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Robert F. Tinker, PhD ’70

Education innovator was inspired by civil rights

Making science education accessible is Robert Tinker’s life work. As founder of the Concord Consortium, an educational research and development organization in Concord, Massachusetts, Tinker launched the Virtual High School with colleagues in 1996. VHS, the first large-scale project to create Internet-based courses at the pre-college level, is now a global leader in collaborative online education. He also pioneered the field of “probeware,” filling classrooms nationwide with inexpensive sensors designed to collect data in real time to help students understand science, math, and engineering concepts.

Tinker, who earned a BS from Swarthmore College near his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, in 1963, had originally planned to become a physicist. He began graduate work at Stanford, but both he and his wife, Barbara—his college sweetheart—soon felt impelled to relocate to Alabama and join the fight for civil rights.

This story is part of the July/August 2012 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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“Doing esoteric research in a basement at Stanford made no sense in light of incredible injustice and violence in the South,” he says. Tinker sped through his physics master’s in one year and set off for historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa. From 1964 to 1966, the couple taught at Stillman, marching with Martin Luther King in Selma and, through a grant from the Ford Foundation, recruiting talented instructors to teach at black colleges.

Tinker developed creative teaching methods in light of Stillman’s limited resources. He purchased Slinkys, Tesla coils, lenses, and prisms—interactive devices to intrigue any curious mind—and he showed students the connections between the abstract equations of physics and basic concepts observed through hands-on experiments. His efforts were successful, and some of his students pursued graduate studies at prestigious universities.

He enrolled at MIT with the goal of making science teaching more effective. “MIT was an obvious choice,” he says. “Its physics department was the center of science education reform.”

Tinker earned his PhD in 1970. He found inspiration in the Project Lab, headed by John G. King ’50, where students studied observable phenomena such as the sound of paper crumpling. Tinker developed tools to measure things like speed, to increase the range of experiments students could conduct on their own.

In 1979, he joined TERC, an organization founded by MIT physicists to improve math and science education. There, he helped launch Kidnet, the first online network connecting student scientists worldwide. He founded the Concord Consortium in 1994. His many honors include the 1990 Computerworld Smithsonian Award and the 2003 World Technology Award in Education.

Tinker and his wife live in Amherst, where he develops educational software—even in his spare time.

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