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Mechanics Professor Earns High Teaching Marks

Facing the Faculty

By Jeffrey N. Gell

When Associate Professor of Applied Mechanics Howard A. Stone was applying to college, he looked at only public schools in California.

"I wouldn't have gotten in anywhere else," Stone says. "If I did apply to Stanford, I would have received a rejection letter within a day."

Since entering the University of California at Davis in 1978, however, Stone has turned his life around.

As an undergraduate, he had a grade point average of 3.99.

And this month he become the first recipient of the Levenson Memorial Award for undergraduate teaching to receive a tenure offer.

"I guess I have just been lucky in a lot of ways," Stone says, humbly.

"Over the years I have had very supportive colleagues and some graduate students who have done some very creative work," he says.

Although Stone's research has focused on fluid mechanics, or the study of how various particles move, undergraduates know Stone best as the instructor of Applied Mathematics 105b: "Topics in Applied Mathematics."

And according to the CUE guide, students hold Stone in high esteem.

In a course with 115 students, Stone earned a rating of 4.9 and was described as "an amazing and clear lecturer."

While many professors like to tailor their courses to their research, Stone says he enjoys teaching a course that provides students with some of the basic "tools" they need before doing more advanced work in their fields.

"To solve problems, you need to understand differential equations," he says.

"I teach things in a junior-level course that half of my fellow Cal Tech graduate students did not know until their first year of graduate school," he says.

Although Stone's commitment to undergraduates has earned him numerous awards, he downplays his teaching skills.

"I'm not sure that what always gets measured is an accurate reflection of teaching ability," he says. "The basic fact is that I like to teach. I like my job. I like what I do."

Stone equally likes teaching non-specialists about his research.

Within his third-floor Pierce Hall office, interspersed among journals, books and photographs, Stone has numerous containers of fluids on display.

Between discussions of Harvard athletics ("I like watching good athletes play," he says. "I don't take winning and losing quite as seriously as most.") and his time as a postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge, England ("I go back there almost every summer," he says.), Stone paused in an interview last week to disprove the common belief that toilets flush in one direction in the Northern Hemisphere and a different direction in the Southern hemisphere.

Shaking a contraption that resembles two soda bottles attached at the mouth, Stone demonstrated that the direction in which the water flows between bottles depends only on the way in which one shakes the bottles.

"It's just blatantly false," he says.

Despite his passion for fluids (his collection includes dyes and slime, among others), Stone did not always intend to become a chemical engineer.

"I came to college pre-law and intended to major in political science," he says. "I guess I watched too much television in high school."

Nevertheless, since earning his Ph.D. from Cal Tech in 1988, Stone has become an active researcher in mechanical engineering and enjoys the impact his career choice has made on his life.

"Not all of my close friends live in Cambridge. They happen to live in places like the other Cambridge or Pasadena," he says.

"To me, that's a very interesting part of research," Stone adds.

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