The People of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy On


WISL Staff

Jerry A. Bell
Faculty Associate

For Iowa native Jerry Bell, an interest in chemistry developed at a young age with his first chemistry experiments. Because today’s rigorous safety standards were still in the future, Bell was able to get what he calls “some interesting and relatively dangerous stuff” from a supply house in Chicago, and staged many at-home experiments. This, along with many other professional and personal qualities, makes Bell a perfect fit for the WISL.

After deciding on a career in science, Bell earned a bachelor’s degree, followed by a PhD in physical chemistry, both from Harvard University. During his time at Harvard, he volunteered as a tutor for high-school students in math and science. He quickly learned that they were struggling with visualizing the concepts, because they had no lab or hands-on experience of any kind, so he brought simple, hands-on experiments to their sessions. 

This first foray into teaching stuck with him and has informed all his teaching and public engagement activities. Bell has held teaching and research positions at colleges across the country (1961-1992), including UW-Madison, University of California-Riverside, Simmons College (now University), Brandeis University, California State University-Bakersfield, and Harvard. He served at the National Science Foundation as director of the Division for Teacher Preparation and Enhancement (1984-1986) and as director of the UW-Madison Institute for Chemical Education (1986-1989). He was director for Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1992-1999).

Bell was Senior Scientist with the Education Division at the American Chemical Society (1999-2009) where he continues to consult informally. At the ACS, he served as chief editor and writer for the activity-based general chemistry textbook, Chemistry: A Project of the American Chemical Society. He developed and directed multi-day, hands-on workshops, based on the concepts and methodology of the textbook, that were presented at colleges across the country and at each regional National Science Teacher Association Conference for several years. Translation of the textbook into Spanish was the impetus for Bell to extend these workshops south of the border to Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. As part of an ACS agreement with chemists in South Africa, he also had the opportunity to present workshops at three cities there.

Bell is widely recognized for his outstanding contributions to science education by many awards including the ACS George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education (2000), the ACS James Flack Norris in Chemistry Education (1992), ACS Western Connecticut Section Visiting Scientist Award (1979), and the Manufacturing Chemists Association Catalyst Award (1977). In 2010, he was named professor emeritus by Simmons College.

Bell has had a five-decade collaboration with Bassam Shakhashiri, largely focused on their advocacy for activity-based science education. Since 2009, this collaboration has included the WISL, beginning with Bell as a co-author on Chemical Demonstrations, Volume 5: Color, Light, Vision, Perception. Later he served as the chair and chief writer for Bassam’s ACS Presidential Task Force on Climate Science that produced the ACS Climate Science Toolkit, designed to provide chemists and other scientists a basic understanding of the science of global warming and its effects. Based on his teaching background and climate science foundation from work on the Task Force, Bell developed and gives hands-on WISL teacher workshops on “Climate Science Concepts Fit Your Classroom”. To try to reach a larger audience of secondary and undergraduate college teachers, he is also putting together an online WISL Climate Science Workbook with this same theme.

Bell does most of his WISL work by phone, email, and video conferencing from his home in the Washington, DC area, with occasional trips to Madison for more satisfying face-to-face meetings with the WISL group.

He lives in Silver Springs, MD, with his wife Mary Ann Stepp, who is a cell biology professor at George Washington University, Medical School. They enjoy traveling when time and opportunity permit and sometimes combine interests by visiting fascinating places that are also in the crosshairs of climate change, such as Alaska, Greenland, and Antarctica.

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