The TA Experience
At many institutions being a teaching assistant is considered the drudge work of grad students. Not so at Thayer, where students—undergraduate as well as graduate—eagerly commit at least 12 hours a week to TA duties in a variety of classes. In the following, seven TAs tell us what they put into the job—and what they get out of it.
By Kathryn Lapierre
Photography by John Sherman
Jan Rentmeister, PhD Candidate
My Role: Being a TA is a great opportunity to give back and help students understand material that I only a few years ago had the same struggles understanding. I am closer to the point they’re at than my professor.
As a TA I do office hours where I help students who have homework questions. I also grade homework and help during labs. I already meet regularly with Professor Stauth—he is my PhD advisor—and we meet with the other TA for the class to go over what the students are learning and what they should understand. Professor Stauth makes sure that we know what the students need to do in lab.
At Thayer, PhD students don’t actually have to TA. I think that’s a very special thing. We can do it in addition to what we’re doing as research assistants. You’re learning so much while doing research, and it’s great to add that perspective on what the students are learning. That can help students understand why what they’re doing is important.
Best Part: The best thing is helping students understand the subject they weren’t understanding before. Being in contact with them for so many weeks, you can really see their progress.
Hardest Part: I’m constantly being challenged with new questions, things that if you think you understand the subject you never really think about. It makes you figure it out for yourself before you can give a good answer.
Being a TA has changed my perspective on education. You’re used to seeing education from the perspective of the student, and now suddenly as a TA you’re in the position of being the teacher, teaching somebody who has never heard of a concept before. You have to think about things, about technical problems, differently.
Lessons Learned: Failure is a part of engineering. It’s okay for students to not understand the material the first time. When you’re a student, the professor makes everything look easy because the professor has been doing that work for years. One important thing is to teach students that it’s okay if you need some practice. Engineering is hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it.
Influence on the Future: Making tough technical problems understandable for people who might be hearing about them for the first time is a skill that’s really important in many areas of life.
Gabriella Granguard ’16
My Role: It’s important for TAs in ENGS 21 to guide students in a project. They’re given a topic, such as improving the quality of life, and we guide them on the process of figuring out what problem they want to identify. We take them through the steps of how to come up with a solution that’s feasible to complete in 10 weeks. We also help them with machining, resources, and working together as a team, since this is typically their first engineering course. I meet with my group multiple times per week and sit in on their team meetings. I meet at least weekly with Professor Baker. He helps provide feedback, and I give him an update on where our teams are standing and how they’re doing.
Best Part: At the end of ENGS 21, it’s really rewarding to see the students give their final presentations, to see that you brought this group of students together and helped them along the way. It’s fun to know that you helped, that you inspired engineers to continue their pursuit of engineering. It’s about giving back to the undergrads.
Hardest Part: Like any Dartmouth student, we TAs are always overcommitted. Sometimes you really want to be involved as much as you can, but it’s important to realize you don’t feasibly have that time. Another challenge is realizing you can’t just tell students what to do, but rather be a guide. It’s important to take a step back and reflect and say, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I telling them too much, or too little?” The hardest part is finding that balance.
Lessons Learned: As a TA, you’re learning not only the engineering skills—like machining, welding, circuits, and Arduino—but you’re also learning a lot about how people interact and communicate. Being a TA really helps you see how people work. Everyone is different. When you’re in a leadership role as a TA, you’re getting experience managing different people, and that’s an important skill to gain.
I’ve also gained a much larger appreciation for professors. I can see what it means to be that guiding light or guiding source. These students have had their ups and downs and really struggled sometimes, but when it all comes together, there’s nothing more rewarding.
Influence on the Future: I’m a biomedical engineer, and I’m really interested in medical devices, specifically dealing with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s or any neurodegenerative disease.
I’m staying here next year to complete the Master of Engineering Management degree, and then I would love to be a manager or a CEO of my own startup one day. As a TA I’ve gotten feedback from my groups on what I can do to help them and support them better, which is really important as a job manager. I think at Thayer, in general, we do a great job with collaboration, and that’s what engineering is all about in the real world. It’s really great to be able to manage a collaborative group.
Waad Kahouli, Dual Degree ’13 Th’16
My Role: This is the first time that the Aircraft Design class is being offered, so part of being a TA is to help develop the course syllabus. The second part is to develop a lecture topic and an experiment and deliver it to the class. As the students work on their projects, we’re helping them with any kind of support—whether it’s SolidWorks, software, or answering questions.
I give Professor Epps feedback about what the students are doing and what kind of questions they have. When I prepare lectures, we go over goals and whatever he expects us to deliver.
