Brown Teaching Award winner shows students math is ‘beautiful’

CAAM Professor Mark Embree wins this year’s top honor

When Mark Embree talks about math, he uses the words “creative” and “beautiful,” “satisfying” and “rewarding.”

That enthusiasm for mathematics has both educated and inspired his students: Embree is the winner of this year’s George R. Brown Prize for Excellence in Teaching – Rice’s top annual teaching award.

Mark Embree

Embree, who has taught computational and applied mathematics at Rice since 2002, holds the John and Ann Doerr Professorship of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and is also professor of computational and applied mathematics.

“Many of my students are engineers who were good at math but maybe now think of math as ‘the hard part,’” he said. “It’s my challenge to overcome that.”

And that – giving students a foundation in math so they truly understand – is “the beautiful part,” Embree said.

The George R. Brown teaching honors are awarded each spring to faculty members who receive the most nominations from alumni who graduated two and five years ago. Embree’s Excellence in Teaching honor comes with a $6,500 prize; the nine  recipients of this year’s Award for Superior Teaching will each receive $2,000.

Winners were announced April 24 after a lecture by Ann Saterbak, last year’s winner of the top prize.

Rice has awarded the Excellence in Teaching prize since the late ‘60s, but Saterbak, professor in the practice of bioengineering education, was the first of the winners to be asked to give a lecture to the new awardees. Embree, in turn, has agreed to present a lecture next spring.

Saterbak shared her techniques for problem-based and project-based learning with an audience of about 125 students, faculty members, staff and administrators. Embree, too, is a proponent of active learning – projects and problem-solving that skip over the old textbook-and-blackboard style of classwork.

“I find it a real challenge for me,” he said, “to take students who have come to math through experiences in high school that are very rote and convince them mathematics is far more creative and beautiful than that.”

Embree said that to break the traditional mold of lectures, he and Steve Cox, a professor of computational and applied mathematics (and one of the winners of this year’s Superior Teaching Award), developed a laboratory module for an undergraduate matrix analysis class. Students enrolled in the three-credit course can sign up for an optional fourth credit, Embree said, “and do laboratory experiments that put the concepts from that math class to the test.”

The optional lab has been offered for four or five years now, Embree said, and 10 to 15 percent of students usually opt to take it.

“It’s definitely asking for more,” he said. “But those are the students who really seek a rich and deep understanding” of the material.

The active learning, Embree said, puts students “in an environment where they don’t just go through some rote steps, but they’re liberated to do some more creative experiments on their own if they choose.”

Embree said he also teaches a senior design class in applied math that mirrors the capstone design project most engineering students must complete their senior year. The math students work in teams to solve real-world problems.

One team of students, he said, “did beautiful work this semester determining how to optimally distribute medical backpacks in Malawi.”

The group joined forces with students from Rice 360°, who developed a medical care kit that fits in a backpack. Using old census data and a few other tools, Embree’s students worked on the logistics for distributing those backpacks in Malawi.

“They have taken this and turned it into an optimization problem,” Embree said. “How many backpacks would you need to serve all the people in Malawi? How would you distribute them to health workers throughout Malawi? What routes do they have? How do you assign villages to health care workers and health care workers to hospitals?”

The answers can’t be found in the back of the book, and that forces students to think in new ways, Embree said.

“They get excited; they’re challenged; they get frustrated,” Embree said. “But there’s all this learning that takes place as a result of putting techniques they’ve seen in the classroom to the test.”

Embree’s award, along with the nine George R. Brown Awards for Superior Teaching, will be presented at a luncheon May 11.


About Alyson Ward

Alyson Ward is a writer in Public Affairs at Rice University.