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PhD Students Find Value in Connecting Teaching and Learning

Simon Begashaw and Marko Jacovic taking a coffee break in the Graduate College suite.

August 29, 2016

Each year, based on nominations from the university community, the Graduate College recognizes Drexel’s most esteemed teaching assistants. This past spring Simon Begashaw and Marko Jacovic were two such graduate students acknowledged at Graduate Student Day for their highly effective teaching, having worked closely with faculty members in a range of engineering courses.

Begashaw and Jacovic, both PhD students within the electrical and computer engineering program, share a contagious love of learning and genuine interest in student success, though the teaching philosophies they have each developed differ slightly.

Begashaw’s philosophy is driven by inspiring students to enjoy the learning process so much that they don’t give up on tough problems or challenging material. “I want students to see their intelligence as something to be developed through effort, rather than qualities that are fixed,” he said. “I want them to see learning as much more than exams so I emphasize that success is about learning and not about just proving you are smart.”

Jacovic focuses on “motivating students so they may succeed not only in the course but in their future as engineers.” He’s known to push students to solve problems creatively and develops his own “Marko Problems”—which test knowledge of the current material while adding in past material—to ensure students are building on concepts.

Simply put, their techniques work. Begashaw’s outlook on learning, initiative and eagerness to help students reach their full potential makes a difference in their learning experience. One student said, “He cares so much about students succeeding and takes the time to make sure each of us is understanding the course,” and another added, “Simon has the unique capability of simplifying complex subject matter for all students.”

Jacovic’s contagious enthusiasm and real-world examples make students excited to take on learning new material. “I got a solid grasp on the course because he didn’t dangle the answer in front of me and instead demonstrated different ways to solve the problem,” one student recounted. Another said, “I was excited to go to class and felt that Marko valued imparting his knowledge upon us. He enabled us to consider all that we are capable of as engineers.”

While the many award nominations from students and faculty illustrate the duo’s commitment and aptitude, it’s also clear that Begashaw and Jacovic have benefited greatly from their teaching experiences. In the process of reviewing material with students and applying their teaching philosophies they, too, are advancing their studies.

“Accommodating students with various learning styles allows me to learn new perspectives that emerge through discussion,” Jacovic said. “Teaching helps with my PhD program as I find myself learning new aspects of research areas and therefore gaining a deeper understanding.”

Jacovic brings the new knowledge back to Drexel’s Wireless Systems Laboratory, where he and Begashaw research alongside one another. The lab, directed by Kapil Dandekar, PhD, professor and associate dean in the College of Engineering, has a history of yielding well-regarded teaching assistants including current PhD student and earlier awardee, Cem Sahin.

Whether their doctorate degrees lead them to careers in academia or in industry, the faculty mentorship, hands-on involvement and the skills gained from teaching will be instrumental. “Being able to teach others is a vital skill,” Jacovic said. “Any work that I produce in the future is only as valuable as I am able to explain it to other people.”

Always looking for the opportunity to learn, Begashaw said, “I use each of my teaching experiences to grow. Teaching is a wonderful way to learn about people, about yourself, about the material you teach and about life.”