Department welcomes Sam Pazicni, Assistant Professor

Sam Pazicni
Sam Pazicni

On July 1, chemist and educator Sam Pazicni, joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Chemistry from his faculty position as associate professor of chemistry at the University of New Hampshire.

Pazicni received his B.A. in chemistry and music in 2001 from Washington and Jefferson College, his M.S. in chemistry in 2003, and his Ph.D. in chemistry in 2006 from UW-Madison, under Prof. Judith Burstyn. He completed his postdoctoral work from 2006-2009 in Biophysics and Chemistry Education at the University of Michigan.

His group conducts research in chemistry education, with a focus on mechanisms of language and learning chemistry, equity in the chemistry classroom, and inorganic chemistry education

Why UW-Madison?

It is clear to me that the University strives for excellence in all aspects of its mission and that the members of the Department of Chemistry community (faculty, staff, students) all push each other in pursuit of that excellence. It is very intoxicating to walk around the building and chat with so many who are excited about their Science, as well as the things they are doing in the classroom. I’m very excited to be a part of those conversations! Additionally, I attended UW-Madison for graduate school some years ago, and I know first-hand that Madison is a very special place to live and work.

Where did you work last and what made that position interesting?

For ten years, I was a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at the University of New Hampshire. As with any faculty position, I think the most interesting aspects derive from the students you get to work with—from mentoring an advanced Ph.D. student to advising a first-year undergraduate, your interaction with every student is different. My UNH students taught me a great deal about learning and life, and I’m pleased to carry those lessons forward.

What’s the focus of your research and what it could mean for the advancement of science or to the general public?

Our work falls under the broad scope of chemistry education research. While we pursue several projects related to improving particular aspects of chemistry teaching and learning, I am driven ultimately by the idea of achieving equity in education. As faculty, we don’t teach classes, we teach collections of individuals—the backgrounds and experiences of those individuals shape how they interact with us, the learning environments we construct, and the ideas we champion and value. I hope that our work helps to characterize some of the systemic issues related to differential learning and achievement in the undergraduate chemistry classroom and inform ways that faculty can adjust their practices, so as to achieve more equitable learning environments.

What made you pursue science and research? How has your experience shaped your research goals?

I suppose I wanted to be a *teacher* first—I’m quite sure there are Polaroids somewhere of me as a young man, sitting at the “teacher’s desk” I constructed in my bedroom, presenting a lesson to a classroom of Care Bears. My love of Chemistry came second; I gravitated toward chemistry because it explained the things about the world that interested me. I didn’t have a concept for what “research” was until my junior year of college; thanks to wonderful mentors at Washington and Jefferson College, I learned that I was capable of independent thought and work. The string of great mentors continued (Prof. Judith Burstyn at UW-Madison and Prof. Jim Penner-Hahn at the University of Michigan) who challenged me with interesting bioinorganic research questions to which I could apply Chemistry’s ideas and models. However, it wasn’t until I put chemistry and teaching together that a different area of scholarship became apparent. I was struggling to help my students understand wavefunctions and solicited advice from another influential mentor, Prof. Brian Coppola, who introduced me to the idea that there are ways to gain a deeper understanding of this issue, invent ways to help students overcome this issue, and evaluate whether those inventions were effective. That was the “light bulb” moment and I’ve been hooked ever since!

What drives your desire to teach? Tell us about your teaching philosophy and why you believe educating students is important?

What drives my teaching? Learning! The most profound conclusion I’ve come to after seventeen years in the classroom is that the commonplace interpretation of “teaching” is fundamentally at odds with education. I began teaching under the notion that experts impart knowledge to students, as if they were empty vessels; students learned as a consequence of an expert speaking to them. I now regard this belief as naïve as it is egotistic. This model of learning ignores the tremendous advances in psychology and cognitive science that inform our ideas about how humans learn. I believe my current thinking about education and learning has been shaped for the better by this wealth of scholarly inquiry. So, I’d rather call it a “learning philosophy” than a “teaching philosophy”. However, an aspect of my practice that has varied little over the years is the belief that education is a fundamentally human activity. Theoretically, I could gather copious amounts of data about my students and use it to match each of them to sets of the most rigorously vetted evidence-based instructional practices, all but assuring optimized conditions for learning—this would certainly align with the current trend in learning analytics, cognitive tutors, and the view of education as a customizable product. I do truly believe that if we understand the way students learn, we can adjust our practices to lead to better outcomes. However: learning is not analytics, education is not solitary, and students are not customers. Education is community. Education fosters deep, lasting relationships among students, their peers and instructors, and the different groups with whom they engage.

What can students expect from you in class or in the lab?

Whether it be in a large lecture undergraduate course, a small graduate seminar, or research group meetings, students working with me can expect my respect and trust. I hope to, in turn, earn the same from the students. Students can also expect me make our learning environments as accessible, open, and welcoming as possible. While we bring different experiences and values to, and have different roles within, these learning environments, we all fundamentally pursue the same goal. Finally, students can expect to be challenged! I find it relatively ineffective to “know” things. I find it much more meaningful if one is able to do things with the knowledge they possess. So, students can expect to “do” things; in turn, they can expect me to provide useful feedback so as to achieve the finest performances possible.

What most excites you about coming to UW–Madison?

I am most excited to join such a dedicated and talented group of faculty, staff, and students who can push me beyond what I currently think is possible. (I am excited to contribute the same in return!) A close second is eating cheese curds while attending summer concerts on the square! Music and theatre are a big part of my life. (My mom was a piano teacher and organist.) I also hope to find time to sing with the Madison Symphony and Opera choruses again!