Unsung heroes

Adding Up

I remember sitting in my electrical engineering lab, trying to figure out how to wire my circuit correctly — it wasn’t going well. Suddenly, one of the lab assistants came over to help me.

Within a few minutes, he figured out what was wrong, and I was able to get back on track. Throughout the rest of the course, I was continually impressed with how quickly the lab assistants were able to find bugs and help students. When I found out they were undergraduates, I was shocked.

In nearly all of my intro computer science and electrical engineering courses, undergraduate lab assistants, tutors, graders and TAs have formed a central part of my student experience. Undergraduate students graded my exams, taught me material in discussions and helped me with my homework in office hours.

A close friend of mine, Garrett Tan, graduated in spring 2017, but he used to work as a TA for Computer Science 61A. When I took CS 61A, I would often get help from him during “homework parties.” I was constantly impressed by his ability to explain complicated material and quickly figure out bugs in other people’s code.

I always wondered: How did he and all the other undergraduate staffers manage their own work and make time to teach other students? These experiences also got me thinking about courses that only had graduate staff members. Why don’t other departments consider letting undergrads join the course staff?

In the courses I’ve taken that don’t have undergraduate course staff, my learning experience is definitely different. Many STEM courses are large and are often understaffed. With only one or two GSIs, office hours are crowded, so it’s difficult to get a one-on-one learning experience with someone who really understands the material.

Having undergraduates on staff helps mitigate these problems. There are more TAs in office hours. The TAs have also usually taken the courses they staff, and often with the same professor, so they can really understand and relate to the students struggling with the material. I’ve also found that it can be less intimidating to ask an undergraduate TA for help than to ask a professor or GSI.

Garrett not only staffed office hours and labs, but he also ran his own discussion section. He said in an email that he believed becoming a TA was helpful for his own understanding of the material he had learned in CS 61A. And despite the time burden, he said in his email that he enjoyed contributing to the campus community by helping other students.

Clearly, having undergraduate opportunities like these not only benefits the students in the class, but also the staffers themselves. By creating these opportunities, departments such as EE and CS allow more students to become engrossed in the course material. When departments let students take on a bigger role, everyone benefits.

Watching Garrett work as a TA for CS 61A was really inspiring. As I continued to interact more with undergraduate TAs and lab assistants, the opportunity to become a course staffer grew more and more appealing to me.

So in fall 2016, I signed up to be a lab assistant for CS 88, a course focused on teaching Python. I was initially hesitant, worried that I didn’t have enough programming experience to help other students. But a requirement was to have taken CS 61A, so I decided to sign up.

After the first few labs and office hours, I became more confident in my role. I learned how to help other students and how to efficiently find the bugs in their code. At the same time, I was also learning more about programming efficiently. I started to become more confident in my programming ability and more engaged with the material I had learned in CS 61A.

The opportunity for undergraduates to teach their peers shows the trust and confidence that departments such as EE and CS have in their students — these departments are giving their undergraduate staffers an unparalleled experience.

Undergraduate staffers are the unsung heroes of many students’ EECS experiences, and I know my own experience at UC Berkeley wouldn’t have been the same without them. From office hours to discussions and labs, I am continually in awe of my friend and the other undergraduate staffers. They are great representatives of UC Berkeley, and I am so grateful for their help over the past four years.

Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.