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March 13, 2009

Mack Shelley

Mack Shelley's 10th involvement in writing books is Quality Research in Literacy and Science Education. Photo by Bob Elbert.

He runs the numbers to beat the clock every day

by Mike Ferlazzo, News Service

Mack Shelley calculated that he has participated in almost 800 program of study (POS) committees for graduate students in his 30 years at Iowa State. He keeps a running list on his curriculum vitae, which now is 99 pages long.

When it comes to calculating numbers, nobody does it better than Shelley, a University Professor with dual appointments in political science and statistics. And by the numbers, he reports he hasn't broken any university records yet.

"Dick Warren was on joint appointment between sociology and statistics for an awfully long time and they tell me he was on over a thousand [POS committees]. I don't know if I'll ever get to that point," said Shelley, who chaired nearly 80 of the committees he served on.

"People tell me I'm either at or close to the record," he said with a little laughter. "That's a real dubious distinction at best."

It's also a daunting distinction, particularly this time of year as students frantically try to complete their work in order to graduate. Shelley sees it as part of the job.

"It kind of comes with the territory, with the combination I have of social sciences and statistics," he said. "I think it's those two things that are either working for me or against me, depending on your point of view."

Three campus offices

In addition to graduate committees and teaching duties, Shelley also directs the public policy and administration program and serves on the staff of the Institute of Social and Behavioral Research. That's why he keeps three offices. And he's the go-to guy to provide statistical data for many of the major grant proposals across the colleges.

"I tend to be a co-principal investigator on most of these [grant proposals]," Shelley said. "I'm lead investigator on some, but mainly I'm in this capacity of providing some combination of data analysis, evaluation and statistical expertise from a social science perspective.

"Frankly, I've been really pleasantly surprised that people in disciplines that are worlds removed from the social sciences -- things like engineering -- are just perfectly happy to work with folks like me," he said. He even received an offer to be an honorary engineer.

Shelley was co-principal investigator recently with two University of Iowa College of Education professors on a new four-year, $4.8 million U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences grant to improve science literacy among elementary students in Iowa. The grant extends work that Shelley and Iowa's Brian Hand began with other researchers at Iowa State nearly a decade ago.

That was back when Shelley worked with the Research Institute for Studies in Education (RISE) through the College of Human Sciences, serving as director from 2003 to 2007. During that time, he also had a faculty appointment with educational leadership and policy studies.

"Education and social sciences are close enough in research methods that it really wasn't much of a switch," Shelley said. "You have to learn slightly different terminology, but it was almost a seamless transition."

Author or co-author of 10 books

While he left RISE two years ago, Shelley just published a new book with Hand and University of Vancouver education professor Larry Yore, Quality Research in Literacy and Science Education. It's the 10th book that Shelley either authored or co-authored. The list includes American Government and Politics Today, the country's most widely adopted introductory college textbook, which he co-authored with Iowa State's Steffen Schmidt and Barbara Bardes of the University of Cincinnati. He also has written nearly 20 book chapters.

Late night, white noise specialist

So how does he find time to get it all done?

"I guess I hang in there until about 2 a.m. whenever I can manage," he said. "I tend to have the TV in the background and that's kind of like white noise. I'll watch something like a sci-fi movie, something that's not too intense -- a movie with giant snakes or bugs or something like that. That's something that contextualizes the work that I'm doing and it makes it go down easier to have this lowbrow entertainment as a backdrop."

Shelley probably feels like he's battling giant snakes or bugs some days, what with all the daily meetings and deadlines, not to mention teaching his night course five hours per week. His temporary statistics office in Wilson Hall used to be a residence hall room. He feels like he lives on campus sometimes.

But he's quite proud of all his work at Iowa State, and knows he's not alone in his commitment to the university cause.

"I think it's good to tell the taxpayers of Iowa that even if we're not in the classroom, we're actually really working," Shelley said. "The problem is, it's not like I teach a thousand students of my own each semester, so I know that's harder to process because they're (taxpayers) used to thinking about teaching as talking to a classroom full of students.

"But this is teaching and mentoring and research all wrapped together."


"Frankly, I've been really pleasantly surprised that people in disciplines that are worlds removed from the social sciences -- things like engineering -- are just perfectly happy to work with folks like me."

Mack Shelley