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NSF's First "Director's Awards for Distinguished Teaching Scholars"

Awards highlight excellence and promise in both research and education

Last November 8, the National Science Foundation took a step to further encourage scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to apply their talents to education, inside the classroom and out, by bestowing the first Director's Awards for Distinguished Teaching Scholars. In a ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C., five men and two women, whose research excellence has been shared liberally through education efforts among their student bodies and with the public at large, were recognized for their work. Each will receive $300,000 over four years to continue and expand their work beyond their institutions. The recipients were selected from a national competition based on their outstanding accomplishments. Each awardee submitted a proposal that focused on efforts to improve undergraduate education that show the promise of impact beyond the awardee's institution.

The recipients were Arthur B. Ellis (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Leah H. Jamieson (Purdue University), Gretchen Kalonji (University of Washington), Eric Mazur (Harvard University), Joseph O'Rourke (Smith College, Mass.), H. Eugene Stanley (Boston University) and Carl E. Wieman (University of Colorado), winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Rita Colwell
Rita Colwell

NSF Director Rita Colwell, who presented the awards, has encouraged scientists and engineers to be involved in education, both in the classroom on subjects in which these scientists are already well-versed, or by engaging students and citizens on contemporary issues. She said the new awards should further stimulate broader efforts. Dr. Colwell spoke about the background of the award and of the NSF's goal of "investing in people, ideas and tools," notably pointing out the Foundation's "three core strategies": developing intellectual capital, integrating research and education, and promoting partnerships.

"This award embodies our priority to recognize the outstanding contributions of scientists and engineers to the leading edge of scientific knowledge at the same time they are advancing the frontiers of education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology," Colwell said. An interdisciplinary panel reviewed nearly 70 proposals from universities and colleges, with almost 25 percent submitted by women.

"These awards are far-reaching because they will foster innovative educational developments. They will increase and expand awareness of career opportunities in science and engineering. And they will further enhance connections between fundamental research and undergraduate education," said Judith Ramaley, NSF's assistant director for education and human resources. "These distinguished scholars are doing much to improve science and mathematics education to benefit non-majors as well as majors in science and engineering. In addition, they are raising to a higher level knowledge and literacy of the general public, which is very important to the nation's future prominence in science, engineering and technology."

The keynote address at the ceremony was given by John H. Marburger, III, who was appointed Director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy last October. Dr. Marburger is a physicist who has taught physics and electrical engineering at USC and served as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In the light of the events of September 11, he spoke about an aspect of university life that "needs to be widely understood as our society strugglers to respond to the vicious acts of terrorism" that the nation experienced. "Universities function properly only in an open society," he said. Dr. Marburger pointed out three reasons that make this possible: the dynamism inherent in research universities; the absolute standards that embody the work of research communities, which foster an atmosphere of excellence; and the "army of brilliant immigrants, visitors, and foreign collaborators" who all contribute to the making of a literate and free society.

Joseph O'Rourke
Joseph O'Rourke

Dr. Marburger emphasized that "every university needs to work out for itself how it will meet the responsibilities to the larger society during these troubled times," he said, and how to engage its neighbors and elected representatives in frank discussions about such issues as a university's role in enforcing immigration laws, allowing access to some weapons of "means of terrorism," and restrictions on certain fields of study. Once the discussion has begun, he said, "many more questions will arise." He made a point of mentioning the administrations goal of investing in education, "especially in science and mathematics…to enhance precisely the kind of performance being rewarded" by the NSF.

Dr. Joseph O'Rourke, a member of the MAA who received his B.S. and M.S. in mathematics from St. Joseph University, has coauthored numerous publications with undergraduates, teaches courses on Computer Literacy, How the Internet Works, and Issues on Artificial Intelligence for nonscience majors. His textbook Computational Geometry in C is used widely by undergraduates and practitioners in the industry.

Dr. O'Rourke has been called one of the "founding fathers" of the computational geometry community, initiating the ACM Symposium on Computational Geometry series. Many in the field have used his books for both research and teaching purposes and read his series of Computational Geometry Columns (in SIGACT News and IJCGA). He garnered the Director's Award for his work in adapting the research on folding and unfolding computational geometry for use by students and teachers from sixth grade through graduate school. His project provides an opportunity to demonstrate to students that computer science, mathematics, and engineering are fun, comprehensible, and related to real-world problems.

Computational Geometry

According to Professor Joseph O'Rourke, in his text, Computational Geometry in C, computational geometry "is the study of algorithms for solving geometric problems on a computer." One list of topics that has been frequently suggested for computational geometry includes polygon partitioning; geometric intersection problems; convex hulls; Voronoi Diagrams; arrangement of lines, planes, and hyperplanes; geometrical searching; motion planning; and Art Gallery problems. Computational geometry is a relatively new area of computer science, but its applications already have had a far-reaching and significant impact. Michael Shamos's 1978 doctoral dissertation is widely considered to be the foundation document in this area.

Today, in prestigious and diverse research centers around the world such as Bell Labs, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, DEC Systems Research, The Weizmann Institute of Science, INRIA-Rocquencourt, ETH Zentrum and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft, computational geometers are designing algorithms to solve problems on the cutting edge of technology. Examples of this work include the contour meshing design of a plane's wing, the programming of a robot to avoid obstacles, and constrained navigation in virtual reality environments.

Dr. O'Rourke's website can be found at


News Date: 
Tuesday, January 1, 2002