Q&A with Chemistry Education Professor Sam Pazicni

Professor Sam Pazicni joined the Department of Chemistry as part of the Chemistry Education path. As professors Bassam Shakhashiri and John Moore retire, Pazicni reflects on his reason for joining the department and on the future.

Why did you choose UW-Madison for your work in Chemistry Education?

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Professor Sam Pazicni

The Chemistry Department at UW–Madison has always had an excellent reputation for both cutting-edge research and a strong commitment to learning and teaching. World-renowned chemists who care deeply for teaching tend to leverage their deep disciplinary expertise in the classroom in very interesting ways—whether it be the phenomena they explore with students in the classroom, the models they privilege as being important from the perspective of their research traditions, or the laboratory experiences they cultivate in order to engage students in the practice of doing chemistry. It is wonderful to have such engaged and reflective colleagues in the Department!


Could you comment on John’s or Bassam’s legacy?

John Moore has been on the cutting edge of leveraging technology for student learning in chemistry for much of his career. However, he never used technology for technology’s sake; rather, he had a very specific vision of how students should be engaging with chemistry learning and leveraged technology in order to realize that vision. I’m not even sure that, as John retires, standard instructional technology is robust enough to facilitate John’s vision of student learning. So, we still have a lot of work to do!

Bassam Shakhashiri has enriched the lives of countless Wisconsin citizens (and the world) with live demonstrations of chemistry. It humbles me to think of how many people have experienced chemistry first-hand “in the lab of Shakhashiri”, and how many students he as inspired. Moreover, Bassam’s efforts have been targeted to not only experiencing chemistry, but also appreciating its synergy with society. For example, he has worked tirelessly to help the public understand climate change through the lens of chemistry.

What plans do you have for moving forward with the program in our department? Are you working together on this, or separately – each with a different focus?Ryan and I both have enjoyed growing a graduate path in chemistry education research, to not only train new chemistry education researchers but also support the teaching/learning interests of other students in the Department. There’s always been a strong interest among the graduate students at UW–Madison in faculty/teaching careers and its wonderful to help support those interests. Also, it has been marvelous to work with our colleagues to better support the learning of students in General and Organic chemistry—to translate what we know from the research literature into helping real students is always incredibly rewarding.

Are there any key things you learned from working with Bassam or John?

Whether he remembers it or not, John actually introduced me to chemistry education research! When I was a graduate student here at UW–Madison, John had me work on coding student responses to an assessment of student logical thinking. I admit to not really understanding what I was doing at the time! However, it wasn’t long after that I understood the importance of measuring factors that that may lead to inequitable outcomes in chemistry courses. Its fun for me to think about this introduction to chemistry education research and how its lead to the last 15 or so years of my career!

Bassam taught me that teaching is fundamentally a human experience. Even though my work deals with evidence-based teaching and learning practices, I recognize that no experiment or model will be comprehensive enough to explain something as complex as student learning in chemistry. There will likely always be that intangible “something” that is involved in good teaching. Bassam has convinced me that this “something” relates to the connections that students and teachers share—connections that build trust, enhance interest and learning, and ultimately, inspire. I think chemistry education as a field has changed a good deal since Bassam began making his mark—but I believe this lesson I take from him will stand the test of time.

Do you have plans for outreach?

I do! However, I tend to outreach to different communities than the Department traditional has. Mostly, I work with the American Chemical Society to provide professional learning opportunities to new chemistry faculty, as an advisor to and facilitator for ACS New Faculty Workshops. I also outreach to undergraduates to provide professional development to undergraduates who are looking to apply to chemistry graduate programs.