The Alan J. Perlis SCS Student Teaching Award
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)


Adam Wierman, 2005

Being a TA is truly a rewarding job. A TA can act as an interpreter and guide for students: interpreting lectures overflowing with new ideas by isolating the key points, and guiding students through the learning process, which begins outside of the lecture environment when the students first apply the new ideas on their own. The best moment to learn is when there is a need for something new, when a barrier has been hit and a new tool needs to be brought to bear on the problem. Thus, the job of a TA is to create situations where the students can discover the need for the new ideas and, in the process, learn to apply them.

One way to accomplish this is through interactive recitations where students help work through problems with the TA, but the most prominent place where this happens is outside the classroom in the homeworks and projects. The task of a TA is to design assignments that challenge, but don't overwhelm the students; and that couch difficult concepts in interesting situations, motivating students to discover new concepts on their own. This sounds straightforward enough, but without care, difficult assignments can be extremely frustrating. The key for a TA is to create a relaxed environment where students can seek help.

My goal has been to encourage students to come to office hours with study groups and actually work on the homework in a setting where they can ask questions as they arise. This way the help I give can be tuned to allow the students to have the joy of discovering the crucial insight, but to prevent the frustration of spending hours on a difficult problem without making progress. There is a danger in this sort of setting though: the TA needs to avoid jumping in and "teaching" when a student starts to stumble. Students don't need to be "taught" how to solve problems, they need to be guided through the process and thus allowed to learn. The only way students incorporate new ideas and develop new habits of thinking is to develop confidence by using new tools on their own. These interactive sessions, where I could see students start to grasp new ideas, were by far the most rewarding parts of being a TA.

I am very pleased to know that my students felt like I helped them to learn and enjoy theoretical computer science, and I am honored by this award. I was quite lucky to be able to teach under the supervision of some of the most talented teachers in the department, and I really enjoyed the experience.

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