and found it to be “one of the most mathematically rigorous and conceptually challenging courses that I have taken in my Princeton career.” Nevertheless, he ended up relishing the challenge and elected to write his thesis on the subject, with Ramadge as his adviser.

Ramadge is also known for frequently revising his course materials. “Peter never stops improving the class,” said one of his graduate students, who, when serving as a teaching assistant, realized that Ramadge had made teaching “look effortless. Peter has been one of my greatest inspirations when it comes to teaching.”

An advisee who is pursuing a Ph.D. was grateful for his incisive feedback. “He spends a tremendous amount of time reading my paper drafts and comes up with crystal-clear writing,” he said. The long journey of graduate school “would not have been possible without the support from my adviser, Professor Peter J. Ramadge.”

Matt Weinberg, assistant professor of computer science, also received the 2022 President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Matt Weinberg. Photo by David Kelly Crow

Weinberg’s dedication to undergraduate students is evident in the number he has advised on thesis work or one-semester projects: more than 60 in just the five years since he joined the computer science department in 2017, well outside the norm. Weinberg, whose scholarship focuses on algorithmic mechanism design, is just as committed to mentoring his graduate students, who rave about how generous he is with his time and his dedication to assisting them develop as researchers.

“Matt is a phenomenal adviser — invested in his students, enthusiastic about their work and understanding about their struggles and lives,” one undergraduate said. “When explaining concepts I had trouble understanding, Matt would try to explain in two or three ways — sometimes drawing pictures, sometimes giving toy examples, sometimes by writing out the mathematical formulation.”

Many students remarked that Weinberg has helped them embrace a positive attitude about their work. One graduate student said he taught her to view the unsuccessful conclusion of a project “not as a personal failure but as a guidance for future research.”

An alumna spoke of her decision to undertake a thesis project, though it was not required for her major, because she was so enthusiastic about the prospect of working with Weinberg. Their meetings often ran way over the allotted time so he could continue offering advice. “He has squeezed me in for last-minute meetings when I’m feeling stuck and lost,” she said. “I am eternally grateful for all that Matt has given me.”

Yiguang Ju, the Robert Porter Patterson Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and director of the Program in Sustainable Energy, received the engineering school’s annual Distinguished Teaching Award. A faculty member since 2001, Ju leads research in the exploration and development of new combustion technologies and functional nanomaterials to enable renewable fuels, advanced propulsion, efficient energy conversion and bio-imaging.

Yiguang Ju. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Students have long been impressed by Ju’s clear presentation, passion and dedication to teaching. He “makes every class a delight,” said one student. “His enthusiasm for his subject and delight for the transfer of knowledge are an inspiration.”

During office hours before a midterm exam, said another student, “Not only was he very patient, outgoing, funny, and great at explaining the material, but he was also cordial enough with the students that we felt comfortable opening up to him.” Ju explained that he made his exams challenging to help students grow, and that if everyone performed well he would not be doing his job as a teacher. “This answer changed our outlook on our education, and portrays how Professor Ju understands the core tenets of being a professor,” the student said.

Until recently, Ju co-taught the course “Energy Technologies in the 21st Century.” A student in this course said: “Particular to Professor Ju’s involvement in the education of his students is his persistent attempt to instill a sense of both scientific and social responsibility. In advising his students, he emphasizes the importance of questioning and reassessing both technical ideas and social principles and the importance voicing opinion when it is deemed necessary to do so.”

 Mark Brynildsen, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, was one of four recipients of the 2022 Graduate Mentoring Awards from the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. A faculty member since 2010, Brynildsen studies biomolecular engineering as well as cellular and tissue engineering.

Mark Brynildsen. Photo by David Kelly Crow

Students were grateful for the weekly meetings he holds with all advisees. One student remarked that the meetings provided not only direct feedback from Brynildsen, but also a valuable opportunity to learn from fellow students. “I am certain that I have grown in confidence as a researcher more quickly than I otherwise would have been able,” the student said.

“Mark stands out as a mentor because he truly trusts me as a researcher,” another student said. “Under Mark’s guidance as my adviser, I have enormously improved my ability to problem-solve, critically assess data and draw conclusions from observations.”

One student observed that graduate school “is filled with highs and lows, and many points when you feel like you are spinning your wheels.” After each meeting with Professor Brynildsen, “I’ve always left with a new sense of invigoration and a path forward.”