UCLA’s Top Teachers: Helping Students Find Treasures Locked in an Equation

Aug 18, 2011

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

By Judy Lin

The UCLA Academic Senate has awarded UCLA’s highest teaching prize to six Academic Senate members. In an occasional series of stories that will run throughout the summer, UCLA Today will profile these winners of the 2011 Distinguished Teaching Awards. To see the entire list, which includes non-Senate members and teaching assistants, go here.

It’s a good bet that each and every student at UCLA knows a lot about cell phones — speed-dialing calls, texting, taking photos, shooting videos, using the latest cool apps. What every student surely doesn’t know is how the transmitter in your cell phone converts your voice into an encoded signal that the antenna transmits to a distant base station via electromagnetic radio waves moving at the speed of light.

But students of Electrical Engineering Professor Yahya Rahmat-Samii — a recipient of this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award from the Academic Senate — know this and a whole lot more about electrodynamics, wireless communications links and antenna design. And they couldn’t be more thrilled — both about what they’re learning and about the professor who makes learning such a pleasure.

EinsteinTake Rahmat-Samii’s approach to the high-level math expertise required to understand electromagnetics: “I make sure that students develop respect for the power of mathematical equations representing hidden mysteries of the physical reality. I tell them these equations are like a treasure box, and you need to fully understand how to open them up and then you unravel their beauty.”

“I always wanted to have a feel for how EM (electromagnetic waves) travel in space … and the course enabled me to visualize them,” wrote a student in a class evaluation, one of many endorsing Rahmat-Samii’s nomination for the award. Another student said, “His depth of knowledge … was unbelievable. His enthusiasm for the subject matter was refreshing and contagious. I have never been so eager to attend a class.”

Adding to these were commendations by former graduate students, now in careers of their own, as well as colleagues in the Department of Electrical Engineering in UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

One former student, Professor Michael A. Jensen of Brigham Young University where he chairs the Department of Electrical Engineering, noted that Rahmat-Samii “inspires his students to love electromagnetics and antenna design by tying the rigorous theory to cutting-edge applications. He brings exciting results from his research activities into the classroom to further encourage his students.”

Some of Rahmat-Samii’s students, Jensen added, have even given him a standing ovation.

“He is a naturally gifted teacher,” said UCLA colleague Professor Tatsuo Itoh, who also commended him for his thorough training of graduate students in making technically detailed yet highly engaging research presentations. “Several of these students have taken up teaching … and have become technical leaders on their own,” Itoh wrote. “Yahya’s teaching created impact on a wide scale over generations.”

The rewards have gone both ways, said Rahmat-Samii.”For an educator, there is nothing more rewarding than learning that his students, his colleagues and the campus have collectivity supported him.” He added that being among the Academic Senate’s “illustrious recipients” has long been a dream of his — which is significant, since pursuing one’s dreams and helping others do the same is at his very center.

“It is hard to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow,” Rahmat-Samii sometimes tells students in the first session of a course, quoting the late physicist, inventor and “father of U.S. rocketry,” Robert Goddard. Another of his favorite quotations comes from Einstein: “Politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity.”

An inventor himself, Rahmat-Samii and his team developed in the 1990s some of the very wireless communications devices now used in mainstream technology. Before joining UCLA in 1989, he was a senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology where he designed antennas for planetary and remote-sensing missions.

It’s all about enjoying what you do.

“The joy of teaching,” Rahmat-Samii said, “becomes apparent when you feel that you have [reached] young minds, inspiring them to truly enjoy what they are learning and to believe that when they work hard, they reach their dreams.”

Main Image: Professor Rahmat-Samii with a statue of Albert Einstein.

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