Problem-based Learning Commentary: Tribute to Herman T. Epstein (1920–2007)

by Harold B. White

From the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, Delaware 19716

The news of Herman Epstein’s death on March 25 of this year initiated a flood of memories for me. My interactions with him were brief and yet they had significant impact on my attitudes toward education and on the way I teach.

I first met Herman Epstein in 1967 when he was teaching a 6-week segment of a graduate physical biochemistry course at Brandeis University. The topic was Fortran programming in the era before hand calculators and desktop computers

I never became proficient with computer punch cards or programming, but I did take morning coffee breaks in a lounge situated between the Biochemistry and Biology Departments where graduate students, postdocs, and faculty discussed science and the issues of the day. There I first learned of Herman Epstein’s interest in education and his radically different approach for teaching introductory biology for first-year non-science majors.

It was a time of social unrest. Those of us males in graduate school at Brandeis University, who had high draft numbers, were fairly certain we could complete our graduate work without going to Vietnam. Those with lower numbers actively sought draft deferrals or contemplated moving to Canada rather than be drafted to fight in a war few of us supported. This was also a time of the civil rights movement. This and other social issues motivated significant numbers of graduate students in the sciences at Brandeis to volunteer to tutor inner-city high school students as part of an Upward Bound project. Dissatisfaction within the scientific community led to the ‘‘Science for the People’’ movement that blossomed at the December 1970 AAAS meeting in Boston where sessions were disrupted and protesters demanded that science be more responsive to the needs of society [1]. It was a time when many students and faculty were dissatisfied with the way things were. I suspect the mood of activism at the time caused people to take risks and try new things.

I do not recall Herman Epstein’s social positions at the time, but his introductory biology course was new and involved risks. He described it as ‘‘. . . conducting a graduate research seminar for 17-year-old students with little background and virtually no interest in science’’ [2, p. 13]. He had concluded that traditional introductory biology courses only bored students and taught them very little of importance. He contended that non-science majors needed to understand what science was about and what motivated scientists to do what they did. For a research scientist, how better to do this than to give a course on what interested you most—your own research area?

Thus, Epstein built his course around a progression of six to 10 seminal research articles that laid the ground work for and culminated with a recent article he had published. The focus was not on content, although students learned a lot of that in the process. Rather, he emphasized science as a human activity driven by curiosity about how the world works. Epstein’s model provided a way for active research professors to teach introductory courses. Each professor could decide the content of his or her section of a course without altering the course objectives. The appeal was great, and research faculty in different disciplines at various universities adopted the approach. Epstein published a little book, A Strategy for Education [2], about his approach. He also published an article in Nature on the subject [3].

After I obtained a faculty position, I adopted Epstein’s strategy in 1974 for a non-science major biochemistry course that I taught twice before reverting to traditional lectures in courses for biochemistry and science majors. A few teachers, notably at Hampshire College, continue to teach courses using Epstein’s model, but others stopped after a few years when social activism and reform interests waned. Only many years later did I see how Epstein’s approach could be neatly adapted to a problem-based learning context using articles as problems, involving groups, and focusing on majors rather than non-majors [4].

Much of what Epstein did would be called action research today. Basically, he tried what seemed to make sense, kept track of what he did, reflected on it, and made modifications as seemed necessary. It was not based within the framework of educational psychology or learning theory, although Epstein was quite familiar with the works of Brunner [5]. His practical approach had appeal to science faculty who were more interested in methods that worked than abstractions. However, his lack of theoretical grounding, experimental protocols, and rigorous assessment gained the ire of at least one education researcher who wrote a scathing review of his book [6].

Herman Epstein was trained as a physicist and became a biophysicist. In the 1970s, he changed his research direction completely and became fascinated with the biological basis of learning. He studied brain growth and correlated that with the cognitive development of humans, as described by Piaget [7]. Specifically, in his cognitive level matching theory [8], he argued that the human brain develops in several spurts, and that there was little point in teaching material to school children at a level which their brain was developmentally unprepared to receive. This also translated into controversial areas of the educational consequences of gender differences in brain maturation.

After retirement from Brandeis University in 1989, Epstein moved to Woods Hole and continued his research at the Marine Biological Laboratory into his eighties. It was there many years after my student years that I met him again. He remained passionate about education and the importance of coupling our understanding of the brain development to optimizing student learning. As his obituary in the Boston Globe noted [9], he felt reasoning should become the fourth ‘‘R’’ after reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic..


[1] P. M. Boffey (1971) AAAS convention: Radicals harass the establishment, Science 171, 47–49.
[2] H. T. Epstein (1970) A Strategy for Education, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
[3] H. T. Epstein (1972) An experiment in education, Nature 235, 203– 205.
[4] H. B. White III (1992) Introduction to biochemistry: A different approach, Biochem. Educ. 20, 22–23.
[5] J. S. Brunner (1963) The Process of Education, Vintage, New York.
[6] W. V. Mayer (1971) Review of ‘‘a strategy for education,’’ Quart. Rev. Biol. 46, 209.
[7] J. Piaget (1966) The Psychology of Intelligence, Littlefield, Adams & Co., Totowa, NJ.
[8] H. T. Epstein (1978) Growth spurts during brain development: Implications for educational policy and practice. In NSSE Yearbook Education and the Brain (J. S. Chall, A. F. Mirsky, eds.) pp. 343–370, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
[9] B. Marquard (2007) Herman Epstein, 86: Scientist devoted to research, learning, Boston Globe, March 27, 2007, Obituaries.