J. Myron “Mike” Atkin, a former dean and professor emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE), died on Aug. 18 at Channing House, his retirement residence in Palo Alto. He was 95.

J. Myron Atkin, 1927-2022 (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

Atkin, who began his working life as a high school science teacher, devoted his research career to improving the quality of science education in K-12 schools. As dean of the GSE, he was known for his commitment to bridging education research with the day-to-day realities of classroom practice.

With former Stanford President Donald Kennedy, he launched a landmark initiative in 1982 that connected GSE faculty with local high school teachers and administrators for education research, a project that drew national attention for involving school practitioners at every level of the process. He is also remembered for his pivotal investment in the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP), a program whose future was in limbo when he took office as dean and now serves as a national model in the field of teacher preparation.

Widely regarded as a warm, welcoming leader who frequently hosted students and faculty for meals at his home with his wife, Ann, he served as dean from 1979 to 1986, then stayed on the faculty until he retired in 2004.

“Mike was a very special human being – so accomplished, such a good leader, and a mensch,” said GSE Professor Emeritus Richard Shavelson, who served as dean from 1995 to 2000.

Beginning a career in science

Atkin was born on April 6, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School and trained to be an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, but the war came to an end shortly after his training finished and he was never deployed. He went on to the City College of New York and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

In 1947, he married Ann Spiegel and began his career as a science teacher, working in New York elementary and high schools for seven years while earning his master’s and doctorate in science education from New York University.

He and Ann then moved with their first child to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where Atkin became an assistant professor of science education at the University of Illinois. He went on to serve as dean of the College of Education until 1979, when he was recruited by Stanford to join the GSE faculty as dean.

A focus on classroom teaching

Shortly before Atkin came to Stanford, he was faced with a decision that would lead to one of his defining actions as dean. A faculty committee chaired by Edwin Bridges had been assessing the future of STEP, a one-year program established in 1959 to prepare elementary and secondary school teachers for the classroom. Two months before Atkin arrived at Stanford, Bridges called to let him know the program was on the chopping block.

Interviewed at a GSE colloquium in 2011, Atkin recalled that faculty were evenly split over whether to drop the program, which was small at the time, or to recommend putting in the necessary resources to bolster it. “I said, ‘Ed, what’s a school of education without a teacher education program?’”

Instead of discontinuing the program, as the newly installed dean, Atkin invested in strengthening and expanding it. “I think it’s one of the most important aspects of the school today,” he said. “But it could’ve gone another way.”

Another initiative that came to mark his legacy as dean was the Stanford and the Schools study, a partnership that connected GSE researchers with teachers and administrators at high schools in six nearby school districts. The project was another reflection of Atkin’s commitment to reignite the GSE’s involvement in classroom practice: While previous deans had established a strong faculty with extensive scholarship in the applied behavioral and social sciences, Atkin was concerned about what he perceived in education research as a growing distance from the realities of the classroom. He sought to involve school practitioners as partners in the research process, collaborators taking an equal role in defining the issues and designing data-collection procedures.

In 1982 Atkin and Donald Kennedy, then the president of Stanford, together launched the study to explore and identify recommendations for school policies and programs, and to ensure that GSE research and academic programs corresponded closely to the daily challenges of the K-12 classroom.

“It was a big deal, the right thing for a professional school of education to do,” said Shavelson. The three-year study, published in 1987, led the way for other major research-practice partnerships now ongoing at the GSE.

Scientist and humanist

As a scholar, Atkin was devoted to improving science education, particularly by way of curriculum and assessment reform. He also studied gender equity in science education, and science education for elementary students learning English.

“He was one of the first who saw the importance and significance of research in science teaching and learning, acquiring his doctorate in 1955 when research in science education was still in its infancy,” said Jonathan Osborne, a professor emeritus of science education at the GSE. “He worked tirelessly on a range of national and local committees to argue how the science that was commonly taught might be improved.”

Atkin chaired, among numerous boards and committees, the education section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as the National Academies’ National Research Council Committee on Science Education K-12 and National Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, which produced the first set of U.S. standards in 1996. He also worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to produce case studies about innovations in science, math, and technology education in 13 countries around the world, a project he particularly enjoyed.

“He was a scientist by training,” said Shavelson. “But when it came to applying science to the human condition, he was a humanist and a qualitative researcher.”

Atkin tapped three faculty to join forces and develop a new course at the GSE to prepare students in qualitative research, a new step for the school that turned into a year-long sequence with a full year of statistical work as a prerequisite. “It very rapidly became just about the most popular class in the school. We had to set enrollment limits,” said Professor Emeritus Lee Shulman, part of the team who created and taught the course. “And that was Mike’s baby.”

A ‘perfect mentor’

During his tenure as dean, Atkin worked with university administrators to approve guaranteed funding for GSE doctoral students – a major change that resulted in stricter limits on the number of students offered admission, making the program significantly more selective and competitive, said Professor Emeritus Hans Weiler, who served as associate dean for academic affairs under Atkin. “That was an important threshold in the history of the school, and it happened on Mike’s watch.”

As a doctoral advisor, Atkin was known for his warmth and supportive guidance, and for maintaining relationships with his students long after they graduated. “To be his student was to be his friend,” said Shulman.

“He was a perfect mentor,” said Allan Feldman, PhD ’92, a former student of Atkin’s who is now a professor of science education at the University of South Florida. One example: Atkin’s generosity in helping to engage students in major research projects – including, for Feldman, one with the National Science Foundation. “It was an incredible opportunity for me as a doctoral student,” he said. “I make sure as much as possible that my students have the kind of opportunities that he provided for me.”

Julia Bianchini, PhD ’95, another former student of Atkin’s who is now a professor of science education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, includes a paper he published in 1962 in one of her courses.

“The article stresses the importance of using students’ own ideas and experiences, engaging students in investigations before introducing science concepts and terms, encouraging students’ reasoning and sensemaking, and tying constructs learned to larger crosscutting concepts in science, like energy and systems,” she said. “It’s striking to me how the recommendations in this piece from more than 50 years ago still remain relevant.”

Atkin is survived by his wife, Ann; his children, Jon, Ruth, and David; his grandchildren, Alexander “Alex”, Elizabeth “Liz”, and Michael; his niece, Nina Lindhoff; and his nephew, Marc Atkin.

A celebration of Atkin’s life will be held at Channing House (850 Webster St., Palo Alto, on the 11th floor) on Sunday, November 20, from 2 to 4 p.m.