Students usually know right off that Martha Mecartney’s not the type of professor to “fade into the blackboard.” In one memorable dramatization, she had them compress eggs in their hands to demonstrate the resiliency of the shell’s design. When it was over, Mecartney had egg, well, not on her face exactly — but all over the lecture hall.
“It probably wasn’t such a great idea. We ended up with egg on the ceiling. After that, we did the experiment outside,” says Mecartney, professor of chemical engineering and materials science in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. “You have to do all kinds of crazy things to engage students. You have to be OK with taking risks.”
Her risk-taking has paid off. Mecartney was honored Wednesday, May 24, as Professor of the Year at UCI’s 13th Annual Celebration of Teaching. Sponsored by the Division of Undergraduate Education and Senate Council on Student Experience, the celebration recognizes individuals for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
Mecartney is fearless in the face of 200 students — and will perform all kinds of theatrics if it means helping them understand, say, the molecular properties of plastic. In a large class, she knows not everyone will appreciate her antics.
“You have to face failure. You have to have a thick skin,” she says. “It makes it more interesting to teach that way.”
In another vote of confidence in her theatrical style, Mecartney was elected chair of the Academic Senate for 2006-07. She’ll lead approximately 1,400 faculty members in the shared governance of the university, determining academic policy, setting conditions for admission, advising administration on budgets and voicing members’ views on other issues. Hard to say what she’ll do when conducting the serious senate business, but one thing’s certain: It won’t be dull.
It’s Mecartney, after all, who has entertained her class by climbing a ladder and dropping assorted objects, including a metal can, a plastic ball, even a ceramic light bulb, to get students thinking about what’s happening to the materials at the atomic level. “Their eyes get really big when I drop the light bulb,” she says.
Even if she doesn’t please all of the students all of the time, she’s rewarded whenever she sees students get excited about understanding a concept.
“One student came up to me at the end of class and said, ‘Wow, I was really fascinated by that.’ That makes it all worthwhile.”