By By David Ruderman, USAG Vicenza Public AffairsMarch 28, 2013
VICENZA, Italy - Dr. Samuela Franceshini keeps turning on light bulbs at the Education Center on Caserma Ederle.
The University of Maryland University College-Europe adjunct instructor has taught mathematics there since 2009, and is very familiar with the various student types in her classes. There's usually the class clown, the shy student afraid to ask simple questions, and then there are the ones who have a "eureka moment," who light up inside when, under her guidance, the numerical relations suddenly make sense and they get it.
"The classes are always different. It keeps you alive," said Franceschini.
A Vicenza native, Franceschini didn't start out to be a mathematician or a teacher. As a high school student, she followed a concentration in preparation for a business administration or accounting career, which included practical math, but not mathematics on the academic fast track.
"You cover a little more than the basics," she said. "It was better for me to get a piece of paper that would allow me to get a job."
But that didn't quite work out as she'd planned. Franceschini went off to the States in her late teens, working as an au pair, mostly to try something different.
"When you're 18, you're not sure what you want to do. Call it an adventure. Knowing the languages, especially English, is very important. But math skills were the skills I'd always had. I always liked how math is kind of like a puzzle: there are rules, and if you follow the rules, things fall into place," she said.
Things fell into place for her as well in upstate New York, and she stayed. Franceschini married a friend of the family she worked for and settled into a happy life in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.
She trained undergrad at the State University of New York at Buffalo, graduating with a BS in environmental engineering. She liked it well enough to carry on and completed both a master's and doctorate in civil engineering, working as a teaching assistant on the way to her PhD.
Franceschini held a number of internships in the private sector in addition to her teaching assistantships, but when the prospects of her graduation and the birth of her first child coincided, Franceschini and her husband made the decision to return to Italy.
"There was more of a natural support network to raise a child," she said.
From the multidimensional perspective of a mother, a mathematician and a teacher, Franceschini brings a natural sympathy to her role as an educator. But parents need not be trained in math or science to instill a healthy interest in the fields of the future in their own children, she said.
"Not everybody has to be a scientist, but the brain is a muscle. Doing math is like doing 10 pull-ups a day. So you keep it up through your lifetime, your logical and mathematical skills," said Franceschini.
"If I see what my son does, they start much earlier. They want to learn things, but they want the experience, and not just from a textbook. Even math is an experience. So you play chess, you play Uno. You count things and look around for shapes. You learn through impressions more than cognitively with a book. Learn and play, play and learn. I would say take them out shopping," she said.
Take them shopping? It something that's been good for her own daughter, and an approach that reveals a talent she notices in women generally, she said.
"If it has to do with money, women get it quicker," said Franceshini.
Looking back at the influences on her own development, mentors have been significant, she said.
"Probably more than one. In science you have to be a little handy, you have to know how to fix things, how things work. Perhaps I have that from my father, who was always working on things around the house. And I had some great teachers in high school and college," she said.
Franceschini also pointed to the recently deceased Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini as a role model she admires. Levi-Montalcini was the Turin born neurobiologist recognized with the Nobel Prize in 1986 for her discoveries in the field of nerve growth factor. She began her laboratory research in Turin and continued it underground in a homemade lab when the fascist government barred Jews from university positions during World War II.
La Signora della scienza, as she was known in the Italian press, resumed her work in the United States after the war and pursued it both there and in Italy until her death last December in Rome. There is a lot to admire in her example of dedication and perseverance, said Franceschini.
"That she worked till the other day, always. That she tried to have in her lab a lot of women. She dedicated her life to her work," she said.
It might serve as a motto for some of her own students. "Sometimes we have to go out of the way of what we are used to. Keep it up, the good job. That's all," said Franceschini.