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Jerrold Zacharias (1905–1986) - Career as a Physicist, Physical Sciences Study Committee

pssc education curriculum mit

Experimental physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerrold R. Zacharias directed the Physical Sciences Study Committee curriculum development project and other science education reform efforts. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Zacharias earned his A.B. in 1926, A.M. in 1927, and Ph.D. in 1933, all in physics, from Columbia University. He held a teaching position at Hunter College in New York City until 1940 when he was appointed as a staff member of the Radiation Lab at MIT. In 1946 he became a professor at MIT, and directed the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering there until 1956. Subsequently at MIT he held the ranks of institute professor and institute professor emeritus. He served on the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1952 to 1964. For his scientific, engineering, and educational work Zacharias received numerous honors, including election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the President's Certificate of Merit, and the National Science Teachers Association Citation for Distinguished Service to Science Education. Zacharias's educational projects are best understood as an extension of his earlier scientific and governmental work.

Career as a Physicist

As a member of Nobel Prize winner Isidore Isaac Rabi's laboratory at Columbia University during the 1930s, Zacharias participated in early molecular beam magnetic resonance experiments and in the successful measurement of magnetic and electric quadrupole movements of molecular nuclei. During World War II, he contributed to the development of radar defense systems at MIT and of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. After the war, under his direction the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Science and Engineering achieved several breakthroughs in atomic beam research, including the development of a cesium atomic beam clock. The commercial feasibility of the cesium atomic clock led to the definition in 1967 of the atomic second and the subsequent adoption of atomic time as a laboratory standard and as a frequency source in aircraft navigation systems.

From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s Zacharias directed important national defense studies, from which he recalled concerns he had heard from military sources about the advantage that the Soviets gained from superior education. In 1956 Zacharias conceived a project to create a series of instructional films to promote the teaching and learning of physics in pre-collegiate education. This idea soon grew into the curriculum development project for which he became known, the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC).

Physical Sciences Study Committee

Zacharias's sharing of his idea with an associate who directed the fledgling National Science Foundation (NSF) led to a formal proposal of the plan and initial funding. For the project, Zacharias first recruited from within his circle of physicists and other scientists. The realization that the "problem" of science education reform required a solution grander than a film series, and the promise of NSF and other funding, made possible the expansion of the breadth of the project to include plans for developing four textbooks and a series of dozens of monographs, as well as the participation of scientists from around the United States. The PSSC held its first meeting in September 1956, and by the end of the following summer the first textbook was drafted. During the fall of 1957 eight schools were piloting materials.

Within a few months of the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, and Sputnik II on November 3 of the same year, the blame for the second place status of the United States in the space race fell squarely on the public schools. For PSSC, this meant a virtual guarantee of funding not only from NSF, but also from the Ford Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. During 1958 PSSC established a film studio, conducted an eight-week summer development workshop, and held five training institutes for teachers. During the 1958 though 1959 academic year, 250 schools piloted PSSC materials and a summer institute was held for teachers. Five hundred schools employed the materials in 1959–1960. In the fall of 1960 a finalized PSSC course was implemented in schools throughout the United States.

In September 1959 Zacharias participated in the Woods Hole Conference that defined the structure-of-the-discipline concept that dominated curriculum reform in the years ahead. The hallmark of these curricula was expressed by Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner in a sentiment that Zacharias often reiterated: the intellectual work of a research scientist and of an elementary school pupil are essentially identical. Thus, students would best learn subject matter–and be better prepared potentially to contribute to the military and space races–by mastering the structure of academic disciplines as defined by research specialists. PSSC became a model for academic specialists in other disciplines as they developed and implemented specialized academic curricula across the land.

