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Chemist Pratibha Varma-Nelson honored by American Chemical Society as outstanding educator

For Immediate Release Nov 6, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS – Pratibha Varma-Nelson, professor of chemistry and founding director of the STEM Education Innovation and Research Institute at IUPUI, has been named the 2018 recipient of the George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, sponsored by Cengage Learning and the American Chemical Society, or ACS. The prestigious award will be presented in March 2018 at the 255th ACS National Meeting in New Orleans. 

Varma-Nelson is internationally respected for her leadership in promoting active learning of chemistry that engages students in collaborative problem-solving and critical thinking under the guidance of a peer leader. She is a strong advocate for transforming traditional pedagogical methods to peer-led models in both face-to-face and online environments. She joined IUPUI in 2008 following two years at the National Science Foundation.

“Lecturing without providing students time to construct their own knowledge is really not teaching,” said Varma-Nelson, who started her own teaching career by teaching as she was taught, which was primarily through lectures. She said she later realized that only a small number of students succeed in learning by listening to lectures.

“If we want to broaden the pool of students who get excited about chemistry and select a chemistry-related career, we need to make the learning environment more collaborative and accessible to students from diverse backgrounds,” said the professor, who is also the former director of IUPUI’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “Students and faculty should work as partners in constructing learning environments that promote understanding of content.”

Varma-Nelson’s efforts to promote active learning by bringing Peer Led Team Learning, or PLTL, and Cyber Peer Led Team Learning, or cPLTL, to a variety of undergraduate science, technology, engineering and math disciplines have influenced how chemistry and other STEM courses are currently taught at colleges and universities across the United States and abroad. Representatives of some of these programs will participate in a chemistry education symposium to be convened in her honor at the ACS gathering in March. 

Varma-Nelson has also been involved in designing research into the effect of PLTL on both students and peer leaders. Her latest research into the use of PLTL in cyberspace examines the differences between face-to-face and synchronous online PLTL sessions. Her work has revealed more similarities than differences between the benefits of PLTL in these two environments. This research is one of the few published studies to compare pedagogies in face-to-face versus online courses.

Earlier this year, Varma-Nelson was named an ACS fellow in recognition of her outstanding achievements in – and contributions to – science and the profession and for her service to the ACS, the world’s largest scientific society. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and IUPUI.

“The School of Science is so proud that Dr. Varma-Nelson’s work in chemistry education is being recognized by this prestigious award,” said Simon Rhodes, dean of the school. “Her innovation well represents the commitment of School of Science faculty to student success and the impact this has on our state and beyond.”

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, computational, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana’s effort to expand and diversify its economy.

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