Samira Azarin: Learning and Experimenting, in the Lab and in the Classroom

Samira AzarinWhen she was growing up, Samira Azarin initially thought that she wanted to be a doctor. "I had this grand idea of saving lives," she explains. As a Chemical & Biological Engineering student, though, she has found that she can work towards curing diseases in ways that are not "limited by currently available research and treatments."

She also has realized that she wants to work with people by learning more about teaching.

During her undergraduate years, Azarin noticed that she "was at one of the top Chemical Engineering programs in the country, but the majority of my peers were choosing not to continue... it seemed like the school wasn't really inspiring students, even though there were great research opportunities."

She thought that the singular focus on research at her undergraduate institution was one of the major causes of this attrition, so when she began applying to graduate programs, Azarin focused on schools that had both a strong research program and a commitment to teaching.

When she began to learn about the extensive support for stem cell research and the Delta program here at UW-Madison, the school seemed a natural fit for her interests.

"It wasn't just a place for research... I heard about the Delta program and could tell that the faculty cared about teaching and cared about undergrad education... it seemed like a good fit where I could pursue both [research and teaching]."

As a graduate student in the COE, Azarin has chosen to pursue her interest in medicine in the lab, working to "engineer culture environments for stem cells, both undifferentiated stem cells and directing differentiation of stem cells down certain lineages... Even the small things that we do in lab could have a big impact [on therapeutic research]... so that's been really fulfilling in terms of what I want out of a career in engineering," she says.

In addition, she has been experimenting with teaching by taking Delta program classes and internships and serving as a TA for CBE 426 - Mass Transfer Operations.

"[TA-ing] has been a challenge... It seems like the most effective [teaching technique] was to get the students to participate in solving the problems themselves... for me not to stand at the board and repeat the lecture."

"Sometimes I had them do think-pair-share... [W]here they work alone first, then compare with a neighbor, and then go through the problems together," Azarin explains. "The students have to contribute to the solution rather than me doing it. [It was] really helpful for them to understand how to solve the problem, and I really got good participation from the class. I was surprised at how many students were receptive to participating once they'd gotten used to it."

As a Delta participant, Azarin says that she has tried to incorporate many different ideas and techniques into her teaching: "Delta puts a name to things that work, and keeps them fresh in your mind. [When I was TA-ing] I found myself thinking, I'm in this class, how do I get them to learn? Teaching became more about experimentation with active learning. Every week I tweaked it a little to see how they reacted."

Azarin, already president of the ASEE chapter in the COE, also hopes to inspire other interested TAs to learn more about their teaching.

"In my department we have a very well-structured TA program, and good communication with the professor who's teaching the class. But, I realized that even though I have friends who are TA-ing, we didn't really talk about it that much. I think that if there was some type of support network for TAs to exchange ideas... that could encourage dialogue about topics that might be very relevant. Through the CITRL network and the Delta program there would be a lot of resources for developing a program that is specific to my department... so that is something I'd like to look into."

"And," she reports, "I would also love to take a totally new approach to discussion sections."

"I don't know what it would look like yet, but it's something I'd really like to do in my graduate work. I want to try to incorporate active learning, non-traditional learning techniques, real-world application... I think that reinforcing the connections between learning and impact on [the world] is something that engineering students need to see more often," she explains.

In the future, Azarin hopes to continue developing her research and teaching skills, and to eventually become a faculty member like the ones who have inspired her to maintain her focus on both teaching and research.

"This fall... for my Delta internship, I've been working on developing assessments for the Grand Challenges course. Six faculty members from five departments are working on it, and they all have strong research programs, and they are taking the time to develop a new course because they care... That's one of the experiences that keeps me motivated because I've really been able to see many inspirational figures. [They] remind me that people are focused on both, and there's support for both. That really influences my decision to stay committed to teaching and research."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) CIRTL Network

"CIRTL is designing, implementing, and evaluating programs for STEM future faculty development. Present and future STEM faculty create, offer, and evaluate these programs, in partnership with colleagues from the social sciences. CIRTL is also creating a network of research universities that will extend the development and implementation of such programs." (From the CITRL website, Mission Statement

2) Delta Program

"The Delta Program is a research, teaching and learning community for faculty, academic staff, post-docs, and graduate students that will help current and future faculty succeed in the changing landscape of science, engineering, and math higher education. Through three core ideas: teaching-as-research, learning-through-diversity, and learning community, the Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning (Delta) supports current and future science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) faculty in their ongoing improvement of student learning." (From the Delta website, About page).