Student Life

April 1, 2019

Grad Student Spotlight: How Kickboxing made me a better Teacher, Researcher, and Engineer

Guest post from Eldridge Alcantara, UW Electrical & Computer Engineering PhD Candidate, Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and Cardio Kickboxing Group Fitness Instructor.

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My Husky Experience began in autumn 2013, when I started my graduate program in Electrical Engineering. And I’m not going to lie – I felt like I was on top of the world.

Even though I was setting aside a pretty good life already in San Diego, CA, where I was born and raised surrounded by a large Filipino family, close friends, and a full-time engineering job, I was thrilled to be here in Seattle because I was finally pursuing my dream of getting a PhD.

On top of that, I came into UW with a five-year scholarship and a guarantee to return to my job in San Diego afterwards. Nothing could go wrong, right? I just have to be the best student researcher with the most amazing research project, and this degree would be in the bag.

But that’s not what happened.

Fast forward to 2019, I’m still in my PhD, in my sixth year, and still fighting to finish. What has surprised me is that my most notable highlights so far have not come from research, as I had originally envisioned and is common with other PhD students. Rather, my greatest experiences and successes have come from another love of mine: teaching.

I came to UW with the intention to improve in research. But I soon realized I could not turn away from teaching that easily, something rooted in me ever since my time leading Electrical Engineering discussion sections as an undergraduate at UC San Diego. Something about being a TA just feels right. I like the interaction with my students. I like coming up with new ways to review concepts and solve problems. So, I decided to carve my own path and seek out other opportunities to teach.

I emailed Professor Maryam Fazel, who was teaching a class called Continuous-Time Linear Systems (EE 235), and I asked her if I could lead optional discussion sections as a volunteer. I’m surprised to this day that she did not brush this off as a prank, and I’ll be forever grateful that she agreed to let me teach these sections, which I continue to lead to this day.

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Photo: UW EE 235 (Continuous Time Linear Systems) class, Spring 2014

So, after my first year, I was doing great with my PhD program while continuing to keep my teaching skills sharp. I started to wonder, what’s next for me?

Little did I know that an opportunity was waiting in the wings.

That opportunity was UW Recreation’s Fitness Instruction Training (FIT) Program. I was already a group fitness enthusiast, and I liked the idea of getting paid to work out, but I saw something else with the FIT program: another opportunity to teach – to teach a new class format, in a new environment, and to a wider campus community I’d never worked with before.

I joined the program not being the fittest person in my cohort (nor the most enthusiastic), but I was determined to finish. I completed it in spring 2015, and began teaching Cardio Kickboxing the following autumn quarter.

During my first quarter teaching Cardio Kickboxing, I was amazed how I was able to seamlessly apply all that I learned from engineering teaching. Over eight weeks, I taught short combination sequences to the beat of music that incorporate basic punches and kicks and increase in difficulty over a quarter.

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Photo: UW Dawg Daze Cardio Kickboxing class, Autumn 2017

My time as a TA helped me understand the importance of designing organized lesson plans. I knew how to break down what I taught into small, digestible parts that my participants could follow. I also understood how to progress my lessons slowly and methodically over a quarter to help my participants safely reach their fitness goals.

Unfortunately, there was one thing missing that first quarter: enthusiasm.

As my fitness manager noted, “Eldridge, your experience in teaching clearly shows, but if you want your students to be at 100% intensity, I need you to be teaching at 110%.” I learned right away that any amount of enthusiasm I showed in an engineering classroom was not going to be enough for fitness, so I worked on it.

I practiced my class routines more regularly, so that over time, I worried less about the elements of my choreography and focused more on being comfortable in front of my participants. It worked. My class blossomed as a result, with healthy attendance rates that continue to this day, 11 quarters later.

But do you know what surprised me most about my experience with UW Recreation?

Being a group fitness instructor served to improve other areas of my work in ways I could never imagine. My engineering students now comment on how much more engaging my class is because of my energy and enthusiasm. I owe that to Cardio Kickboxing and the confidence it taught me, where I’m regularly shouting things like “you go, boy!” or “nice side kick, girl!”

My work as a researcher also improved. I get regular comments from my advisors and colleagues on how my presentations flow well and are easy to follow. I owe that to Cardio Kickboxing and the experience teaching to music and speaking to a wider non-technical audience.

Reflecting on these last six years, I never would have predicted that teaching would define my Husky Experience. My love for teaching has only deepened. From teaching group fitness and further engaging outside the classroom, I truly believe I have become not only a better researcher, engineer, and TA, but a healthier and more well-rounded individual.

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Photo: UW Dawg Daze Cardio Kickboxing class, Autumn 2018