“To have an opportunity to think and dream about what would be best in education, and then to try it out and make it work, and then pass it on, is an exceptional opportunity,” said Ross Allan Nielsen in 1986, when he retired from 24 years as Director of Price Laboratory School and Head of UNI's Department of Teaching.
He had been asked why he never sought another job.
Nielsen was born in Wiota, Iowa on May 12, 1918. He graduated from Plainfield High School in 1935—in the slough of the Great Depression—and arrived on the Wartburg College campus that fall. He enrolled in a math class and was immediately befriended by his teacher, Dr. John O. Chellevold, who offered him a job correcting papers and tutoring struggling math students. The pay was 35¢ an hour, a small fortune to a poor student. Looking back, Chellevold's act may have launched a career.
In 2001—retired from his own distinguished career—Nielsen established in Dr. Chellevold's honor, the “John O. Chellevold Student Award” for Wartburg students who look to exhibit Teaching Excellence and Professional Service.
Nielsen graduated from Wartburg in 1939 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics, physics, and physical education. Blairstown Consolidated School in Iowa hired the newly degreed Nielsen to teach mathematics and to coach, a position he kept for three years before being hired away to do the same work for the Hudson Community Schools.
World War II interrupted, however, and Nielsen joined the Navy. He served for three years as a combat information officer aboard a destroyer. When the War ended, he continued as a Navy Reserve Officer, retiring in 1968.
Following World War II, Nielsen returned to his Hudson teaching position, but in 1947, UNI (then Iowa State Teachers College) asked him to take on a further task: to supervise the student teachers assigned to the Hudson schools. While doing this, Nielsen also taught math and physical education at Hudson High School and served as the baseball and basketball coach. (He had played baseball for both Plainfield High and Wartburg College.)
In 1991, the Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association elected Nielsen to its Hall of Fame. During his high school coaching career, Nielsen had compiled an overall record of 360 wins and 86 losses. His teams won 13 sectional titles, four district titles, and one sub-state title.
In bestowing the Hall of Fame honor, the Coaches Association pointed out as well that many of Nielsen's team members went on to play at the collegiate level and many became successful coaches. Once on the UNI faculty and Director of the Lab School, Nielsen regularly supervised the development of teacher education students preparing to become high school coaches and was a strong supporter of Lab School physical education and the North Iowa Cedar League.
But back in 1947, tapped to supervise Hudson student teachers, Nielsen sought further education himself. He earned his master's degree in mathematics from the University of Iowa in 1948, and took a leave of absence in 1954 to complete his doctoral degree in education and mathematics from that school, his dissertation a study of “Mathematics Instruction in Iowa High Schools.”
This served him well on his return, for the new Laboratory High School was set to open on the north campus in 1955, and he was hired to chair the math department. In just a few years, with Russia's surprise launch of the Sputnik spaceship in 1957, Nielsen and the Lab School became part of the “new math” (also called the “modern math”) movement that rose in response. The call came for more—and more advanced—math and science education.
Math became more than just the rote memory (and drill) required for students to learn to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; students were pushed to see the “thinking” behind the problems. The “new math” included modular arithmetic, matrices, algebraic inequalities, Boolean algebra, abstract algebra, and symbolic logic.
“In the University math department and Lab School, we had some of the major leaders in the movement,” Nielsen recalled. “In some math journals, the UNI department and Lab School were identified as 'the cradle of modern mathematics'.” In 1958, Nielsen and his Lab School math department colleague, Dr. George Immerzeel, published an article titled “It' up to us!”
In 1958, for instance, Dr. Immerzeel taught a “new math” class for Northeast Iowa parents using an “electro-writer,” so they could understand what their children were learning. Immerzeel would write on a screen which was then transmitted via phone to five or six centers in Northeast Iowa, anticipating—by decades—the statewide Iowa Communications Network.
Tragedy then led to a new role for Nielsen. In 1960, a sudden heart attack claimed the life of long-time Lab School Director Dwight Curtis. Nielsen was chosen to take his place as Lab School Director, and also as Head of UNI's Department of Teaching.
