Professor Robert J. Cava

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Professor Robert J. Cava

Professor Robert J. Cava

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Excellence in Teaching Award

“Following training in materials science and engineering, Prof. Cava received a Ph.D. in ceramics from MIT in 1978…” see more

I have the distinct honor this afternoon of introducing Professor Bob Cava.

Following training in materials science and engineering, Prof. Cava received a Ph.D. in ceramics from MIT in 1978. After a one-year National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship with the National Bureau of Standards, he joined Bell Labs in 1979 and was made distinguished member of the technical staff in 1985. He has been a member of the chemistry faculty and the Materials Institute at Princeton since 1996. His specific research interests lie in the structure, characterization, and synthesis of new intermetallic and transition-metal oxide compounds with unusual electronic and magnetic properties. He also studies high-temperature superconductors, transparent conducting materials, dielectrics, and thermoelectrics, working to improve understanding of the quantum-level physics that gives these materials their special properties.

Most importantly, perhaps, to the students in this room, is his teaching role here at Princeton. Last fall, his Chemistry 207 course received high praises from all involved. The class, for those of you not familiar with it, is general chemistry with a materials-science twist, geared toward freshman engineers. According to one student, “Professor Cava produced a learning environment that was ideal for fun and effective study. His overall sense of humor and likeability were tremendous.” Another elaborates, “He connected with us.”

Everyone seems to have their favorite Cava story, for instance: “My favorite moment was during the midterm exam when he walked in dressed as Darth Vader, complete with hood, mask, and recording of scratchy breathing.” Another recalls, “My favorite Cava experience was during a lecture on metals, when he brought out a giant Samurai sword and a pumpkin, and chopped the latter in half, out of the blue. It was hilarious. Also, he liked to explode balloons of hydrogen and oxygen to ‘wake up the people in the back of the room’ whenever he was going to talk about something particularly important.” Demonstrations were a favorite part of the class, including showy and unorthodox chemical reactions, movie scenes, and the making of colored glass and brass pennies. His love for materials science was always evident from his lectures, in which he incorporated topics that weren’t on the test, “just to spark our interest.” “He gave presentations on the real-world applications of chemistry – such as semiconductors, scanning tunneling microscopes, and decorative glazes in ancient Greek pottery – and incorporated insight from his specialty, particularly towards the end of the semester when we covered solids,” explains another student. “He brought chemistry beyond the textbook level of consciousness.”

Aside from his memorable antics and fascinating lectures, most students were also very appreciative of his dedication and teaching ability. “He was extremely flexible with his office hours. If you needed help, he would find a way to help you,” a student explains. “During review sessions Prof. Cava would never assume that a student had even a basic understanding of a problem. He would always start from scratch as though the problem was new to him, too. I found this technique to be especially effective,” recalls another. “He would also stay for a while after classes and answer questions for anyone who could stay, and offer us a closer look at some of the demonstrations.” Finally, he made appearances at all the teaching assistants’ exam review sessions, in addition to holding his own.

To summarize, I will quote yet another student, who writes, “I would recommend this course to anybody, and the reason why is Professor Cava. He was funny, friendly, and clearly expert in his field. His course made challenging material understandable, interesting, and applicable to our lives. In the rare event that I missed class, I was genuinely sad – not just because it might come back to haunt me on the final, but mostly because nobody’s borrowed notes could ever capture the oft-quoted one-liners, the demonstrations, and the pervasive joy of learning that was Chem 207. Enthusiastic, entertaining, and educational – what more could you want in a professor?”

Professor Cava is a tremendous asset to the Chemistry Department, the Materials Institute, and to the wider University community. The Engineering Council is, once again, honored to present him with a Fall 2002 Excellence in Teaching Award today.

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Solid State Chemistry Research Group