A Northwest Indiana Life in the Spotlight: Dr. Sandra Peszek

Dr-Sandra-PeszekChemistry — and science in general — can be an intimidating area of study. Fortunately for students at Whiting, Indiana’s Calumet College of St. Joseph, they have a teacher in their midst who seems to have discovered the formula for making chemistry in particular — and science in general — if not easier, then certainly a little more fun.

Her name is Dr. Sandra Chimon Peszek, and, in addition to being an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at CCSJ, as the college if also known, she is also the director of the school’s Science Program, as well as the advisor to its Science Club.

It’s a lot of responsibility, but no one doubts that she’s up to the task.

“I’m a chemist by trade,” she says, “but, like all the science teachers here, I can do everything else. We’ve all taken our biology courses, our physics classes, our chem classes and all the sciences we have here, so everybody’s capable of teaching all the other classes.”

In addition to General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry and Instrumental Chemistry, Dr. Peszek also teaches courses in Forensic Biology, Research Methods and Nutrition.

So how does she make such serious subjects more palatable to her young charges? Several ways.

“Students all want to see the same thing when they come to a chemistry class,” she says. “They want to see an explosion. They want to see something on fire. So you give them a little bit of that, you show them why it happens, and then you have them do it. Then they enjoy it all the more.”

Take her course on Research Methods, and you won’t just learn the minutiae of preparing valid scientific studies; you will actually conduct a research project of your own and present the results at a regional or national academic conference.

Similarly, if you sign up for her Forensics class, you won’t just learn the scientific techniques used to process a crime scene; you will actually process a crime scene.

“For their final exam, students have to use the techniques I’ve taught them during the semester to solve five murders,” says Dr. Peszek, “and they have to solve them all.”

Relax: They’re not real murders. The crime scenes are staged. But you get the idea. Such imaginative teaching methods spring from Dr. Peszek’s belief that lectures, even from the best of teachers, can get boring sometimes.

“I can lecture all I want,” she says, “but are they going to remember all of it? Let’s relate it to real life. Let’s apply it. We try to do a lot of that.”

If more schools operated under that premise, Dr. Peszek believes, more students might be attracted to science.

“Students generally don’t want to get into science because it requires a lot of schooling, and because it’s perceived as being hard,” she says. “Also, there’s math involved. For some reason, a lot of people don’t like the math part of it.”

Not surprisingly, that was never the case for Dr. Peszek herself. She has always liked science. And she’s always excelled at it.

“My dad was a doctor — a general practitioner,” she explains. “He’s retired now, but I’ve been around science all my life. I grew up with it. Beyond that, I guess I just like puzzles. Figuring out what the next step is, what it means, what we can learn from it.”

Teaching seems to come naturally to her as well. One measure of that ability is the Excellence in Teaching Award she received at DePaul University in Chicago, where she taught for more than four years (and also served as the director of undergraduate studies) before coming to Calumet College just over a year and a half ago.

“Even as a young student, whenever kids in any of my classes would get stuck on a problem, I’d help them out. I was kind of the nerdy one.”

Today, she incorporates the concept of “peer learning,” as she calls it, into her classes at Calumet College.

“I like to give my students in-class assignments,” she explains. “So I’ll teach the material, then have them work on something related to it. If they they get stuck, they have to ask other students to help them before they come to me.”

In Dr. Peszek’s view, when someone understands something, or is just beginning to, the process of discussing it and explaining it to someone else will make both parties understand it even better.

“Learning from each other that way often leads to an ‘Aha!’ moment,” says the professor. “It forces students to really think about a problem instead of just having me explain it to them. Of course, if they can’t figure it out, I’ll help them through it.”

She admits that she can appear to be a little tough on students at times, but insists it’s a two-way street.

“I pick on my students sometimes, but I also let them pick on me. We go back and forth. The important thing is, they’re comfortable enough that they know they can ask me any question and not feel stupid.”

