Undergraduate teaching assistants lift up first-year engineers

Posted: April 25, 2020

Sarabeth Hewa, a second-year computer and science engineering student, knew she wanted to be an undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA) for the first-year engineering program after a particularly influential UTA inspired her.

Sarabeth Hewa with her three teammates in front of their project poster presentation
Sarabeth Hewa (second from right) with her project team at the 2019 First-Year Design Showcase.

“Div was the UTA that stood out to me freshman year,” said Hewa. “He cared about his students and wanted us to succeed so much. I wanted to be that person for others.”

Divyaam Satija, a third-year biomedical engineering student, is currently the lead undergraduate teaching assistant for the College of Engineering’s first-year program. He acts as a liaison between other UTAs, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), professors, and—of course—first-year undergraduate students.

Whether it’s organizing review sessions, answering questions or offering advice on everything from campus life to classes, UTAs can be more approachable to many new students who are looking for help. They are also equipped with experience and resources that can help push first-years to success in a rigorous academic program.

The first-year engineering curriculum is built with the post-graduate world in mind. Instead of learning through lectures and applying their knowledge to take-home assignments, first-year students learn the material outside of class and apply their knowledge to experiments and hands-on projects. Since engineers often look up new information first, then apply their findings in the workplace, the first-year program gets students accustomed to this process.

First-year engineers also explore civil engineering, computer science engineering, mechanical engineering and more, regardless of their declared specialization. Many students switch their specializations if a project or assignment sparks their interest, or a project can reinforce a longstanding passion.

For Hewa, exploring engineering disciplines led her to switch from biomedical engineering to computer science and engineering. Being able to work with computers and do more hands-on activities opened up the field to her.

Divyaam Satija
Divyaam Satija

On the other hand, Satija always knew he wanted to become a doctor (specifically, a cardiothoracic surgeon). Being a UTA allows him to connect with professors and professionals as he looks ahead to taking the MCAT and applying to medical school after graduation.

For Hewa and Satija, the most rewarding moments of being a UTA revolve around connecting and helping students. Hewa remembers telling her students about an Engineers Without Borders service trip she had went on and then finding out she had inspired one her students to join the club as well. Satija’s most memorable students gifted him a photo of their project group and an honorary Snapchat group name (“Div’s Fan Club”).

Still, the role has its challenges. Time management and organization are some of the most obvious, but relaying a changing curriculum can also be difficult. The first-year engineering program is incorporating entrepreneurship skills to prepare engineers interested in the business side of the field and UTAs are learning the new curriculum right alongside the first-year students. The UTAs’ teaching experience and skill become extremely important during challenging moments like these.

Despite the workload, Hewa finds being a UTA an amazing experience. She loves helping students succeed and find their passions, and emphasizes how beneficial it is to explore your interests early.

“You should be passionate about what you’re doing,” she said. “Bouncing around specializations helped me know exactly what I want to do.”

“I live for those ‘Aha!’ moments,” Satija said. “That’s the coolest part about my job. Don’t waste time not understanding. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

by Brianna Long, College of Engineering student communications assistant