ECE Student Perspectives- Rubinder Nagi, ECE MASc ’21: Learning by Teaching

“As a TA, you learn to look at problems from a different perspective, and come up with unique ways to explain the same problem to different audiences. ”

Rubinder Nagi completed his BASc and MASc at ECE, graduating in 2018 and 2021. Over his five years at ECE, he boasts the achievement of having been a teaching assistant (TA) for ten different courses, and in total has TA’ed an impressive eighteen separate times!

He’s TA’ed for APSC, ELEC, CPSC, and other courses taken by ECE students, and was even awarded the graduate teaching award by the CS department, recognizing his work managing over 34 other teaching assistants as Head TA for APSC 160.

We spoke to him about his experience in this important role. Rubinder shares his insights into the ups and downs of TAing, and discusses how his work teaching impacted his time at ECE and outlook as an engineer.

What has your career path/academic experience looked like?

I completed my BASc in Electrical Engineering in 2018 at UBC with one year of co-op, and joined the MASc program, under Christine Chen. After defending my thesis, “Bayesian Inference of Parameters in Power System Dynamic Model Using Trajectory Sensitivities” in early 2021, I began working at Intel as a hardware engineer. I really enjoyed my eight years at UBC- I met wonderful people and made connections with students, peers, colleagues, and professors.

Why did you start TAing?

I was passionate about teaching when I was young, even before I joined UBC. In my second year, the instructor for CPSC 259 told us they preferred students who have taken the course to TA it. That ended up being the first course I TA’ed, and it kickstarted my journey as a TA for the rest of my time at UBC.

What was TAing like at first? Did you face any initial challenges?

I started TAing in my third year of undergrad. Initially it was quite challenging, as I didn’t have experience teaching in a group setting or holding lab sessions. Over time, I became more comfortable with the role and improved my teaching skills. Since I was TAing a course that I’d taken one year ago, few of the students were also my classmates in other courses- which was quite an interesting experience! This happened again when I was TAing graduate courses later on.

As I gained more experience, I decided to take on more responsibilities. During my last year at UBC, I was the Head TA for APSC 160, and managed over 30 TAs (including distributing grading, and managing exam problems, lab sections, TA hours etc) online. I also received the CS GTA award!

How did your approach to TAing change over the course of your time at ECE?

I’ve worked with some really great TAs and instructors, who helped me improve my teaching skills. My explanation style has evolved as I observed how experienced TAs and instructors answered student questions. Now, I’m able to break down a problem into manageable steps and solve it one step at a time, which keeps students from feeling overwhelmed. Problem solving is an important skill for an engineer, and I tried my best to make students eager to face new challenges.

What was your favourite part of TAing? Any favourite courses, topics, or instructors? Why?

My favourite part was interacting with students and watching their faces glow when they finally understood the material. There’s no greater joy than seeing students light up as they solved a problem that they’d been stuck on for a whole week! I missed this a lot during the pandemic, as pretty much all the students had their webcams turned off.

I’ve TA’ed over 10 courses in the past five years. My favourite course to TA is APSC 160- it consists of a diverse audience, from programming pros to students who’ve never written code before. All in all I’ve TA’ed it seven times. Sometimes students would solve a problem in such a way that it left all the graders amazed- none of us had thought of that perspective.

I enjoyed working with all the talented and competent instructors at UBC. My favourite instructor to work with is Dr. Luis Linares, as I loved his classes as a student and how energized he was during his lectures. I TA’ed his courses as a grad student, and I saw all the work that needed to be put into making YouTube videos, WeBWorK assignments, exam solutions, Canvas quizzes, and rubrics. It’s a fascinating experience to see a course you took as a student from a grader’s perspective.

What have you learned?

TAing has significantly improved my confidence, communication, public speaking, and intrapersonal skills. My audience ranged from first year students to people with 10+ years of industry experience. As a TA, you learn to look at problems from a different perspective, and come up with unique ways to explain the same problem to different audiences.

What is your advice for other students who might be interested in working as a TA?

One misconception is that one needs to be in a masters or doctoral program to be a TA. Although this is true for higher-level courses, students can become a TA as early as in their second year!

Even if a student doesn’t have excellent grades, they can talk to the course instructors about TA positions, and show their interest and enthusiasm for TAing. ECE students are preferred to TA CPSC 259, as they are the only ones who take this course. APSC 160 has over 600 students and 30 TAs with various degrees of experience. A TA for this course could be completing their BASc, BSc, MASc, MEng, MSc, or PhD!

Interested students can apply for Undergraduate (or Graduate) TA positions with the ECE as well as with the CS department. Prospective or current TAs can attend events offered by UBC CTLT to prepare and improve themselves for this role.

It’s a great learning opportunity and you form invaluable connections. To quote Benjamin Franklin,

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

Connect with Rubinder on Linkedin.

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