Carnegie Mellon University
May 12, 2021

Rebecca Rapp Receives Graduate Student Teaching Award

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean for Communications, MCS

Physics Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Rapp has a passion for teaching and, more importantly, for her students. What makes Rapp unique as a teaching assistant is the time she invests into understanding each student’s individual needs to help them excel in their studies. Her dedication and enthusiasm made her a clear standout for this year’s Hugh Young Graduate Student Teaching Award.

"My passion is in physics and teaching. I love engaging with my students and making physics more accessible to them, and I love learning how to do this more effectively from the phenomenal educators here at CMU," Rapp said in response to receiving the award.

Over five semesters, she has taught nine sections of Physics I for Science Students, a large introductory course that is often a big adjustment for incoming physics and non-physics majors alike, and two virtual sections of Physics II for Engineering/Physics Students.

Both courses rely heavily on the commitment and talents of teaching assistants to lead twice weekly recitations and staff the nightly “Course Center,” which offers walk-in tutoring sessions.

Rapp was known for beginning recitations with a brief lecture and “pep talk” that clarified material and created an inclusive, welcoming environment. She facilitated group work and collective problem-solving, which was always to the benefit of her students.

Current physics junior Miriam Marino recalls how Rapp moved her from a more advanced group, after noticing she was struggling, to a group that she could engage more comfortably with. “I really think this move helped me excel in this class and thus gave me the confidence to continue to pursue a degree in physics,” noted Marino.

Students admire Rapp's ability to indulge the curiosity of incoming physics majors and describe her as knowledgeable, kind and down-to-earth. Many also appreciate her talent to explain physics concepts to non-majors in a way that makes them comfortable and adept at applying the material.

“She made sure to have multiple ways of explaining problems, different approaches to help various students and was always willing to give her time and energy to helping those in the class succeed,” wrote physics senior Aria Salyapongse in supporting her nomination for the award.

Rapp has also been instrumental in improving the course for future students. During weekly teaching assistant meetings, she would explain what problems students encountered, offer suggestions and improvements for the course and respectfully point out mistakes in solutions to homework problems so instructors could rectify the materials.

For many of her students, Rapp is not just a teaching assistant but also a trustworthy mentor and role model.

More than once, Rapp has made physics feel like home to students even when they were unsure it was the right path for them. She’s inspired several students to begin exploring or continue pursuing physics as a major.

“Becca’s passion for physics and teaching assured me that it was the major that I wanted to pursue,” recalled junior Amanda Jin. “She also guided me like a mentor. I clearly remember the empowerment she, as a woman physicist, gave me.” 

It’s a feeling many undergraduates have echoed, especially last year when she spearheaded organizing a regional section of the American Physical Society’s Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, which brought 200 women to CMU to celebrate their place in the physics community.

From her students to the physics community at large, it is clear that Rapp’s impact is felt and appreciated by many long after she meets them.

As one student put it: “I truly think her calling is to go into academia. She's incredibly patient and clear and she never gives up on a student. If Becca doesn't receive a TA award, I don't know who would.”