Retired astrophysicist Pinky Nelson honored as Science Champion

George “Pinky” Nelson, retired astrophysicist and former Western Washington University professor, was recently selected as a recipient of the 2012-2013 Science Champions: Science Education Advocate Awards, presented by Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform, a program led by Pacific Science Center, Battelle and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories. Science Champions demonstrate passion for advancing science education in innovative ways.

Each year, with support from The Boeing Company, Washington State LASER recognizes five individuals, organizations and/or project teams for excellence in promoting science education among either the general public or the education system.

After three trips to space and a successful career as an astrophysicist and a notable Western Washington University professor, Nelson turned his efforts toward outreach and supplemental science education for rural school districts with limited scholastic resources. Instead of focusing solely on providing content for students, Nelson also tackled how science is taught in the classroom and how to improve upon current methods.

To address this, Dr. Nelson spearheaded the North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership, a program that supplemented science education for students and trained teachers in nearly 26 school districts across the state. It also brought professors from Western Washington University to classrooms in rural and underserved communities. Under his leadership, Nelson paved the way for hundreds of teachers to improve science education by providing fundamental approaches to making materials applicable and broadly based.

“He [Nelson] and his team provided cutting-edge training in research-based strategies to improve teacher performance by reinventing the classroom and student-teacher interactions,” said Ann Renker, Principal of Markishtum Middle School and Neah Bay High School.

Cradling the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Neah Bay’s remote location causes many mainstream teaching programs to overlook Markishtum Middle School and Neah Bay High School. Before Nelson’s NCOSP was introduced to these schools, not a single student achieved standards on the 2005 10th grade science state test.

Now, with the dedicated involvement of Nelson and his program, students of Neah Bay High School are all scoring at or above the level of performance on the state science test and at twice the success level of other Native American students. Even participants as young as fifth grade in NCOSP are now scoring 11 percent above average. 

Even in retirement, Nelson continues his quest to promote science pedagogy and to provide educational equality to all demographics and regions throughout the state.

"Recipients of this year’s Science Champion awards demonstrate how a variety of individuals can make a difference in high-quality science education within their community, region and state,” said Sonia Siegel Vexler, interim co-director of Washington State LASER. Awardees ranged from an organization transmitting energy to a center devoted to igniting a child’s imagination. The winners work touched students in elementary and high schools as well as top tier universities to help students and parents “recognize the versatility and necessity of science in their lives.”

The other recipients of this year’s award are:

  • Dr. Betty J. Cobbs, Principal of Woodside Elementary School
  • Jim White, Senior Energy Conservation Engineer of Chelan County, PUD
  • Imagine Children’s Museum
  • Ralph Rise, Science and Math Teacher at Lake Roosevelt High School

As a Science Champion, Dr. George “Pinky” Nelson will receive $5,000 to be donated to the Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Program at Western Washington University. Monetary recognition, as well as funding for the awards process, was generously provided by The Boeing Company.

Detailed information on all awardees can be found online.

Washington State LASER is a private public partnership working with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It receives direct financial support from OSPI, Battelle and The Boeing Company.
For more information about Washington State LASER and the Science Education Advocate Awards, visit