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Full-Contact Physics

The revolution Jerrold Zacharias started in 1956 changed the way science is taught.

Jerrold R. Zacharias developed the first commercial atomic clock, made advances in radar systems, and helped build the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II. The adoption of atomic time can be traced back to his research, as can the eventual definition of a second—9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom. But when Zacharias, an Institute Professor, stepped down in 1956 as head of MIT’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science—a lab he’d founded a decade earlier—it was not to rest on his laurels. Instead, he set about reforming science education.

In December 1956, Zacharias and MIT physics professor Francis Friedman formed the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), a group of scholars, physicists, teachers, and movie directors dedicated to improving the way physics was taught in secondary schools. Even before Sputnik, the PSSC got support from the Eisenhower administration and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). But science historian John L. Rudolph has written that Zacharias and his colleagues were motivated less by Cold War concerns than by the increasing “irrationalism and suspicion” of the general public in its attitude toward science.

Housed at MIT, the PSSC aimed to create active thinkers by letting students discover basic concepts through direct experimentation. The program developed an integrated physics curriculum featuring new textbooks (which included stop-motion photos by Berenice Abbott), lab equipment for in-class experiments, teaching guides, and films (starring scientists, not actors).

Believing that schools were set up “to produce a sea of uniform mice,” Zacharias reasoned that students were brighter than they were given credit for: the curriculum introduced graduate-level physics concepts into high school classrooms. He also felt that enthusiastic teaching was paramount. His views on that topic were widely quoted, even making it into Sports Illustrated in 1965: “For a physics teacher, if you give me my pick between a football coach who really likes kids and a stuffed owl with a PhD, I’ll take the football coaches every time. They care, and they’ll learn as they go.”

PSSC methods and materials spread widely, marking the beginning of a U.S. educational reform movement. In a matter of years, the NSF estimated that 50 percent of physics students were enrolled in the course, and Zacharias advised the NSF on a wave of new curriculum projects it funded in other fields. Meanwhile, PSSC students were arriving at college with more advanced knowledge than their predecessors, pressuring universities to update their physics curricula. In response, the University of California at Berkeley established the two-year Berkeley Physics Course, with Zacharias’s help and NSF funding. Its five new textbooks covered concepts like relativity and quantum physics; some have been updated and are still used today. At MIT, Zacharias launched the Science Teaching Center (STC), an interdepartmental lab that would rethink undergraduate science, starting with a new two-year physics curriculum geared toward incoming PSSC veterans. The STC eventually morphed into the Education Research Center, broadening its scope to include all of MIT’s schools.

Funding for the PSSC eventually ran out; by 1980, it was estimated that only 4 percent of U.S. school districts were still using the curriculum. But the Education Development Center, the organization that had introduced the curriculum, lives on as EDC, a nonprofit that works to improve education, health, and economic opportunities around the world. And short-lived though it was, the PSSC proved a turning point for U.S. science education. The program shifted the focus from everyday applications and technology to an appreciation for what scientists do, Rudolph says. Because of the PSSC, he says, “the goal of science education now is almost exclusively to help people understand the nature of science.”

Perhaps nothing captures that spirit better than the PSSC films, with their eye-catching experiments and quirky cast of scientists. Zacharias consulted Hollywood filmmakers like Frank Capra and Walt Disney, and the resulting movies are often as entertaining as they are educational. In one, the director’s daughter is closed in a metal cage and safely charged with “a couple million volts” to make her hair stand on end. In another, filmed in Francis Bitter’s magnet lab at MIT, an experiment catches fire, but the cameras keep rolling as Bitter puts it out with an extinguisher.

Physics teacher Lana Jordan discovered a cabinet full of PSSC films—many of which she’d watched as a student—when she took up her post at Merced College 25 years ago. She has used them in her classes ever since, and she even secured a grant to have them digitized and published online. Her students love them, she says: “The ideas are eternal.”

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