“When I became Director, we were primarily a teacher education center and a teacher might have two or three student teachers at a time,” Nielsen recalled. “I began changing that as quickly as I could.”
From this time, the Lab School also began its enhancement of experiences for prospective teachers, "an area in which we now make one of our greatest contributions," Nielsen noted in 1986. UNI students engaged in classroom observations, sat in with teachers planning their lessons, and "participated" in all kinds of classroom observations and activities before they actually student taught. "This is an area of training that other schools often cannot provide, " Nielsen explained. "Teaching is an art and a schience and apprenticeship should come after a period of study."
Nielsen then described two further roles a good laboratory school should play. “The faculty need to be involved in the development of institutional methods and techniques and in the development of new curriculum and materials; in obtaining grants; and conducting a variety of projects,” he explained. Secondly, a good lab school will “play an important role in state leadership, sponsoring conferences and workshops, teaching extension classes, consulting in the field, and publishing materials for teachers in the classroom. A laboratory school should be more than a typical school. It should be leading the way: challenging the intellect of students preparing to become teachers, and providing leadership for teachers in the field.”
Lab School faculty excelled in these roles during Nielsen's 24 years at the helm. Dr. Judy Finkelstein, a specialist in early childhood education, joined the Lab School faculty in 1968. “We were a 'family' of a sort,” she explains. “We were inspired by Ross to collaborate for the 'common good.' We almost worked on Kohlberg’s 5th or 6th level: doing things because they were the right things to do or to serve a cause larger than ourselves: the common good (of the whole school).”
Finkelstein stresses that the Lab School faculty “focused on the children and what we could do to make the best education possible for them. If someone had an idea about that, he or she SHARED it and we incorporated it into what we were doing. We got together and brainstormed and built on each other’s ideas. That was what made it work. We did not have the petty jealousy that so many schools or work places suffer from. We really celebrated everyone’s successes and we did NOT worry that someone would steal our ideas, as we always gave credit where credit was due.”
Nielsen said at his retirement that he felt that one of his major successes was “bringing in people who have continued to develop the curriculum: there is a respect at the Laboratory School for ideas that come from each of the faculty. They all have a stake in what happens here, which helps faculty morale.”
Finkelstein notes that Lab School morale soared as well because Nielsen “made possible funds so we could travel to national meetings and make what we were doing known.” All Lab School faculty joined state and national education organizations—and many held leadership roles there. “But, we could not have done this without the travel funds and Ross’s willingness to hire permanent subs for us at the elementary level,” Finkelstein explains. “In the high school and junior high, others in the department could usually cover, but for us, it had to be our very involved permanent subs.”
Typical of the outreach the Lab School offered were annual summer seminars for top Iowa junior high school math and science students. One summer, 86 Iowa students ranking in the top one-fourth of their science and math classes studied biology, chemistry, physics, enumeration systems, logarithms, and linear programming in the seminar, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Besides their regular classroom and laboratory work, the junior high students participated in several field trips, heard lectures by visiting scientists and mathematicians, and had the opportunity to pursue their own research.
A summer music and drama workshop was offered for Iowa high school students—and was run like a repertory company. Across the eight weeks, the students presented in rotation a play, a Broadway musical, and a variety show. Lab School faculty later founded the Beginning Reading Conference for Iowa teachers, still being held today.
In the late 1960s, Nielsen took a major role in starting the program which enabled minority students from Waterloo to attend the Laboratory School. The goal was to create a more diverse student body: for the students themselves, for UNI's prospective teachers, and for curriculum development. “Dr. Nielsen's dedication was to education. He made everyone feel welcome and feel good,” recalls Rosa Findlay, who taught Spanish at the Lab School. “Ross practiced multiculturalism in the way he behaved. He was an even-tempered person, and his attitude towards acceptance was inspiring and influenced a lot of people.”