Best Part: Helping someone learn the material is very rewarding to me. Seeing students go from being introduced to the material, being confused, struggling to get a hold of things, to arriving at a point where they can actually have a smooth display of what they know and of problem-solving skills that are very well structured is an amazing process. I also enjoy going through how people think and organize their ideas. That makes me more conscious of the way that I organize and deliver my ideas.
Hardest Part: It’s challenging to not have an answer for a question that a student expects you to have. Sometimes you discover that you actually don’t understand it any more than they do. At the same time, it pushes you to go back again and try to understand it. Sometimes the student and I will walk through the problem together, and then we both learn something new.
Lessons Learned: As a TA you get an inside view of what it takes to make a course successful, the work that goes into putting a course together and making sure the materials are reinforced. You see how much professors are invested in teaching and working with the TAs. All the professors here at Thayer are very committed. Being a TA made me have a lot of respect for the effort that they put into supporting the students throughout the whole process.
And as a TA I’ve learned how to communicate better and express my ideas more clearly. I know that this is a skill that you get from your classes and your projects. But as a TA, I’ve learned to make an effort to make sure that I’m clear, that I understand people’s confusion, and that I’m sensitive to what they’re confused about.
It’s also like getting a second chance to go back over the material to reinforce whatever I have had a hard time absorbing. To think more critically about it and to learn from other student’s mistakes—and help them get through those mistakes—is a great experience in terms of having that material stick in my head for life.
We’re very fortunate that Thayer has the resources to make it possible for undergrads to work with other undergrad students to understand the material. You don’t have to be a graduate student. Because you took a class and you did well in that class, you can communicate that knowledge and spread it to others.
Influence on the Future: I’m considering an acoustical engineering consulting offer, a career where I get to interact with people. Being a TA has helped me realize that I like working with people. I find it really rewarding when a student has that moment where everything clicks, and they’re there because you helped them get there.
Eldred Lee, Dual Degree ’16, BE Candidate
My Role: I run problem sessions, pick out problems for homework, and guide the students through solving problems and strategies to be successful in the course. We hold office hours where students ask specific questions about the homework, concepts, or lectures. If students have common mistakes in their problem sets, or common misunderstandings from the textbook or the lectures, I actually notice that and let Professor Griswold know so he can go clear up the students’ misunderstandings.
I also grade homework, and as the head teaching assistant for the course, I’m in charge of organizing and leading all four TAs. I’m also responsible for leading the Stirling engine tests—the signature project for the Thayer thermodynamics course.
Best Part: As a TA, I can essentially re-learn the concepts that I’ve already learned in the past and then apply those concepts in other classes and projects.
The social aspect of being a TA is also a huge plus. As a peer of the students, it’s difficult to have authority in an administrative position. When the students do something wrong, I have to take off points and essentially let them know that their approach is incorrect. But then I get to guide them through the process to help them clear things up. The most significant thing that I learned from being a TA was how to interact with students and cooperate with them. My social skills have improved through the student/TA interaction. I’m making a lot of new friends.
Hardest Part: A difficult part is managing and organizing the assignments and work. ENGS 25 has well over 50 students, and it takes a long time to go through the process of sorting out and compiling the work that they have done.
Lessons Learned: Being a TA has made me think differently about engineering. When I was taking ENGS 25, I really didn’t know what the specific applications of the course material would be or how we could integrate it into different fields and aspects of engineering and science. But the students have been asking a lot of questions about real-life applications. Thermodynamics is primarily a mechanical engineering course, but I’ve learned that you can apply it to electrical systems, chemical systems, and various other real-life applications. With a clearer understanding of the concepts and the materials for the course, I can apply them to my field of study and to my graduate work as well.
Influence on the Future: I’ll be finishing up my BE degree and starting the PhD program here at Thayer, pursuing materials science engineering. I hope to teach material science and its applications to energy, energy systems, or biomedical engineering. One of the reasons I wanted to be a TA was to have some teaching experience during my undergraduate career. The teaching experience I’ve gained so far is going to help me a lot if I go into academia.
Marc Sepama ’17
ENGS 20: Introduction to Scientific Computing
Professor: Petra Bonfert-Taylor
My Role: I help students with their assignments and help the professor grade the midterms, assignments, and exams. We have TA hours, and the students can come in with any questions that they have.
I usually meet with the professor once a week. We talk about how the students are doing and go over anything that we believe they are not understanding.
