Steven Strogatz, MAE, Dorothy G. Swanson Award
Strogatz harnesses the power of passion in his teaching—not just his own zeal for explaining mathematical ideas, but his students' as well. "When a student loves the question he or she is working on, they can do astonishing things," he says.
Strogatz says he learned this valuable lesson in 1982 when he was a summer student working with Art Winfree '64, B.E.P. '65, at the time a biology professor at Purdue who would become Strogatz's most important mentor. "We were trying to figure out what to work on together, and to get the ball rolling he sent me a list of dozens of research questions that fascinated him. That in itself was inspiring—the man had such incredible curiosity—but it was what he said next that was unforgettable," recounts Strogatz. "He urged me to try to find a question that gripped me 'irrationally by the imagination' because without that, he said, nothing remarkable could be expected to happen. I've taken that advice to heart in my own work, and my own advising, ever since."
Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics, describes his approach to teaching as informal, intuitive, concrete and careful.
"I want my students to understand the ideas behind the math," he says. "And I also like to emphasize applications—all the amazing ways that math connects to the world around us."
In the spring 2009 semester, Strogatz taught TAM 5780, Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos. In this introductory course he highlights how the subject could answer questions in engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology, and he received some of the highest course evaluations in the college. "This course was one of the highlights of my academic and personal life," wrote one student.
Strogatz also taught TAM 3100, Introduction to Applied Mathematics I, that semester and student evaluations were equally enthusiastic. "Prof. Strogatz is undoubtedly the best professor that I have ever had," wrote one student. "He is very intelligent, a great lecturer, and he knows what material is most confusing to student."
"Strogatz is very engaging and really enjoys what he does," wrote another. "He makes waking up for an 8:40 class bearable."
"In summary, Steve Strogatz is an incredibly popular and beloved instructor by students at all levels," concludes the nomination letter of Lance Collins, director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace. "He is able to excite students on mathematical topics in a singular way."