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Stanford Report, January 9, 2002

Paul Hurd, science education reformer, dead at 95


Education Professor Emeritus Paul De Hart Hurd, a nationally prominent science educator for 50 years, died of pneumonia in Menlo Park Dec. 23. He was 95.

"He was one of the top science educators in the country," said education Professor Decker Walker, a former student of Hurd's. "He wanted science to be a universal possession of all Americans."

Richard Reis, another former student, said his onetime dissertation adviser was "always ahead of the curve" regarding the next big issue in science education. "When someone is 75 or 80, you think you would ask them about history," said Reis, executive director of the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing at Stanford. "Instead, [Hurd] looked into the future."

Hurd was born Dec. 25, 1905, in Denver and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Northern Colorado in 1929 and 1932, respectively. In 1949, he earned a doctorate in education from Stanford and joined the faculty in 1951 after teaching high school biology and science education for 22 years in Greeley, Colo., and at Menlo School and Junior College (now Menlo College) in Menlo Park. Hurd retired in 1971 but remained active in science education reform through the 1990s.

Hurd wrote many books and monographs on curriculum development in the sciences, including the definitive 1961 work Biological Education in American Secondary Schools, 1890-1960. Hurd continued to publish as a professor emeritus and his recent books include Transforming Middle School Science Education and Inventing Science Education for the New Millennium, published respectively in 2000 and 1997. He also published more than 300 articles in the United States and abroad. His papers are archived in the Hoover Institution. According to Reis, Hurd's final professional paper, Modernizing Science Education, will be published in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.

"We all thought he'd live forever," said Reis. "He didn't seem to age at all. Whenever I went to see him I felt I was a student again. It was always intellectually challenging -- I liked that. I had to prepare for our meeting in the same way a student prepares to meet his adviser. He was always up to date."

Reis said that he and Walker had asked Hurd for advice as recently as last fall on how to improve interdisciplinary education -- for example, how to help someone trained as an electrical engineer operate effectively in the field of medicine. "We're working on really knotty issues involving different professional cultures -- what information people share or don't share," Reis said. "We wanted to get [Hurd's] insight on this."

Reis described Hurd's retirement as "a standing joke" because he remained professionally active into his nineties. From 1988 to 1990, Hurd was a Special Education Consultant to the National Academy of Sciences, Commission on Life Sciences. NASA honored him with the Apollo Award in 1970, and the National Science Teachers Association gave him the Award for National Leadership in Science Education in 1979.

"He didn't serve in positions of power, but his advice was sought by policy makers on a national level," said Walker. "He tried to paint a big picture of science education in the country."

Former student Glenn Clark, an education professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada, said Hurd had a lasting influence on how his students approached their profession. "He believed in teaching science to people instead of scientists," Clark said.

Many of his students, including the late Stanford Professor Mary Budd Rowe, went on to join university faculties throughout the United States. "He was fundamentally a progressive educator," said Walker. "He wanted people to participate in science in their everyday lives. He was opposed to the specialized instruction of science."

In a 1984 talk to science teachers, Hurd said: "The most widely used 7th-grade science book has 2,500 unfamiliar words in it. A widely used high school chemistry book has 5,000 technical words in it. Foreign language experts tell us that if a student can use 800 words after a year of study, he is doing all right. The main reason students and parents give for disliking science is unfamiliar words. Next comes the question, 'What good will all this stuff do me?'"

With that question in mind, Hurd kept the issue of curriculum reform alive throughout his long life. The scientifically illiterate "are foreigners in their own culture," Hurd said in a 1988 interview. Ignorant of science, he added, they can't understand the debate, much less shape it. Hurd's goal was to make science relevant and accessible to everyone.

Hurd is survived by his widow, Elizabeth Hurd, of Menlo Park. No memorial service will be held.