Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Andrew Pawl
It was an eighth-grade lesson on Newton’s laws of motion that inspired Dr. Andrew Pawl to pursue a career in physics. As a faculty member in the Engineering Physics department at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville since 2010, Pawl has helped to provide hundreds of students with a deeper understanding of the topic while implementing group work and active learning processes.
What inspired you to pursue teaching?
That interest evolved over time. I liked helping other students with physics in high school, so I volunteered as a tutor with the physics club when I was an undergrad at UW-Madison. The students I tutored expressed their appreciation and that encouraged me to begin to see myself as a teacher. When I reached grad school, I got to teach more formally and enjoyed it. The physics department encouraged me by allowing me to help revise the labs and hiring me into a position as a grad student mentor helping to train the teaching assistants. At that point, I knew it was what I would do for the rest of my life.
What is one thing you wish more people knew about physics?
Physics, and science more generally, is not just a set of facts. It is a way of thinking. I remember when I was young, people would tease me that I was trying to find “the equation of the universe,” and it always made me realize that most people really don’t understand what drives scientists. The key ingredient to becoming a good physicist isn’t the ability to memorize huge piles of facts or data about everything under the sun, but rather it is the tendency to get really obsessed with a particular problem and just keep digging deeper and deeper.
Physics can be a complicated subject; how do you help students in your classes find success?
I remember sitting in a giant theater-style lecture hall at UW-Madison when I was a freshman and basically sleeping through all my physics lectures. If a future Ph.D. was doing that, you can imagine what it was like for most of the students. I knew I wanted to do things differently when I stepped into the classroom. Luckily when I came to UW-Platteville, I joined a department that valued active learning. We even have classrooms designed to facilitate students working in groups during class. Getting the students active in class lets you see exactly what is clicking with them and where they are struggling. You can adjust in real time to help them succeed.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love lots of things about my job. It sounds cliché, but I really do learn something new about physics every time through the course, and that is rewarding. Seeing students get excited about a subject I love is extremely rewarding. Also, I greatly enjoy watching the engineering physics majors mature as they go through the program. I’m always amazed by what our students are capable of by the time they graduate.
If you weren't teaching, what would you like to be doing?
When I entered college in 1994, few people had heard of the internet. As a freshman at UW-Madison, I could buy a program from the IT department (on a 3.5-inch floppy disk) that let me install a text-based email program for Microsoft DOS. By the time I left graduate school, “Google it” was an everyday phrase. I love working with data, and I often wonder if I would have tried to work with one of these giant information-based companies if they’d existed when I was younger.
Interview conducted by Amanda Bertolozzi, Writer/Editor, Communications. To nominate someone for the Pioneer Spotlight, contact email@example.com.