“Congratulations! You did a great job. You mastered the concepts. You reached your learning goal!”

That’s how Dava Newman talks to students.

“Knowing what you did right builds confidence. I’m a big believer in positive reinforcement. It helps students reach their potential,” says Newman, adding that a little encouragement goes a long way.

A rocket scientist, Newman earned a degree from Notre Dame in 1986. Two years later, she earned two master’s degrees from MIT in aeronautics and astronautics and in technology and policy, then added a Ph.D. in aerospace biomedical engineering in 1992.

Newman is now director of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. She has worked extensively with NASA, flying three scientific experiments in space; she developed a collaborative multimedia curricula for grads and undergrads; and she wrote a freshman textbook on aerospace and design that includes a companion CD-ROM.

Newman believes in involving students in the classroom to design, build, and operate real-life projects. “I get a lot more accomplished in teams by putting smart minds together than I could ever achieve by myself,” she says. “To me, teaching is a two-way relationship. It’s a mutual learning environment where everyone needs to participate. It definitely keeps students awake.”

Newman’s love and enthusiasm, students say, is contagious. (“She approached the subject with so much excitement,” one says, “I ultimately decided to make aeronautics and astronautics a career.”)

“I love having this wonderful exchange of ideas with students,” says Newman, who invites young people to drop by her office, and who is willing to know them and also to be known.

“We’re teaching the best students in the world. Sometimes I’ll see a student walking across campus, who flashes me a big smile. That’s an enormous benefit to me. You get so much back just by spreading a little encouragement.”