While earning her undergraduate degree, Minha R. Ha tutored students on the side to earn money to pay her tuition. Now, as a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, Ha’s work in the classroom has earned her a 2018 President’s University-Wide Teaching Award in the teaching assistant (TA) category.
Last year, working with Lassonde Professor Jeff Harris, Ha helped develop a new two-hour tutorial for his second-year course, MECH 2112 (Mechanical Engineering: Professionalism and Society). This year, she is the lead TA for the first-year Renaissance Engineering courses, ENG 1101 and ENG 1102, overseeing the work of 16 tutorial sections each time. Redeveloped or designed anew, her work is found in all the tutorials delivered this academic year.
“Tutorials are meant to train students in how to think,” Ha said. “I love drawing out students’ ideas and articulating them in a way that their contributions get integrated into something we all walk away with. Everyone brings his or her own intelligence and insights that add to classroom learning.”
Ha believes that teachers can help students make a difference in the world. “I want them to have a vision for their profession or life,” Ha said.
“I believe that most of our students desire to have an impact towards a humane, sustainable, equitable and meaningful world,” she wrote in her teaching philosophy statement. “It is my job to remove the barriers with them and empower them as change agents – agents able to understand the complexities and lead change in their own field of practice, identities and relationships.”
She wants her students “to have the ability to respond and recognize one another across boundaries,” which means discarding stereotypes and learning to see each other as individuals. It’s something that is evident to her within the Lassonde School of Engineering.
“We have many faculty, students and staff who care about equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “They are also the go-getters who roll up the sleeves and always leave a situation better than they have found it.”
She also wants her students to learn without fearing failure or ridicule.
“It’s great to have a safe environment where you can be wrong,” Ha said. “I realize that I have so much power in the classroom, by the nature of my role. I want to use that responsibly to benefit the students rather than make learning more difficult.
“So I take each student seriously, and I hope I am modelling high standards in mutual respect and trust-building. I will also be the protector of the safe space in class by confronting and challenging disrespect.”
She succeeds brilliantly, according to one of her nominators for the teaching award.
“Students highlight the compassion, empathy, enthusiasm and engagement that Minha demonstrates in her teaching,” wrote her primary nominator. “Ms. Ha is a teaching assistant who truly cares about her students and will go above and beyond normal expectations in order to see her students succeed.”
Ha believes she has been fortunate in her own teachers and colleagues and wants to give her students a similar experience.
“I was lucky to have had a master’s degree supervisor who modelled for me that it is possible to be a woman, researcher, friend, family member and role model,” Ha said.
“One thing that my mentors have all taught me is that it is difficult to separate what we do from who we are, what we accept from what we create,” Ha continued in her teaching philosophy statement. “Amazing things happen when we can bring our whole selves to the work we do.”
By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus