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International Graduate Student Recognized as Top Teaching Assistant

"Teaching is a very person-to-person relationship between me and the students; it’s an art. [An educator] should be kind. If students don’t see that in you, they don’t trust or learn from you."–Taha Namazi, IranCollege of Science and Engineering and  Recipient of the John Bowers Excellence in Teaching Assistance Award

For Taha Namazi, the John Bowers Excellence in Teaching Assistance Award is comparable to a lifetime achievement award.

Taha began perfecting his teaching skills long before arriving at the University of Minnesota. Growing up in Iran, he was grading assignments for his mother's second-grade class as soon as he passed the grade himself, eventually even assisting with his father's high school English class.

Now a graduate student at the UMN, Taha has spent the past five years working as a teaching assistant, most notably for Professor Randal Barnes in the College of Science and Engineering's Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering (CEGE). In the role, Taha has instructed hundreds of students through courses like "Computer Applications in Civil Engineering" and "Statistics and Uncertainty."

While teaching such technical concepts, Taha uses his interpersonal skills to enhance students' learning. This often requires him to adjusting his teaching style to better meet their needs—whether that is by allowing one deadline extension per semester or by being receptive to student's academic and personal concerns during office hours.

"It's a very person-to-person relationship between me and the students; it's an art. [An educator] should be kind. If students don't see that in you, they don't trust or learn from you," Taha said. "If they don't learn, you need to change your method."

Taha's method has been proven effective, ultimately earning him the 2017 John Bower Award, an honor made even more significant to him because it is based on student evaluations.

Taha was first evaluated favorably in student's course assessments, then selected as the Civil Engineering department's candidate for the award, and finally evaluated against candidates from the CSE's other eleven departments before being named the award recipient.

Despite all of the excitement of the award, however, Taha nearly missed finding out he had won at all.

"I received an email and thought [it] was junk mail and deleted it. A few hours later, I received congratulation emails [from the CSE associate deans], so I said, 'Why are they all congratulating me? What's the problem? What did I do?'" Taha explains. "I went back to my emails that I trashed and found the [award announcement] email. I read it and got so excited. It was so good, I didn't believe it. It wasn't April Fools Day, but it was around that time."

The award may have come as a surprise to Taha, but certainly not to those who have worked with him— take it from Professor Barnes.

"Taha has a near photographic memory, an unusual attention to detail, and high standards in all of his activities. For example, he remembers the student's names and faces, he is a master calligrapher, and he is completing a PhD under one of the most demanding mentors in our department," Professor Barnes said.

The mentor Professor Barnes acknowledged is Professor Otto Strack. Taha has been working with him with since arriving at the University in 2012. Today, Taha is finishing a PhD in groundwater modelling and sustainability under Strack's supervision, all the while using his experience as a student to continue sharpening his teaching skills in hopes of one day becoming a college professor.

With his PhD nearing completion, the John Bowers Award reaffirming his career path, and a passion for all things academia, Taha seems to be well on his way to accomplishing this goal.

Professor Barnes agrees.

"Taha is a nice human being with a jolly demeanor and an optimistic outlook," Professor Barnes said. "[He] wants the students to succeed and they know it— and that makes all the difference."

Date Published: June 2017

GPS