Graduate students critical to research and teaching goals

Posted: April 2, 2020

When classes are in session, PhD student Cassie Wallwey often spends as much time on teaching activities as she does on research.

Cassie Wallwey talks to three engineering students who are conducting a lab experiment.
Cassie Wallwey (center) talks to first-year engineering honors students during class.
As a graduate teaching assistant for a first-year honors course on engineering problem-solving and thinking, Wallwey facilitates labs, answers students’ questions, holds review sessions, prepares course materials and supervises undergraduate teaching assistants.

Doctoral students like Wallwey are essential to fulfilling The Ohio State University College of Engineering’s teaching and research missions. As they progress through their programs, graduate students not only gain valuable skills that can fast-track their career trajectories; they also help bring discoveries to life and prepare undergraduate engineering students to be the next generation of problem-solvers.

“Ohio State’s main pillars are education and research,” said La’Tonia Stiner-Jones, assistant dean of graduate programs for the college. “In order to do those effectively, graduate students are an integral component.”

In today’s college classrooms, teaching is not an isolated activity, explained David Tomasko, associate dean for undergraduate education and student services, “A course is delivered by a team of people—the instructor, teaching assistants, graders. Those teaching assistants and graders who are supporting student learning in the classroom are by and large graduate students.”

Disseminating information in the classroom is just a fraction of the time required to deliver a quality course, Tomasko added. Beyond preparing and delivering material, there’s holding recitations and office hours to reinforce learning, creating assignments and exams to assess what students learned, and grading those assessments.

“Having PhD students involved in the undergraduate educational mission is absolutely critical to enable everyone to be at their best,” Tomasko said. “Engineering is a team-based activity, so you get much better results by involving a team of individuals in the class, rather than putting all of the responsibility for every aspect on a single individual.”

Many undergraduates also feel more comfortable turning to graduate students with their questions about courses and college life in general.

“It’s more comforting to talk to someone who is still learning,” said first-year undecided engineering major Samantha Fernandez, who was in Wallwey’s autumn 2019 class. “She had office hours every day except Thursday. She made herself completely available, and was really easy to talk to.”

Nearly one-third of the college’s graduate students hold teaching assistant positions. Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Professor Nick Brunelli knows firsthand how critical those students are to the undergraduate experience.

“Graduate students make it possible for me as a professor to spend my time that I devote to teaching in more effective manners,” he said. “Rather than grading, I can spend more time with students outside of the class, holding review sessions, giving career advice, et cetera.

“They also help improve the quality of the assignments by checking the questions and solution rubrics. This enables me to spend time updating course content by adding new problems and more discussion about recent work in the field.”

After earning a PhD in engineering education, Wallwey hopes to teach engineering at a two- or four-year public institution, so the teaching experience she’s gaining now is invaluable.

“It’s been phenomenal. I love teaching and interacting with first-year engineering students,” she said. “They’re a unique group. They have a lot of excitement and a lot of energy.”

While the vast majority of engineering graduate students will work in industry or government roles after graduation, teaching experience is still beneficial.

“Part of the training of our PhD students is how to become leaders. As leaders, we have to be able to educate others, whether that be in the laboratory setting or in industry,” said Stiner-Jones.

Essential to research

Graduate students are equally critical to innovation. Not only do they execute faculty members’ research on a daily basis, but they also train and mentor undergraduate researchers.

PhD student Aamena Parulkar watches as Prof. Brunelli writes on a white board.
Prof. Nicholas Brunelli works with former PhD student Aamena Parulkar. [photo: Prateek Kumar]
“If you didn’t have the graduate students, research would grind to a halt,” Brunelli said. “You just can’t meaningfully do experiments that are required to do state-of-the-art scientific research without them.”

Chemical and biomolecular engineering PhD student Alex Spanos was introduced to academic research while working in Brunelli’s lab as an undergraduate.

“There were two PhD students who were very critical to my development,” he said. “They were very good in helping me develop a deeper understanding of what we were doing and a more scientific mindset.”

Because of that positive experience and his interest in the project, Spanos decided to attend graduate school. An offer of full funding ensured that he could continue his studies at Ohio State.

In a field where graduates can earn $60,000 to $90,000 with just a bachelor’s degree, convincing engineers to invest more time in earning advanced degrees is difficult.

“Only about 15% to 20% of undergraduates nationally will go on to a graduate degree. That small sliver? Everybody is vying for them,” said Stiner-Jones. “In order for us to remain competitive, we have to be able to fund them.”

Over 90% of the college’s PhD students receive full funding offers, which includes a monthly stipend, tuition and fees, and covers 85% of student health insurance costs. But in the current environment of reduced state support and federal research funding, providing those offers is challenging.

Philanthropic gifts that support graduate student fellowships are one way to bridge the gap. The university’s first graduate fellowship in engineering was endowed in 1902 by Ohio State’s first chair of mechanical engineering, Stillman Robinson. Recently, an alum’s gift established a first-year fellowship for chemical and biomolecular students, which provides a much-needed boost to help faculty recruit the best and brightest domestic students.

“The stronger we are as far as students, the stronger we are in every aspect,” said Brunelli. “You want the best faculty? They want to work with the best students. A lot of time the grad students are working in the forefront of research and, therefore, can take an undergraduate education and elevate it.”

If you would like to support the college’s graduate students, and education and research goals, please consider making a contribution to the College of Engineering Graduate Student Fellowship Fund. Gifts of any size help the college be more competitive when recruiting the best and brightest students.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications,