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University Science Instructor Is Mad About Teaching


Sofia Pappatheodorou is the first to admit she doesn't fit the profile of a typical science teacher.

"So often scientists are so rigid," said Pappatheodorou, who is anything but typical as an adviser to the Science Society student club at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

The Science Society was recently honored for the second consecutive year by a national chemists' organization as one of 12 outstanding student groups in the nation.

It takes just a few minutes of talking to club members to find out that Pappatheodorou, an associate chemistry professor who has been teaching for more than 10 years, is a big reason that the club has been so successful. The outgoing, energetic Pappatheodorou has immersed herself in the club and has rejuvenated student interest in the sciences, school officials say.

Her approach to science is to make it fun. Pappatheodorou recently organized a magic show in which a guest speaker mixed chemicals to show a variety of reactions, some of which produced minor explosions.

Pappatheodorou was one of the primary founders of the club in 1986, and it has since grown from a small number of students to about 45 last year. In addition, 22 faculty members were associate members last year. Pappatheodorou said she hopes even more students and faculty will be involved this year.

The group's activities encompass all fields of science and include sponsoring lectures by professionals, panel discussions, slide presentations, field trips, luncheons and social outings. The club is open to all students.

The American Chemical Society recognized the Dominguez Hills group this month as an outstanding student chapter. Every year, the society's 850 or so student chapters submit an annual report of their activities. Certain chapters are selected as either outstanding or commendable, said Rita Boggs, chairwoman of the society's Southern California section.

The national society was impressed by the number and quality of activities of the Dominguez Hills chapter, said Linda Ross, a spokeswoman for the organization's education division.

"They have a significant lecture series, and a number of their students present research at our local and national conferences," Ross said.

The organization was also impressed by Pappatheodorou, Ross said. "Sofia exemplifies the wonderful, nurturing characteristics that turn people on to the sciences," Ross said.

Contrary to popular perceptions, science is interesting, said Deborah Ward, a senior biology major. "You get to light things on fire--that's fun," she said.

Pappatheodorou said she stresses a personal touch. She is known for lending a sympathetic ear to students with personal problems and for giving rides to club members in need of transportation. She shares her small office with students, who store their backpacks there, use her computer and typewriter or just hang out--even when she's not around.

"She's such a caring person," said Ledford Powell, a biology senior and club treasurer. "She's the most wonderful instructor I've ever met. She's like a mother figure."

Oliver Seely, chairman of the chemistry department, said Pappatheodorou has given the department a new profile since her arrival in 1985.

"She is so bubbly, so enthusiastic--it's something to really rejoice about," Seely said. "What we have in Sofia is somebody that came in who has a real love for the students, who wants to be close to them and get to know them. By and large, the field has been populated by people in the past who are, if not aloof, at least distant."

Science is often thought to be time-consuming, difficult work--a perception that intimidates students and discourages them from entering science-related fields, Pappatheodorou said. So she makes a point of dispensing with highbrow airs and highfalutin language, she said. To that end, many of the Science Society's activities are down to earth.

Seely said the Science Society serves as a potentially strong recruiting tool and should attract students to the school's science departments over the next several years.

Anthony Del Real, a senior majoring in chemistry, said he changed his major from psychology a few years ago after becoming involved in the club and taking a class with Pappatheodorou.

Seely said he hopes students such as Del Real will help reverse declining enrollment in the chemistry department. In keeping with a national trend toward fewer students entering the sciences, the number of chemistry majors at Cal State Dominguez Hills--21--is the lowest it has been in six years, he said.

Ted Kemtis, past president of the Science Society, also took a class with Pappatheodorou. He said she is "a one-of-a-kind professor."

"She really does care about what you do," said Kemtis, a junior majoring in chemistry. "She's like a guardian or second parent. She would call me at home to see how I'm doing with academics and stuff. When she finds people who aren't doing so well, she'll go out of her way to help them out."

Pappatheodorou, who is single, said the students are the family she has never had.

"We care for one another," she said. "I really think highly of them. They really make a difference in my life."

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