Zacharias's intent for PSSC was to foster a scientific mindset that embraced observation, evidence, and basis for belief, while exposing students to state-of-the-art scientific knowledge. In the development stage, PSSC materials benefited from feedback that emerged from piloting. When implemented in its final form, however, the PSSC course expected fidelity from teachers; PSSC and other NSF curriculum projects were designed as "teacher-proof" packages to assure that all students would learn then-current scientific knowledge. Participants in the NSF projects generally valorize those efforts as models of educational reform, while researchers point to the failure of the projects to conduct systematic evaluations and of the movement to achieve its stated goals.

The Physical Sciences Study Committee was the most prominent but only the first of many education reform activities that Zacharias spearheaded under the auspices of Educational Services, Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that emerged from the PSSC project. During the 1960s, the Elementary Science Study developed science curricula and instructional materials for use in schools in the United States. During the late 1960s the African Primary Science Program and the African Mathematics Program developed teaching materials and conducted teacher training for African educational systems. At MIT Zacharias participated in efforts to improve undergraduate physics curricula and proposed reforms for medical education. During the 1970s he took on the issue of standardized testing, which he criticized for stifling student's independent thinking and curiosity in science. Zacharias referred to standardized tests as "the Gestapo of educational systems" (1973, p. 43). He continued, "Uniformity and rigidity require enforcement, so I have chosen a most denigrating title for the enforcement agency. Its hallmark is arbitrariness, secrecy, intolerance, and cruelty." Apparently, Zacharias never reconciled his dissatisfaction over the curricular homogeneity that standardized tests enforced with the top-down curriculum implementation model that characterized PSSC.


GOLDSTEIN, JACK S. 1992. A Different Sort of Time: The Life of Jerrold R. Zacharias, Scientist, Engineer, Educator. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

RAMSEY, NORMAN F. 1995. "Jerrold P. Zacharias, January 23, 1905–July 16, 1986." In Biographical Memoirs 68, ed. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, pp. 435–449.

TURNER, DAVID. 1984. "Reform and the Physics Curriculum in Britain and the United States." Comparative Education Review 28:444–453.

ZACHARIAS, JERROLD R. 1957. "Today's Science–Tomorrow's Promise." Technology Review 59:501–503, 550.

ZACHARIAS, JERROLD R., and WHITE, STEPHEN. 1964. "The Requirements for Major Curriculum Revision." In New Curricula, ed. Robert W. Heath. New York: Harper and Row.

ZACHARIAS, JERROLD R. 1975. "The Trouble with IQ Tests." National Elementary School Principal 54:23–29.

ZACHARIAS, JERROLD R. 1975. "Testing in the Schools: A Help or a Hindrance?" Prospects 5:33–43.


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3 months ago

I have a set of 2 trunks from the Manhattan Project that are marked with the Z-division logo. My Dad got these later on when we were serving in the MATS command at Kelly AFB, San Antonio, TX. These trunks to the best of mt research and knowledge carried the U-235 rings for the "Bullet"/ projectile of the Little Boy Bomb. I can send you the pic of my Dad's trunks...they are tangible proof. I also have a roster depicting the people and organization of the Sept. 1945 Z-Division...It is my contention that my Dad...Major William Leroy Parker was the Major Parker noted as the alternate for the .Z-2 Assembly Factory...Z-2a Procurement, Storage and Shipment dept. Are there any notes, Pics, diaries, narratives I can find concerning his work..thanks Lee C. Parker.

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over 9 years ago

As a member of the development group of the PSSC project I was fortunate to have close contact with Dr. Zacharias and many other distinguished physicists. There were a few of us recruited from secondary classrooms to work directly with the writing team and assess the materials for their use in schools. My summer's work in the initial writing phase was extended to promoting the pilot phase of the paper-bound "first editions" during the 1957-58 school year.

Dr. Zacharias' passion for changing the "Morse telegraph and Flush Toilet" philosophy of existing physics instruction with inquiry experiences as used by practicing scientists. This article is an accurate description of the contribution he made to a very short time block that disappeared with the rise of the "back to basics" move with its accompanying testing emphasis.

John H. Marean