The Olympia resident is now a finalist for the organization’s James Bryant Conant Award in High School Chemistry Teaching, which includes $5,000 in cash and a travel stipend for the society’s annual conference.
Nielsen, 75, talked with The Olympian about the award and his career.
What classes do you teach?
I’m a science teacher, so I teach biology, chemistry, physics and a research class.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My parents moved to Olympia in 1949. None of my family had ever finished high school. We came from farming stock, and most of my family left school at 10th grade to help on the farm. I was the first in my family to finish high school and the first to go on to college and get advanced degrees.
I had always wanted to teach, but after graduating from college, I could make “X dollars” teaching, and “2X dollars” going into industry.
I spent 30 years in industrial research and consulting. I worked a number of places including Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Minnesota, a paper company in Wisconsin and Xerox in New York and San Jose.
What are your college degrees?
I have a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Washington State University, a Master of Science in organic chemistry from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Wayne State University in Michigan.
How did you get into teaching?
After taking an early retirement, I moved back to Olympia because my mother was still here. I saw an ad for a part-time science teacher in 1999, and applied.
However, I found out you don’t teach part time. Since I was spending full time at it, I made it a full-time job.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
Watching youngsters come in bewildered and maturing over four years and learning a lot along the way. Just being part of that is satisfying.
Tell us about the regional Outstanding Teacher of the Year award.
It is given by the Northwest division of the American Chemical Society. The official name is the Glenn Crosby Northwest Regional Award for Excellence in High School Teaching, and it’s named after a retired professor of chemistry at Washington State University.
Basically I had gotten the award for the Puget Sound section three years ago, and that put my name in for the regional award. Now, my name will go into consideration for the national award. …
I received a nice plaque and a $1,000 check, and I got money to go to a Portland meeting. I also received a check for $500 to buy things for my science room; when you’re in a small school with a small budget, that’s significant.
It was nice to have my teaching recognized by my students and my peers. It also helps the reputation of our small high school.
In 2007, you received a Toyota grant to establish a student research class at Northwest Christian High School. What are the students working on?
We call it the Advanced Bio-Chem-Physics Research Laboratory class.
It is a belly-to-the-bench research activity. The students are studying the synthesis, characterization and use of organic polymeric bio-functional microspheres.
The spheres carry a fluorescent dye that enables the measurement of oxygen concentration in the arteries of lab animals. Oxygen concentration can be measured, without extracting blood, by shining ultraviolet light on the spheres that have been placed under the skin.
The students published their work at the 2009 Northwest Regional American Chemical Society meeting held at Pacific Lutheran University. We were the only high school to present there.
What do you like about chemistry?
br There’s a thrill with making something you know nobody has ever had before.
When you realize, “That’s an absolute first.”
How do you keep students interested in science? Is there anything you do differently in the classroom than other teachers?
I think since I spent a lot of time in industry and consulting, I can tell them things that aren’t in the textbook. I can show how science relates to their life.
How long do you plan to teach?
I keep telling them as long as I’m vertical and reasonably lucid, I’ll keep doing it.
Every once in a while I’ll forget something I know I should have remembered, and I’ll tell the students that I’m having a senior moment.
It always gets more laughs than my jokes.
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433