Perhaps that explains her popularity with students, not just at Calumet College, but also at DePaul and the other schools where she has taught during her career (the list includes Prairie State College, National Louis University and Elmhurst College, all in Illinois).

“These kids become like family to me,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of them tell me, ‘Don’t leave until I graduate!’ Every year I’ve had someone say that. It’s nice to hear, but it makes it tougher on me when I do have to make a transition. Leaving my DePaul students was very difficult, though I had a couple of students that actually transferred here when I did.”

She smiles at the thought, obviously pleased by the display of loyalty.

For Dr. Peszek, the decision to depart DePaul and come to Calumet College was based on several factors. On the practical side, her commute from DePaul, on the city’s north side, to her home in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where she had moved after a divorce, was exhausting, amounting to a round trip of four to five hours.

“I had a little one at home, so for me, spending all that time in a car instead of being with him was really difficult,” Dr. Peszek recalls.

When she learned there was a teaching position open at Calumet College, which is only about 40 minutes from her home, she applied for it.

“This was also a great opportunity for me because it was similar to what I was doing at DePaul after the College of Science & Health split off from Liberal Arts & Sciences there. So I already had that experience. We had also started a Pre-Health Advising Committee at DePaul, which I was a part of, for students going into medical allied schools or public allied schools, so I had that experience too. Here, they didn’t have that — well, they did, but it needed some attention.”

There were obvious differences between the two schools as well. DePaul had a much bigger science program, and class sizes were much bigger too. Even the students were different from the students at CCSJ.

“It’s a different setting here,” says the professor. “Over there, everybody’s going to med school. So it’s a different student. A different student body, a different caliber of student, and different pressures from their own parents. The kids here don’t come from the same scientific or medical backgrounds. They need a little more attention. A little more one on one. But that’s something I enjoy, so it works out fine.”

As director of Calumet College’s Science Program, Dr. Peszek has also been charged with the task of redesigning the school’s science curriculums. So far, she has shown herself to be the right choice for the job.

“We used to have a program called Life Science Pre-Professional,” she says. “The name isn’t very catchy, and it just sounds like something you might take before you get into medical school or physical therapy school or whatever it happens to be. We’ve broadened the program and changed the name to Biomedical Science. So now, if medical school doesn't work out for you, you’re also ready to go into industry, or to graduate school to get your Ph.D. in whatever — science or biology or chemistry. It covers all of it.”

Similar improvements are being undertaken in the college’s Forensics and Exercise Science programs. Also in the works is an Environmental Sustainability program, which involves the study of factors and practices that influence the long-term health of the environment.

And after that? Given the opportunity, Dr. Peszek says she would love to help design and implement Master’s degree programs in the sciences.

“It would be great if we could offer a four-plus-one, which means you do your Bachelor’s degree in four years, with some of the classes counting toward your Master’s, and then you do one more year to complete your Master’s.”

With all that she has on her proverbial plate already, you have to wonder how Dr. Peszek has time for anything else in her life. But in fact she does. A relatively new interest, it turns out, is firearms. Her fiancé, who happens to be a Sergeant in the Will County (Illinois) Sheriff’s Department in addition to being a firearms instructor, introduced her to shooting about a year ago.

Of course, Dr. Peszek sees a science connection in the activity.

“It very much applies to my Forensics classes,” she says. “I want to get the physics of shooting down, to learn about residue and all of that. It would be good to have this information for my students.”

(She admits she’d also like to outshoot her fiancé just once, but concedes that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.)

Believe it or not, the professor does have an artistic side. She engages in abstract painting, though she insists she does it only for herself, as a stress-reliever. And yet, there’s an obvious science connection in that pursuit as well. Not coincidentally, all of her works contain what the initiated will recognize as chemistry symbols — octahedrons, benzene rings, carbon molecules, hydrogen atoms and the like — incorporated into the canvas.

Apparently, you can take the professor out of the classroom, but….