Graduate students stir controversy - The Behrend Beacon

Graduate students stir controversy

Posted on Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 3:10 PM

Author: Alec Italiano (Managing Editor)

It is no secret that engineering majors put in the hours to get through some of their classes.  It is a very difficult curriculum, and some concepts are hard to teach as a result.  Recently, Penn State Behrend has contracted the help of graduate students from University Park to teach some engineering courses (E MECH 211 Statics, ME 349 Intermediate mechanics of materials, ME 357 System Dynamics and MATSE 259 Material Science just to name a few).

Some students have felt that these graduate students do not have the experience necessary to teach the core material involved within this curriculum.

“Past experiences have suggested that these graduate students are not bringing enough experience to help the students gain a sufficient knowledge of the material,” said Tyler King, a junior mechanical engineer major.  “These are rigorous courses, very demanding.” 

Tyler Pakos, another junior ME major, felt that at a school with the pedigree of Penn State, graduate students should not be teaching such upper-level courses.

“I just feel like the Penn State system should fool proof the curriculum a little better,” Pakos said.  “If we are paying what we are paying for an education, I feel like we should receive adequate teachers. Like Jason Dahlenberg, he is a really cool dude, I would definitely have a drink with him, but I will hesitate before I sign up for another class being taught by him.”  

Joseph Mahoney, 28, is one of the graduate students from UP teaching EMEC 211 Statics, ME 349 Intermediate mechanics of materials and ME 357 System Dynamics for just this semester.  Mahoney is currently working on his Doctorate in engineering science and mechanics.  Unlike other engineering students however, Mahoney is focusing on the teaching aspect.

“My goal is to stay in academics and become a faculty member somewhere,” Mahoney said.   

This is different than many other engineering students graduating who tend to end up within the industry somewhere, or doing some type of research.

“In the position I am in now where I have been a graduate student for so long and I did my undergraduate masters at UP, along with how many times I have TAed [teacher assistant], I think all of that together prepares me pretty well to do this,” Mahoney said.  “Something like EMEC 211 I have TAed three semesters and tutored it a lot, so I am pretty well set on that, and a lot of professors, if it is outside their research area, have not done it since their undergrads. It can be pretty tough to catch up on.”

This could actually be seen as an advantage of some graduate students teaching lower level classes since they are more familiar with the material. TAs, or teaching assistants, is a grad student where they more or less help out the professor, and work under them to help teach the larger classes. Where Mahoney is more like a professor on a non-tenured track that will be teaching a fixed amount of time (one semester for example), but has all the responsibilities of a professor.

“I can understand the reservation that students have, at least for the first day,” Mahoney said.  “But in six months when I have the degree, I don’t know if I would feel any more prepared then I do now. The [doctorate] title does make a difference in the mind of the student, but I don’t think the difference is really all that major.”

Compared to other schools, Penn State is actually seen to do a better job at keeping professors in front of students. 

 “I have a couple friends at MIT and they require all their grad students to teach one semester, which is not the case at UP,” Mahoney said. “MIT has so many grad students that for their undergrads, they see a lot of graduate students teaching. I have seen great grad students, terrible professors, great professors, terrible grad students. But you think for that much money, you could get full fledged professors teaching all their classes, and they don’t.”