Sérgio Pequito Receives ECE Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award at CMU

 Sérgio Pequito's Award

Sérgio Pequito is a Portuguese student that is carrying out his dual degree Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Instituto Superior Técnico of the Universidade Técnica de Lisboa and Carnegie Mellon University, in the scope of the Carnegie Mellon Portugal program. On May 20, 2012, Pequito received the Carnegie Mellon University’s ECE Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. On April 5, 2012, he received an Honorable Mention (2nd place) of the 2012 CMU Graduate Student Teaching Award competition, funded by the Eberly center, graduate student association and the Provost.

The Carnegie Mellon University’s Graduate Student Teaching Award is given annually to recognize a graduate student who has demonstrated exemplary teaching. The goal is to foster a culture of teaching excellence among graduate Teaching Assistants (TAs) and instructors. Pequito’s nomination was the result of several letters written by undergraduates and graduates grateful for his explanations, detailed lecture notes, and his respectful and caring attitude toward students.

We spoke with Sérgio Pequito about these two achievements, the challenges of being a TA, and about his expectations for the future.

Sérgio Pequito's Graduate Teaching Award            Sérgio Pequito ECE Outstanding Teaching Award

Carnegie Mellon Portugal Program: In April you received an honorable mention (2nd place) of the CMU Graduate Student Teaching Award and on May 20 you achieved the ECE Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. How do you feel with these two distinctions?
Sérgio Pequito (SP): It is a honor to be distinguished with such awards, the least I can say is that it was an extraordinary experience to which several people contributed to: it was a mix of open minded responsible professors that allowed me to introduce some novelty in the course and the awesome students/colleagues I had the pleasure to work with throughout the semester.

CMU Portugal: Most of the students which wrote a letter about you as a teacher assistant (TA), said that you were able to explain several boring issues in a very interesting way. What is your secret?
SP: I can say there are several secrets. First, teaching methodologies at CMU are different from those in European universities I have been enrolled in the past. At CMU usually one begins with applications and motivations after the common ground is explored and the theory presented. On the other hand, such approach might not be suitable for more abstract/theoretical courses; the trick was to mix both European and American methodologies to fulfill the diversity of students present in the classroom, by trial and error. In addition, I was producing some lecture notes for the students to get the material covered in the class in a organized fashion. I also added further details and examples to compensate for lack of background or limited time to explain a difficult topic. Finally, it is my belief that the TA cannot be understood as “the grader”, but rather as the colleague that is there to help, in order to achieve that throughout the semester I brought some cakes and chocolates in weeks that students seemed to be overwhelmed with coursework. Occasionally I also tried to bring to the class some humor and making jokes about real life examples where the theory given in class was mislead. I also challenged them with hard problems to get them to experience the difficulties by themselves. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... but we all learn with each other, and this is most likely the most important point, there was no entity that carries all the knowledge and deliveries it afterwards, we are all willing to learn!

CMU Portugal: Is it difficult to be a TA and to carry out a Ph.D. at the same time?
Definitely. Nevertheless, TAing is part of the Ph.D., although it should be understood as a 'learning to teach' experience. It is most of the times understood as another requirement to be fulfilled. Besides the TA work we need to do research and sometimes coursework. On top of this, there is always something happening that changes our schedule: seminars, meetings and visiting professors, among others. Although as TAs we are supposed to spend at most 12 hour/week, the truth is that by personal experience and by discussing with other colleagues we spend much more time, depending on how much big the class is and the responsibilities we have, it turns out that it might even become a full time job.

CMU Portugal: Could you please explain what is the role of a TA at CMU? Is it different from being a TA in Portugal?
It varies from course to course but in general consists in creating weekly homeworks and its written solutions, grading them, helping to prepare the midterms and finals and its solutions (as well as grading), preparing lab assignments and helping in the labs, give recitations (the equivalent to practical class or wrap up course content), give 2h office hours every week and finally cover some lectures while the responsible professor is not on campus. In Portugal (my experience is resumed to IST – Math department), the concept of TA (aka “Monitor”) is different. TAs help grading the midterms and finals and do several classes (2/3 for 2h) per week where they solve exercises. In the ECE department at IST the concept of TA is recent, it is my personal belief that it tries to borrow ideas from the TAing at CMU, I think it is one of the impacts of the CMU-Portugal program. Let's hope that professors and institutional rules allow the TAs to be innovative and to reinvent the meaning of teaching by reenforcing the link between students and the course.

CMU Portugal: You are now carrying out your Ph.D.. What do you intend to do in the near future?
That is a difficult question to answer. First, I have personal goals concerning the Ph.d. itself, I would like to tackle relevant problems that are likely to make impact in my field of research. After that both teaching and working in a company are viable options, I like to think that I can postpone the decision for at least one more year. Then I will apply for both companies and universities and hope to hear from them. At that time, depending on the offers I receive I will make a decision.

More information available at http://www.cmu.edu/graduate/professional-development/innovation-with-impact/index.html

June 2012