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Last modified: Friday, March 20, 2009

Shelley L. Nelson

The Lieber Associate Instructor Award

Doctoral Student in Sociology
Department of Sociology
College of Arts and Sciences
Indiana University Bloomington
B.S., Oregon State University, 2000
M.A., Indiana University, 2005

The junior-level seminar in statistics required by the Liberal Arts and Management Program (LAMP) consists of students from all majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, many of whom have little, if any, interest in math. For this reason, the seminar is often dreaded by both students and faculty alike. But when Associate Instructor Shelley Nelson was recommended by the Department of Sociology to teach the course, she enthusiastically rose to the occasion and took it far beyond the teaching of basic statistics.

Shelley L. Nelson

Shelley L. Nelson

Print-Quality Photo

Her students typically walked in the first day of each semester with the expectation that they would spend the course trudging through complicated equations that would never make sense to them. While Nelson could have eased their concerns by assuring them of her competency as an instructor or her expertise in statistics, she instead disarmed her students by stating upfront that her greatest qualification to teach the course was that she personally understood the struggles and fears of math.

"I have math anxiety, too," she reassured them.

As a statistics instructor, Nelson required each student to meet with her personally at the beginning of the semester so that she could know who she was teaching and figure out the best ways to reach them. She continually catered to the interests of each student to ensure that everyone in her class would become comfortable with statistics and be able to discover how it related to their own lives.

"Shelley successfully blends the cold hard world of numbers and percentages with the interests and hobbies of each student," a former student commented. "Sports fanatics can calculate batting averages to their hearts' content, and political science buffs may study voter behavior."

After witnessing the success of personalized research projects, Nelson worked with the program directors to restructure the LAMP statistics course to incorporate a project-based, service learning component. Her Spring 2007 class gathered and analyzed data on behalf of local organization Stone Belt Arc to help uncover the reasons behind their high employee turnover rate, and class members ultimately delivered a professional presentation of their findings to Stone Belt Arc's administrators. Through this project, students experienced the rewards of benefitting a local organization while gaining a real-world understanding of statistics.

"In an era of concern over lowered expectations," Nelson said, "my experiences with this course have shown me that students long for opportunities to be more involved in their own education and to connect with and support their community."

Because of the success of this project, the course is now taught with an applied research project every semester. (Although Nelson has since returned to teaching in the Department of Sociology, she has an open invitation to return to teaching the LAMP statistics seminar at any time).

Nelson was invited by the Department of Sociology to be their departmental Preparing Future Faculty Fellow for the 2007-2008 academic year. As the fellow, Nelson co-taught a pedagogy course for graduate students. She also organized the annual Preparing Future Faculty Conference at Indiana University, which focused on helping graduate students make the transition from students to faculty members and attracted more than 250 participants.

"The conference has been successful through the years, but the conference under Shelley's chairmanship was probably the most successful we have had," said Brian Powell, Rudy Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Preparing Future Faculty Program. In 2008, Nelson also received the Edwin H. Sutherland Award for Excellence in and Commitment to Teaching.

Nelson was a first-generation college student when she graduated summa cum laude from Oregon State University in 2000. She now continually goes out of her way to mentor other first-generation students who find themselves struggling with the demands of university life. She has formed lasting relationships with many such students and has watched them go on to make impressive academic achievements that were inspired by her persistent dedication and encouragement.