Carnegie Mellon University
December 18, 2020

2021 Graduate Student Teaching Awards Announced

By Cameron Monteith

Stacy Kish

Nuria Ballesteros Soria and Cassie Eng are the 2021 recipients of the Dietrich College Humanities and Social Sciences’ graduate student awards for teaching. The awards are given to graduate students who have shown an outstanding dedication to educating students and improving their teaching abilities throughout their time at Carnegie Mellon University.

A Teacher at Heart

Ballesteros Soria, a Ph.D. candidate in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) program in the Department of Modern Languages, receives the Dietrich College Graduate Student Teaching Award for her work as an Eberly Graduate Teaching Fellow, where she provides pedagogical support for multiple interdisciplinary Grand Challenge Seminars. Her nomination cited her deep concern for her students’ well-being and various other accomplishments. 

“I am a Spanish teacher at heart, but I feel like in order to become a good language instructor you need to understand how second languages are acquired,” said Ballesteros Soria. “CMU’s SLA program provided that opportunity and continues to prove that there is always something that I can apply to my own teaching.”

Ballesteros Soria is also appreciative of the diversity present within CMU’s classrooms and students.

“A typical day in the classroom finds an engineering student and a drama student attempting a conversation in Spanish,” said Ballesteros Soria. “CMU’s interdisciplinary focus allows different countries, different cultures and different disciplines to come together, with students then putting everything into a larger perspective.”

She emphasizes the importance of culture in learning a language — that there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers for every language.

“The nature of language is to be spoken and used by humans,” said Ballesteros Soria. “I place a lot of emphasis on the culture surrounding the linguistic system — there are dialectical differences and even social factors that play a part in speaking with a particular person in a particular setting. It is a lifelong learning process.”

Ballesteros Soria looks forward to graduating in May of 2022 and to the possibilities that may come between and beyond then.

“One of the main lessons I’ve learned at CMU is that teaching and learning go hand-in-hand,” said Ballesteros Soria. “I am in a constant process of researching myself.”

An Environment of Inclusion

Eng, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Psychology, receives the Dietrich College Graduate Teaching Assistant Award for her role as a teaching assistant in multiple courses as well as within the department and her participation in the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research.

Eng notes the diversity of the students within her lab — a team of 15 undergraduate students in disciplines ranging from computer science and human-computer interaction to biological sciences and behavioral economics. They coming together to do research on material relating to educational neuroscience. She believes the key to maintaining this diversity is fostering a supportive learning environment.

“A huge part of effective teaching is creating an atmosphere where students do not feel threatened and are encouraged to think aloud,” said Eng. “If students don’t feel comfortable within the classroom or lab, then they are less likely to engage with the material and others.”

Eng creates such an environment with the combination of high standards and assurance.

“Rather than ranking students’ performance,” said Eng,” I give feedback on why students’ efforts were valuable and how they can continue to improve. Recognizing accomplishments and creating a sense of routine while having some fun is necessary for creating a shared environment that is healthy and productive.”

Eng is proud of her work advocating for and mentoring undergraduate students who presented their research at The Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in 2020 and received Outstanding Presentation Awards. She emphasizes the importance of instructors being aware that stereotype threat can make students even more anxious, but it can be alleviated by building students’ self-confidence and self-efficacy.

“The way to combat these vulnerabilities that students from underrepresented minority or disadvantaged backgrounds are facing is not to reduce the workload but to challenge the students in an encouraging way by expecting the highest levels of development from students without causing excessive anxiety and tension that will hinder learning,” said Eng.