International graduate student recognized as top teaching assistant

Honor based on student evaluations of teaching

For Taha Namazi, receiving the 2017 John Bowers Excellence in Teaching Assistance Award is comparable to a lifetime achievement award.

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

Finding ways to better meet students' needs

While teaching such technical concepts, Namazi uses his interpersonal skills to enhance students' learning. This often requires him to adjust 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," Namazi said. "If they don't learn, you need to change your method."

Namazi's method has been proven effective, ultimately earning him the College of Science and Engineering's 2017 John Bowers Excellence in Teaching Assistance Award, an honor made even more significant to him because it is based on student evaluations.

Namazi was first evaluated favorably in students' course assessments, then selected as the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering's candidate for the award, and finally evaluated against candidates from the college's other 11 departments before being named the award recipient.

Winning the award was no joke

Despite all of the excitement of the award, Namazi 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?'" Namazi 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 Namazi, but certainly it was not a surprise 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," Barnes said.

"For example, he remembers the student's names and faces, he is a master calligrapher, and he is completing a Ph.D. under one of the most demanding mentors in our department," he added.

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

On the right track for the future

With his Ph.D. nearing completion, the John Bowers Award has reaffirmed his career path and a passion for all things academia, Namazi 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," Barnes said. "[He] wants the students to succeed, and they know it— and that makes all the difference."

This story was reprinted with permission from the International Student and Scholar Services website.