2000 Metcalf Cup & Prize

James J. Collins, ENG

collinssmallIn his freshman class, Professor James Collins assigns a seemingly easy task: apply the laws of friction to human locomotion. But learning how we stride ahead in this slippery world proves not so easy. Step by step, Professor Collins leads his students through the fundamentals of biomechanics, and if he begins by teaching students to walk, before long they are running exuberantly. One student writes of the exercise, “I learned to see the equations I had previously tried to memorize as victorious discoveries.”

No matter whether he is teaching fearful novices, savvy seniors, or determined graduate researchers, Professor Collins startles. One of his students observes that Professor Collins “takes complex topics and breaks them down to the simplest concepts,” and then rebuilds, “transforming esoteric material into refulgent mathematical ideas.” Yet another student writes, Professor Collins “shines at conveying complexity.”

Professor Collins’s classroom exemplifies his fascination with the human body’s tumbling passage through the physical world. One student observes, “A person walking by our classroom might think he passed a circus; it would not be unusual to see Professor Collins or a student hopping or jumping around the room to display ideas of biomechanics before our eyes.”

But that passerby would be mistaken. The real acrobatics in Professor Collins’s classes are intellectual. Computer simulations of tottering robots, videotapes of leaping frogs, machines that trick the person who is leaning sideways into thinking he is standing straight — these are but the deftly deployed props of a master teacher exciting his students’ imaginations. To attend Professor Collins’s class, writes one student, is “to witness the mathematical and physical basis for human movement unfold and to understand every principle he demonstrates.”

For his brilliant organization; his agility of mind and body; his inspiring the scientifically timid first to walk, then to run, and even to soar; for his tact and his eloquence with students at every stage of the race; his humor, encouragement, and his startlingly clarifying questions, his students extol him as an exceptional teacher. Such breadth of scientific vision and depth of humanistic concern exemplify the great teaching that led Arthur G. B. Metcalf to establish the Metcalf Cup and Prize, which Professor James Collins has manifestly earned.