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Michael Todd, ORIE, Sonny Yau '72 Award

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Sonny Yau '72 Excellence in Teaching Award

A decade ago, Michael Todd was routinely skewered by OR Ph.D. students in their annual skits for blasting through lectures at a pace that made note taking nearly impossible. "He was a great researcher, but as a teacher he was intimidating—all the more so for undergraduates," reads his nomination letter from ORIE chair Jim Renegar. "The teaching has changed, and how!

"Todd has become one of ORIE's great lecturers in all levels of courses," continues Renegar. "Although he won a college teaching award in 2000, he deserves another one now, because his teaching of undergraduate courses keeps getting better and better."

While he has learned how to slow down, Todd says it can still be challenging to maintain the enthusiasm of a large class. "Adding human touches about the discoveries of new theories and methods helps," he says. "In optimization, I like to present different viewpoints on the material: the theory, the economic interpretation, and the computational implications."

"I've had some professors who just repeat what's in the book verbatim, but Prof. Todd never did this" reads one student evaluation. "He always explained everything in his own words, usually better than the book did."

Todd uses several tactics to keep a large class engaged, such as making lots of eye contact, peppering the class with questions, and mixing board work with slides. "It's not how much material you present," he says, "but how much is retained, that matters."

"Professor Todd easily qualifies as the best professor I have had in the engineering school," writes another student. "The lectures are clearly presented, the difficulty of the material scales reasonably, and the homeworks are reasonable. What more can one ask for?"

"Lecturer is God," writes another. "Everything about the course has a very little room for improvement."

The computing power available to students today makes teaching classes like game theory and linear programming easier, says Todd. "The existence of sophisticated modeling languages allows current students to model much more complicated real-life situations, solve the resulting models, and conduct what-if exercises with an ease that helps their understanding and appreciation enormously," he says.

Over the years, Todd says, he has learned how to compromise between his initial goals for a course and the students' needs, which can be rather different, but equally valid. "Their enthusiasm and excitement in learning can be inspiring," he says.