As a TA, you get to meet a lot of students, and you get to interact with them in a way that the teacher doesn’t. I get their perspective on how the course is going and what they find difficult. I think it’s easier for them to relate to me as a student who went through the experience that they’re currently going through.
Best Part: When I first took this class, I found it very difficult because I didn’t program before coming to Dartmouth. I wanted to become a TA because I knew that other students who don’t have programming experience would have a lot of the same difficulties that I did. I wanted to help them go through the process. I also wanted to meet new people who have the same interests that I do. I mean, you just don’t take ENGS 20 for fun. You take it because you’re interested in it, because it’s going to challenge you.
Hardest Part: The hardest thing is being able to recall what you learned one year before. It’s tough to be able to remember those things and apply them to what the students are currently learning.
Lessons Learned: Being a TA is more than just explaining things to students. It’s about being able to relate to people—and people have different ways of learning. It’s easy to just assume that one way of teaching is going to work with everyone, when that’s not the case. It’s about being able to relate to the students in a way that makes concepts easy to understand and being able to accommodate different ways of learning.
Influence on the Future: I’m from Burkina Faso. In the long term I’m thinking of getting involved in development. Currently I’m working on getting an economics modified with engineering degree. What I hope to learn during my time at Dartmouth is skills that I can apply to my home country so I’m able to go back and help in any way that I can.
Being a TA is about being able to transcend any barriers that exist between you and the students, so I think this experience will help me when I work with people from different backgrounds. Being able to relate to the students now is a skill that I can apply in a different setting years from now. I’ve had a great experience.
Andrea Price ’16
ENGS 30: Biological Physics
Professor: Jane Hill
My Role: I grade homework, lead homework help sessions for students, and sometimes help Professor Hill do a demo or create a model. Usually she and I meet every week to go over content, homework, and what’s been happening in class. I’ll also talk to her about what students seem to be struggling with, what they seem to be really getting, and any questions that I have about the material. Most of my interactions with students are either one-on-one or in a group at TA hours in the evenings.
I was interested in becoming a TA because the TAs have been crucial to my success in my classes. Just being willing to work through problems with you that you don’t understand makes for such a great TA, and I wanted to give back in that way.
Best Part: The best parts of being a TA have been getting to know the professor better and getting to understand the material in the course better. Working with the students is really fun and rewarding.
Hardest Part: Being a TA has helped me grasp the material better because I know that other students are depending on me to understand everything that’s happening. I think I’ve become a better teacher from being a TA.
Lessons Learned: My career plans don’t explicitly include teaching, but I think it’s a really important skill. For any field you might go into or any job you might have, it’s great to know how to help people who are new on the job or are doing something new in the field.
Steffi Muhanji, Dual Degree ’13 Th’16
My Role: Because the class is project based, we have a lot of TA duties in the machine shop. We have labs based on materials—polymers, ceramics, metals, and hybrids. I usually prepare the labs, set up the space, write the lab write-ups, and then make sure that we have everything that we need. Then I run the lab and guide the students through the activities.
Best Part: My favorite part about being a TA is that I get a chance to connect with students, learn from them, and assist them, too. I learn a lot from students about myself and about the subject as well. It is always so wonderful when I am able to help students feel better about the material to a level where they can carry on by themselves. When you’re working with the students, you don’t know what’s going to come up at the last minute. Each week is different. You also get to interact with professors more outside of class.
Hardest Part: The hardest part about being a TA is not being able to help a student feel less stuck. There are times when I cannot offer a level of clarity, and therefore a student doesn’t really feel comfortable about the material. Being a TA is more of a learning experience than just a job. As a TA, I constantly have to think about the impact that I have on the students’ performance and try to ensure that I guide them in the right direction.
Lessons Learned: When I’m assisting students, I step back and approach problem solving from their perspective. And even though I’m a student myself, it’s not always the same when you’re TAing a class because the way you understand a problem is not the same way other people understand it. It has really improved my understanding of different materials. I’ve learned more about the subject, more than when I was taking the class. And I’ve learned that problem solving is very important.
The fun thing is working with the professor to get everything scheduled for the class. When you’re planning for a lab, and you start two weeks before, and then it’s two days before, and still things aren’t working out—it’s really taught me to be patient.
Influence on the Future: Coming into engineering from a physics background, I was a theoretical thinker. As a TA and as an engineer, I had to start thinking more critically. I had to apply the theoretical things I’d learned in class and make something out of it. TAing has helped me solidify my engineering experience. Teaching students how to do things also helps me understand more about how to interact with different people. This will be helpful in case I go into teaching, something that I think I would like to do in the future.
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