Pagano: Confronting science phobia

Todd Pagano, winner of the Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, is passionate—no, make that hyperkinetic—about science. The 30-year-old professor in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf’s Laboratory Science Technology program is well known for doing just about anything to get a point across, including dancing on tables to show “electronic transition states” and sprawling on counters to demonstrate “molecular vibration schemes.”

“You never know what he’s going to do in class,” says student Ahmed Ibrahim. “That’s what makes every day exciting.”

Pagano, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the State University of New York at Oswego and a master’s in the same field from Tufts University, has been teaching in the LST program, which prepares students for careers in environment, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, food analysis and forensics, for three years.

The program has been growing steadily in popularity, in large part due to Pagano’s tireless teaching efforts.
He loves to confront “science phobia” in students by challenging them to participate in his class before declaring any disdain for the field.

“I met Professor Pagano during summer orientation, and he asked me if I liked science,” recalls Anita Kurian. “He said if I came to his class, he guaranteed I would. We did DNA electrophoresis, and I fell in love with the program.”

Pagano, a native of Rochester whose parents are both teachers, explains his perspective on education by relating to one of his favorite interdisciplinary thinkers.

“Buckminster Fuller once depicted humanity’s reliance on nonrenewable energy resources as an unborn chick in an egg,” Pagano explains. “Fuller warns that humanity must view the use of earth’s finite resources as the nutriment in an egg that is relied upon in order to provide the necessary time and energy required for mankind to establish alternative energy sources for a sustainable future.”

Pagano believes that the role of the educator is that of a facilitator, or the provider of the “egg.” He says“At the end of the educational process, the student emerges from the shell with the necessary skills to be a renewable source of learning unto him or herself.”

Given the proper nutriment, Pagano says, a chick hatches to become a chicken and a student develops into a knowledgeable lifelong learner.

To facilitate that process, Pagano, who is active in the American Chemical Society and a past advisor to the NTID/RIT College Bowl team, uses an inquiry-based teaching approach, which allows him to detour occasionally from the planned curriculum to address current events and real-life issues.

When a student questioned a newspaper article about mercury levels in fish, Pagano went to a local butcher, “begged for samples of several types of fish,” and brought them in for students to analyze.

“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to grab onto this student’s innate curiosity and make a lesson out of it that the entire class could enjoy,” he says.

“Professor Pagano has a way of teaching information that is more conceptual and easier for me to learn,” says Ibrahim. “Every day I leave class saying, ‘Thank you, Professor Pagano.’”

By putting his philosophies into practice, Pagano suggests a change in perspective on the age-old question: Which came first, the teacher or the student?

“I strongly believe that teaching is reciprocal,” Pagano states.

“In the context of the shared mission of student success by the teacher and the student, instructors should be willing to learn, not only by keeping current in their field, but also by learning from their students.”

The Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching recognizes faculty members who have taught three years or less and who pursue excellence in teaching and leadership, nurture the academic climate that fosters teaching at its best, and enhance teaching as a profession. There are two award winners this year.

RIT News & Events, May 13, 2005