An Inspirational Education

Nelson Institute experience inspires graduate to create unique opportunities for her students

October 1, 2018

Nicolle Zellner, (1993) B.S. Physics and Astronomy, Nelson Institute environmental studies undergraduate certificate (ESC), UW-Madison M.S. and Ph.D. in Physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic institute, NY

While her professional credits include being a part of the STS-67 shuttle mission ground crew and working with lunar samples that the Apollo astronauts brought to earth, University of Wisconsin-Madison alumna, Nicolle Zellner says some of her most profound lessons occurred during her time as a Nelson Institute environmental studies undergraduate certificate student. It was there that Zellner said she learned how to apply her knowledge of physics and astronomy in solving environmental and societal issues. It was also where Zellner found a community of experts and peers who shared her passion for knowledge.

Currently a physics professor at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, Zellner continues to be influenced by her experience with the Nelson Institute environmental studies undergraduate certificate, which is a program that allows students to broaden their studies through interdisciplinary course work related to the environment. Following in the footsteps of the program, Zellner sought to develop curriculum in such a way that it would foster a sense of community, while allowing students to apply their new found knowledge to real-world situations. This is especially true when it comes to Physics 102: The Physics of Urban and Environmental Problems, which is a course developed for non-science majors who want to learn more about topics such as climate change, transportation issues, water treatment and more.

“One of the things that attracted me to the position at Albion was the class Physics 102: The Physics of Urban and Environmental Problems,” Zellner said. “I thought this would be a great fit for me in addition to my main teaching assignment which is introductory astronomy. I thought it would allow me to pull from my experiences in the Nelson certificate program.”

While her courses are entirely her own, Zellner says she takes a great deal of inspiration from her time at Nelson.

“There are a couple of classes at Nelson that really stick in my head,” Zellner said. “One was with Professor Cal DeWitt who took us to the wetlands, the arboretum, the prairies, and a wastewater treatment plant.  When I began teaching, I wanted to bring those experiences to my class since many students haven’t experienced that or learned the science of these places. I was inspired to bring in speakers from places such as energy plants to discuss the transition in the Michigan power grid from coal to other forms of energy.”

For Zellner, the opportunity to teach this course to non-science majors is also a part of the draw. At the Nelson Institute, the environmental studies undergraduate certificate, is open to any undergraduate major, allowing students to explore environmental challenges through policy, literature, art or philosophy. Essentially, this 15-credit certificate program, encourages students to join a community of learners who are ready to create real change. Zellner was inspired by that and wanted non-science majors at Albion to have the opportunity to learn in that way as well.

“One project I started in the Physics 102 class was inspired by a capstone class I took at the Nelson Institute, where we were divided into different groups depending upon our interests and we had to assess different areas of campus to see how we can make it more environmentally friendly.” Zellner said. 

Zellner’s course promotes that same interactive, blended learning through the Physics 102 climate summit. The summit activity begins when students are assigned an issue or region to represent during the summit. Students then spend a good part of the semester researching and learning about that specific perspective. All of this work culminates in the actual climate summit which takes place over a week of the class. There, students take on the personality or persona of the issue or region that they were assigned and the class has an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the many issues and perspectives that impact climate change globally.

“Students really like the community part of it,” said Zellner.  “Having experienced something like that in the Nelson certificate program, going out and researching and reporting back to each other, it meant something to me and stayed with me all these years so I wanted to parlay that into this class.”

While Zellner’s students recognize the value of this learning experience, Zellner has also been recognized by her peers for her innovative coursework that provides hands-on learning opportunities. Just this year, she received the Arthur Anderson Teacher of the Year Award, which is awarded to one deserving professor who has been nominated by his or her colleagues.

Overall, Zellner says she’s proud of her journey and is happy to say that she is utilizing the knowledge and experience she gained at Nelson and during her other academic experiences.

“I loved my time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and appreciate that I had an opportunity to be a part of this certificate program,” Zellner said. “To take that information and to keep building on it after 25 years shows how much I enjoyed it.”