Those who worked with Nielsen speak, too, of his optimistic spirit. “He remained easy to see and to talk to,” recalls Dr. John Tarr, a longtime Lab School math teacher. “He spoke always in an upbeat and supportive manner.”
Dr. James Doud, who followed Nielsen as Lab School Director, says that “Ross was the best mentor I could ever have had. I learned patience from Ross—that you just lay something out—and let it be there. He would come into the office at 9 a.m., but then he would work till midnight. He would keep trying: the 19th time would work if the 18th time didn't. He spoke from the heart every time he spoke of the school. He never said anything bad about anyone. Many of the things that happened at the Lab School were because of him. ”
That form of leadership was wanted beyond the school and the campus. Nielsen was a consultant to laboratory schools across the nation. From 1972-1973, he was president of the National Association of Laboratory Schools, and then represented the Association on the executive committee of the Associated Organizations for Professionals in Education (AOPE).
From 1981-1984, he was chair of the AOPE Executive Council, which made him a member of the Board of Directors of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE). Nielsen served on a number of task forces and writing panels for AACTE and as president of the Iowa ACTE from 1984-1986. He also served in 1986 on the Iowa Department of Public Instruction's Steering Committee for the Development and Adoption of New Education Standards, charged with re-writing Iowa's K-12 standards.
The year he retired, Nielsen published “Laboratory Schools: Blue Print for Success.” His “Blueprint” came from his own teaching and from overseeing the Lab School and Department of Teaching, of course, but also from nearly 30 years of yearly chairing one or two secondary school evaluation teams for the North Central Association, the 19-state largest accrediting agency in education in the United States. In 1986, Nielsen was named one of the first recipients of the John Vaughan “Excellence-in-Education” Awards given by the North Central Association Commission on Schools. The Award was given in recognition of Nielsen's “direct contributions for enhancing the quality of education in the classroom.”
James Doud wrote at the time: “When one considers the significance of his activities, and the fact that they span the entire range of nursery school through higher education, it is difficult to imagine anyone more deserving of NCA recognition.”
Dr. Charles Moore, Lab School Elementary Principal in 1986, spoke of being “continually impressed with the breadth and depth of Dr. Nielsen's ability to be on the cutting edge of innovation. There are only a few individuals who ever achieve his ability to be a change agent.”
Before he left the Lab School, however, Nielsen spoke of a few concerns—as if he sensed signs of a turning from the School. Approached by a campus reporter to comment in 1984 on the Lab School's 100th anniversary, Nielsen spoke of “significant economic problems.” “I used to be able to call Washington D.C. and secure grants to fund some of our programs. Now they have told me to go to private foundations,” he explained.
“One of the main strengths of this school is the faculty's ability to attend various seminars in order to present their ideas as well as to hear new ideas in the teaching field,” he continued. “I used to tell the faculty that we could fund 60 to 80 percent of their travel expenses. Now we can subsidize only 16 to 17 percent.”
But it was not Nielsen's way to give up. The year after he retired, he spoke to educators statewide on ways to strengthen school district leadership as part of UNI's Educational Leadership Institute. On campus, he led the creation of the UNI Emeritus Association, a forum for retired UNI faculty, and he helped found the Alumni and Friends of Price Laboratory School.
And his generosity never left him. He went about his life with one kidney, for he had donated the other to his brother. He established a minority scholarship in honor of a student who passed away.
He anonymously funded an annual $2,000 Award for Lab School faculty engaged in outstanding teaching, research, or curriculum development. For Lab School graduates he left a scholarship fund as well.
In 1988, the new Lab School Field House was named the “Ross A. Nielsen Field House” to honor Nielsen and his work. Ironically, today it is the only section of the Lab School that remains.
Ross Nielsen was affectionately called “the silver fox,” for his beautiful white hair. He loved to play golf with his Lab School colleagues. After suffering chest pains, he was taken from a Texas golf course and died of a heart attack on February 8, 2001.
“I am absolutely convinced a laboratory school environment is necessary to produce high quality undergraduates in teacher education,” Nielsen declared. “This is not unique to my thinking.”