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Sidebar: Educational Development Center (EDC) and Elementary Science Study (ESS)

Written by George Hein

EDC, today a major corporation with hundreds of employees involved in health care, national and international development and education, grew out of Jerrold Zacharias' efforts to improve science education in the United States. Its first incarnation was as the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) a project within MIT, that began as a conference convened by Zacharias in December 1956 (well before the launch of Sputnik) and quickly became a full-fledged curriculum project to develop a new high school physics course. Zacharias had the bold idea not only to have physicists write most of the material, but also to include films as part of the pedagogy. In addition, a series of booklets for students on various physics topics was commissioned. As PSSC grew, bringing in filmmakers, teachers, writers and others, some on leave from universities, others as employees and more as consultants, it became necessary to form an independent nonprofit corporation. In December 1958, Educational Services Incorporated (ESI) took over PSSC and moved to offices in Watertown, Massachusetts, with a film studio in an old movie theater nearby. It was unique in the United States (and perhaps the world) as a freestanding organization devoted to developing educational materials. Within a few years, partly because the National Science Foundation (NSF) expanded science education, and because imaginative and ambitious staff proposed new activities in the free-wheeling (some observers called it "disorganized") atmosphere at ESI, new projects were initiated, often springing from one of Zacharias' brainstorming conferences. By 1963, these included, among others, the Elementary Science Study (ESS), The African Primary Science Program and a middle school social studies curriculum. ESI had more in common with the new for-profit R&D groups sprouting up on Route 128 in the Boston area than with traditional research and development programs within universities or with curriculum publishers. When the U. S. Office of Education began to fund research and development at an unprecedented level in the mid-1960s (partly as a result of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act that initiated the now familiar "Title" programs), ESI morphed into EDC and became one of the first federally funded education R&D centers.

Conversations at ESI about an elementary school science project began in 1960, when there was little science education of any kind in elementary schools in the United States and certainly scarcely any materials-based inquiry curricula. ESI submitted a proposal to NSF for ESS in 1961 and work began even before it was funded. The decision at the National Science Foundation to provide government funds for pre-college education had been politically risky, since public education was considered the prerogative of local school districts and individual states. NSF deliberately supported a range of projects that espoused different educational philosophies. At the K-6 level, NSF funded (among others) the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) conceived by Robert Karplus at U.C. Berkeley that had a rigorous Piagetian developmental approach, and a curriculum devised by the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), Science-A Process Approach (SAPA) that followed a strict behaviorist view of learning, attempting to develop a hierarchy of skills and concepts to be learned in sequence. Compared to these projects, ESS was essentially a non-curriculum; a series of units roughly age-appropriate and devoted to individual topics, mostly described by the natural world materials they offered for the students' exploration. The fifty—six units developed over a decade included now commonplace elementary science subjects—Batteries and Bulbs begins with the students challenged to light a bulb using only a battery, a wire and a small flashlight bulb—as well as topics such as Ice Cubes, Sand, Butterflies, or Whistles and Strings. There were few student workbooks, but extensive and richly illustrated teachers' guides. Assessment was not emphasized. All required considerable input from teachers and were designed to bring materials and opportunities for inquiry into the classroom. ESS is generally considered to be have been most influential in shaping the materials now included in many elementary school science curricula. It also has a powerful legacy in interactive science center exhibits. Some common ones, such as colored shadows, optics tables, spinning tables, and many pendulum activities can be traced back directly to ESS units.

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