“EDC’s success has always been the direct result of the knowledge and creativity of our staff members. We draw continual inspiration from our colleagues and from our predecessors, who laid the intellectual foundation for the work we do today. The EDC community recently lost one of our most influential thinkers, Philip Morrison, whose ideas about science and science education have served as a guidepost for our work through the last four decades.”
—EDC President Janet Whitla
When curriculum developers convene at EDC, you’re sure to hear about “hands-on learning” and education that taps “children’s natural curiosity.” Those concepts, now common throughout elementary education, were once radical, and part of the vision that launched the company almost 50 years ago. One of the key visionaries, Philip Morrison, a founder of EDC and a guiding spirit for our work in science education over the past decades, died in April at the age of 89.
“The projects Phil was involved with, the Elementary Science Study (ESS) in particular, have deeply influenced the nature of science teaching and learning and also underscored the importance of having scientists and educators working together,” noted EDC Senior Scientist Karen Worth at Morrison’s memorial service in September. During the early 1960s, Morrison led the ESS initiative, which ultimately produced 50 units on such science topics as gases and airs, growing seeds, and the behavior of mealworms. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the materials, which featured hands-on kits, films, teacher materials and more, were used all over the country in grades K through 8.
Worth worked with Morrison on the ESS initiative as well as the African Primary Science Program, another innovative curriculum project. He has had a lasting impact on her work and the work of the company. “In the mid-80’s I began work on a new NSF grant and new materials,” said Worth. “Phil was one of a few people whom I described as being on my shoulder—a conscience and mentor—keeping me true to the basic ideas of science, children’s interests and curiosity, and those early materials, as I struggled to meet the realities of schools. He’s not here with us anymore but he’s still on my shoulder,” said Worth.
“I went back and read some of what Phil wrote over the years about learning science. I was deeply moved by the elegance and eloquence of those words as important, rich, and inspirational today as they were decades ago,” she said.
Worth went on to share some of his writing.
In a piece about the process of developing the ESS materials for the elementary school, Phil wrote
…rather, we propose a philosophy of ‘enlightened opportunism.’ Opportunism in the sense that, given the context of the child’s interest, the child’s age, the cost per scholar per year, the level of the machinery that surrounds him at home, from the TV set to the water faucet, given all these things, at what point do we see physical, biological, or other systems which attract attention and which can lead to growth and understanding and motivation for inquiry? This is the way in which the groups looked for soft places, the cracks. They looked for the interesting animal. They looked for the delight of the moving hand forming a shadow on the wall. They looked for the bright marble falling through the tube of liquid and catching the eye. This is the way one begins…
In a wonderful article in 1966 called Tensions of Purpose, Phil suggests one of these tensions, is
the tension between the right and the left hands, between the reasoned, analytic, logical, unadorned, and clear, and the intuitive, aesthetic, playful, charming, and imaginative. It is to be hoped that we can devise materials which will allow the left hand into school science.
And here is one last one, again from The Curricular Triangle and Its Style.
What the textbook can summarize in a page of results—life is cellular, cells have water and carbon, cells divide to multiply—our methods with the child’s own work, with his own hands, with his own microscope and labored arithmetic may take six weeks of classroom effort…
We are not disturbed by slowness, for what goes slow can run deep. And school hours are not all of life. To stroll into reality, the detail of it and the context, to unravel and uncover, is a better thing than to sprint past, reading the billboards of science.
An Extraordinary Career
Even before Morrison began to revolutionize the way schools approached science education, he had been transformed himself.
A member of the Manhattan Project, Morrison worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and at Los Alamos from 1942-1946. He was a passenger in the car that brought the bomb’s plutonium core from Los Alamos to the desert testing site. He was one of the first Americans to visit the wreckage in Hiroshima after the war. He ultimately became a vocal opponent of the nuclear arms race.
“The world has lost one of the major voices of social conscience in science,” said Charles Weiner, MIT Professor Emeritus of the History of Science. “For more than 50 years, since his involvement in the development of the first atomic bomb, Philip Morrison has been a leading participant in the efforts to control and eliminate nuclear weapons,” he said.
Morrison was “a distinguished theoretical astrophysicist and interpreter of science and technology for the general public,” according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had been a faculty member since 1964. He also served on the faculty of Cornell University. At MIT, he had been institute professor, the highest honor awarded by the MIT faculty and administration, since 1973. “The title is reserved for those who have demonstrated exceptional distinction by a combination of leadership, accomplishment and serve in the scholarly, educational, and general intellectual life of the institute or wider community.”
Originally published on September 1, 2005