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Science education innovator Mary Budd Rowe dies at 71

STANFORD -- Science education innovator Mary Budd Rowe, whose mission was to put the wonder of exploration into science courses, died Thursday, June 20, in a Monterey, Calif., hospice. Rowe, 71, suffered a stroke June 14 while attending a conference in Monterey.


A visiting professor at Stanford's School of Education since 1990 and a professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville, Rowe perhaps was best known to teachers for her research on "wait time," in which she found that the average teacher doesn't wait long enough for students to answer questions in class. She found that increasing the wait time from one second to at least three seconds produced remarkable improvement in the language and logic of students.

Rowe, who headed the science education research division of the National Science Foundation from 1976 to 1980, also was recognized as an innovator in the use of technology to teach science concepts. She developed a video series to teach physical science and two CD-ROMs, Science Helper and Culture and Technology, which give teachers easier access to more than 4,000 lesson plans, including video and audio clips they can use in class. She was also a science adviser for the children's television programs Reading Rainbow , 3-2-1 Contact and Voyage of the Mimi. Most recently, she worked on improved standards for assessing science learning and teaching, and on organizing and evaluating electronic communities for teachers.

A member of the National Academy of Education since 1991, Rowe was fascinated by the varied ways in which cultures define science and how the definition, in turn, influences culture. She was critical of the emphasis on testing in American education. Teaching to improve test performance produced textbooks that were "as dull as dictionaries," she said, and led children to learn facts by rote rather than understand scientific concepts. She contrasted this approach with the impromptu science lesson that Albert Einstein gave her when she, as a 7th grader, encountered him staring at a fountain on the Princeton campus. Einstein asked her if she could stop the water long enough to see the individual drops and showed her how to move her hands until she could create the strobe effect that appeared to slow the stream of individual drops.

"Nearly half a century later, I've spent an entire career trying to impart Einstein's words to adults and children all over the world: Science is exploring, and exploring is fun," Rowe wrote in a 1995 Reader's Digest article of advice to parents on how to teach their children to "wonder."

Rowe practiced what she preached, said Stanford education Professor J. Myron Atkin, who recalled being with her as part of the first science education delegation to the People's Republic of China in 1979 after the country was reopened to Western visitors. When the educators toured an elementary school, Atkin said, Rowe noticed that the children were curious about the large quantity of hair on his arms. "She pulled a magnifying glass from her purse, so the children could crawl over me for a closer look," Atkin said. (In her Reader's Digest article, Rowe also suggested that parents use a magnifying glass to show children their fingertips. It is the best way, she said, to get them to wash their hands before dinner.)

Rowe particularly liked to encourage girls' interest in science and was frustrated that many of them gave up on it as they grew older, said friend Emily Girault, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco. "She spent a lot of her life as the only woman on a committee or in a department or, in the early days, as the only woman at conventions of academics," Girault said. "She was very aware of how she had been encouraged by some teachers early in her life." A junior high teacher in particular, knowing that Rowe was blind in one eye, went beyond the curriculum to encourage her to study vision and the physics of light.

Rowe, the author of more than 100 journal publications, several monographs and books, "was perhaps the outstanding expert in the country in elementary science teaching," Atkin said, as well as "the most generous professor I know in terms of the time she gave to individual students."

Science teachers knew her better than they know most education professors because she maintained many contacts in the schools and spoke frequently at events for teachers, said Julie Bianchini, an assistant professor at California State University-Long Beach, who was a student of Rowe's.

Richard Shavelson, dean of the Stanford School of Education, said that "Mary was one of the giants in the field of science education and clearly looked upon as a leader." He called her research "path-breaking." He and other colleagues and former students also said that Rowe was extraordinarily sharing of her time and wisdom.

"She had a very close relationship with all of her students and had an open door to anyone who found their way to her office, from a curious undergraduate to a teacher to the head of the National Science Foundation," said Tom Keating, a recent graduate who will be an assistant professor at Indiana State University in the fall. "She had a very deep knowledge of science and of education, which is rare to find in one person."

Rowe was one of the first people outside the military to apply the potential for CD-ROM technology to education, colleagues said. "Mary loved new technology, and she got us to think more about using it," said Stanford biological sciences Professor Craig Heller, who asked Rowe to work with him on the development of a human biology curriculum for middle school grades. The curriculum is to be published in the next year or two. Rowe developed a computer network so that teachers testing the curriculum could talk to each other and to the Stanford researchers. She also studied this network, Keating said, and concluded that an electronic community for teachers held potential but would take time to develop.

Rowe served on the National Research Council's Committee on Science Education Standards and Assessment, as co-chair of a blue ribbon panel of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering and Technology, and on many review panels for national projects. She consulted on educational projects in the Near East, Africa, China and South America.

Rowe was elected president of the National Science Teachers Association in 1989-90, and recipient of its Robert Carlton Medal. Other honors included an award for distinguished contribution to curriculum development from the American Educational Research Association. She also was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Born in New Jersey, Rowe earned a bachelor's degree in biology and physics education from New Jersey State University in 1947, a master's in zoology from the University of California-Berkeley in 1954 and a doctorate in science education from Stanford in 1964. She taught science first in California and later in Germany. As a consultant to the state of Colorado in the late '50s and early '60s, Rowe traveled in a trailer to rural areas to show teachers ways of using their natural environment for science lessons. As an assistant professor at Columbia, she directed a project to teach science to a thousand children in Harlem. On the faculty of the University of Florida, she researched factors influencing how children learn science in rural communities.

Rowe is survived by brothers John R. Rowe of Hackensack, N.J.,