Friday, July 15, 2016

Whenever Daniel Rodman teaches a class, he puts himself  in his students’ seats.

“You have to put yourselves in their shoes and understand they’re seeing these pretty complex ideas for the first time,” says Rodman, a doctoral student in the Department of Mathematics. “As teachers, it’s easy for us to teach students from our own point of  view, assuming that they know as much as we do. We forget what it’s like to learn it for the first time.”

Rodman is one of  1,400 graduate teaching assistants each semester who play essential roles in the teaching mission of  the university. This spring, he was part of  a very elite group of  TAs—27 total—who received Outstanding Teaching Assistant Awards from the UI’s Council on Teaching.

These award winners come from the Colleges of  Liberal Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Education, and Public Health. Over half  of  the recipients (14 out of  27) also are receiving funding from the Graduate College for excellence in their research areas.

TAs translate complex ideas for their students

Graduate teaching assistants take their own specialized content knowledge and translate it for students across disciplines. They employ cutting-edge technology to help students discover new and vital ways of  solving complex interdisciplinary problems.

Jon Scholte, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical and biochemical engineering, gives his students a clear understanding why he’s their teacher.

“I am there to help them understand. I am getting my Ph.D., so I can very easily communicate to them these ideas,” says Scholte, who received a Ballard and Seashore Dissertation Fellowship and a Summer Fellowship from the Graduate College. “I’m not just someone who has been assigned to the class and doesn’t want to be there.”

Scholte instructs his students to connect to the “hidden” curriculum of  the course to solve engineering problems.

“In engineering, you will learn certain skills, but a lot of  other people will have those same skills,” Scholte says. “What’s going to differentiate you is being able to break through the so-called paper ceiling. You need to explain the terms and the jargon in a commonly approachable way that allows you to facilitate understanding.”

Madhur Satish Joshi, a doctoral candidate in chemistry, calls on her own experience in helping to break down complex ideas for her students.

“I faced difficulties as a student and found many concepts hard to grasp,” says Joshi, who earned a Post-Comprehensive Research Award and a Summer Fellowship from the Graduate College. “The ways I adapted to make those concepts easier to understand definitely make me a better teacher.”

These vital skills of  problem solving and communicating with others will benefit graduate students in their chosen career path, whether it’s a traditional faculty job or positions in government, non-profit, or industry.