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Dr. Marcello Pavan Awarded the UBC Killam Teaching Prize

10 May 2019

In his eighth year of teaching, and after three nominations, Dr. Marcello Pavan has been awarded the Killam Teaching Prize for his outstanding teaching as part of the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia.

In tandem with leading TRIUMF’s Educational Programs and Users Offices at TRIUMF, Pavan has dedicated his recent decades in part to sessional lectureship in physics, leveraging his experiences as a career scientist and science communicator to drive compelling, engaging, and accolade-worthy lectures at the nearby UBC Vancouver Campus.

We caught up with Pavan to ask him about his experience as a professor, the importance of teaching, and what it’s like to win the Killam Teaching Prize.

TRIUMF (TR): How did it feel to have your work as an educator recognized with the Killam Teaching Prize?

Marcello Pavan (MP): Oh, fantastic. It’s quite the honour. I was fortunate enough to have been nominated three times before this year (once when I was too early into my teaching career, without enough years under my belt to qualify as per the Killam Prize criteria), and it’s an exceptional feeling to be awarded the Prize this year.

TR: Do you remember your first lecture? What was that experience like for you?

MP: I was terrified. I had been up past midnight, every day of the week before, agonizing over my slides. I had attended every seminar and workshop on teaching I could find. None of it helped with that anxiety. But – the minute I stepped in front of the class, it all disappeared. It was easy, straightforward, comfortable. It was like falling out of bed.

TR: That’s a bit different than most people’s experience with teaching or speaking to audiences.

MP: I think I’ve known my whole life that I wanted to teach. You’ll laugh at this, but: I used to go to the library in my elementary school at recess or whenever I had a spare minute, just to read the encyclopaedias. I tore through them, A-Z. Part of it was curiosity and the joy of learning.. but the part I loved most was going to my friends after and telling them everything: how white light was made up of all colours of light, how the tubes in televisions worked. I loved sharing what I’d learned, though while some enjoyed the daily lessons, in reality, most just rolled their eyes. Undeterred, later while working as a grad student at TRIUMF, I jumped at the opportunity to lead tours – by then, espousing on the wonders of science and technology came naturally.

TR: Different subject matter, same teaching principles?

MP: It is, really. Teaching is a lot more complex of a craft than people understand. It comprises communication, largely, but also psychology and sociology and whole slew of other human- and behaviour-based areas of expertise. Teaching is also hard. Doing it properly is even more difficult. Reaching out to your students or audience, getting to know them and how they best respond – that’s the toughest bit.

Sometimes I think that parts of it are a bit like being a medical doctor, in that you have a constant onus of responsibility to those who depend on you, a responsibility to understand what they need and deliver it in a way that works for them. It entails patience, sympathy and empathy, and the notion to empower others. And those things don’t necessarily come naturally to a lot of people. So we need proper training.

TR: Do you have what you consider ‘tried-and-true’ methodologies for teaching and communication?

MP: I try to be empathic. Especially with undergraduate students, who are struggling through a lot of feelings as they work through your material – mainly wrapped up under ‘anxiety’. They can be anxious about themselves, their future, their friends and families, about expectations. It’s a lot to be shouldering while taking 5 courses per semester.

As for methodologies, one of my ritual reminders is that I’m not actually here to ‘teach’ – I’m here to help students learn. It’s a subtle perspective change that makes all the difference. I don’t have the capacity to cram knowledge into students’ brains. No one does – except the students themselves. I don’t have insight into precisely which real-world analogies, which perspectives, which subtle re-framing of the question will drive home a concept or a mechanism and spark that ‘aha!’ moment where it gets etched into your brain – that all has to come from within the students themselves. If they’re relying on a talking head to teach them, all they’ll be able to do is imprint or regurgitate. My challenge is getting students to the point where they’re teaching themselves.

I find that there are two simple but looming obstacles for students: to show up, and to be willing and active in furthering their own learning. With those two boxes checked, I can maximize their potential as self-activated learners. I might even go on to convince them physics isn’t evil, and further that it might be interesting and useful in their every day life.

TR: That sounds like a progressive approach for a subject that many science students consider quite difficult.

MP: It’s been a work in progress. If I were to look back at my earlier years teaching, I’m sure I’d cringe – “Did I really do that? Did I use that analogy, take that approach?” – but, as with all things, it’s process of continuous improvement. I constantly ask myself how I can be doing better: changing my teaching style, modulating how I engage with students, and on down to the gritty details like office hours or how we deliver courses. I even read my course reviews in gory detail, too, and flag negative reviews and create a project out of them. I’ll take a workshop on a particular element of teaching, or ask for more in-depth feedback. It’s a process. This award suggests to me that at some level, it’s working.

TR: Any advice for colleagues who might be considering seeking out experience teaching?

MP: I’d recommend that anyone interested in teaching commit to the training that being a good teacher requires. That’s part of my work at TRIUMF’s Educational Programs Office and in collaboration with our Students programs - I want to continue building a culture of excellence in teaching at the lab, such that it parallels the culture of excellence in research that we already have established. I want to drive a community-level appreciation for teaching, as well as the systems that support acquiring and improving these skills within our wider TRIUMF community.

Something that I find myself constantly telling prospective educators or communicators is that just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you can teach it well. It doesn’t even mean that it’s the right thing to teach. One must set reasonable expectations of what you want your students or guests to leave with after your interaction with them. Like we don’t expect TRIUMF tour participants to solve Schrödinger’s equation after they’re finished with a 1-hour tour – just getting them excited enough to look up dark matter or radioisotopes at home should be considered success. Similarly with 100-level physics students – its enough having them leave the course with an appreciation for the subject and an awareness of the tools involved so that they can pursue it further if they so wish. I think that as scientists we sometimes fall into that trap of expecting everyone to be as engaged, excited, or intrigued as we are about our field. We must recognize our audience and tailor our approach accordingly. Much easier said than done, though.

For me, I get a charge (har!) when I see students enthusiastic enough to keep learning more – whether that’s by taking further physics courses or going home to Google beta-decay or solar neutrinos. If I can get people interested in physics, and I don’t dissuade them or overwhelm them, then I’ve done my job.

Congratulations on the well-deserved Killam Teaching Prize win, Marcello!

The full release can be found here.

UBC is one of six Killam institutions that have yearly awards for faculty and teacher assistants who demonstrate excellence in teaching. Nominations are made by students, alumni and faculty. The Killam Trusts is established by Dorothy Johnston Killam and Izaak Walton Killam to benefit universities across Canada with financial support.