Uri Haber-Schaim

Uri Haber-Schaim Obituary

Uri Haber-Schaim, a leader in science education for nearly half a century, died September 16, 2020 in his home in Jerusalem, Israel, at the age of 94. He is survived by his wife of 73 years, Shlomith, two daughters, a son, and three grandchildren.

Uri was the 1970 recipient of the Oersted Medal given by the American Association of Physics Teachers for "outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics." On behalf of the Physical Science Study Committee, he received in 2007 the first award given by the American Physical Society for Excellence in Physics Education: “For the revitalization of subject matter through the involvement of teachers and researchers at all levels, the elevation of the instructional role of the laboratory, the development and utilization of innovative instructional media, and the emphasis on discipline-centered inquiry and the nature of physics, PSSC Physics has had a major and ongoing influence on physics education at the national level.” Uri Haber-Schaim was born in Berlin in 1926 and immigrated with his family to Rehovot, Palestine in 1933. He received his M.Sc. in physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1949, under the supervision of Giulio Racah, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1951, under the supervision of Enrico Fermi. His thesis was on the high energy spectrum of cosmic ray primary nucleons. In 1956, after holding short-term positions at the Weizmann Institute of Science, the University of Bern, and the University of Illinois at Urbana, Uri took a position at MIT as assistant professor of physics.

A summer job in 1957 as director of the Wave Optics Group with the newly formed Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC), ignited his passion for science educational reform. He continued to work with PSSC, leaving MIT in 1961 with his decision to shift from a career in high energy physics to one in science education.

Uri was involved in developing almost all aspects of the PSSC curriculum: textbook, teacher’s guide, tests and more. He directed the Laboratory Group, which designed the labs, developed equipment kits and wrote the lab guide. When PSSC Physics came under free license after the second edition, Uri took up the challenge to develop and prepare the subsequent editions, first as director of the Physical Science Group and then as director of its successor, the Institute for Curriculum Development in Science and Mathematics at Boston University.

PSSC Physics went through seven editions – the first one came out in 1960, the last in 1991 – and was ultimately translated into 17 languages. Ten years after the formation of PSSC, more than half the high school student taking physics in the United States were using the course in its entirety, while others were exposed to some of the materials. Later revisions provided students with a more up-to-date introduction to optics and quantum physics.

As Uri recalled: “[The spirit and substance of the course] reflected the original intentions: The unity of physics, the sense of development, models, predictions - all were there. To convey the spirit of science, the text was written in a narrative style, which demanded that the students follow the development of ideas rather than look for a brief statement of a law… The way in which the laboratory work was used was also new for American students in the early 1960s. Gone was the cookbook with its detailed instructions and ready-to-fill tables. With economically designed equipment, the lab became the place where the entire class could converse with nature and try to recognize its regularities.”

Convinced of the advantages of studying the physical sciences in junior high school, Uri's group developed and prepared the laboratory-oriented one-year course for 8th and 9th grades, Introductory Physical Science (IPS). The course dealt with the basic properties of matter and led to the development of the atomic model of matter. The second-year continuation of the course, Physical Science II (PSII), was later revised as Energy: A Sequel to IPS. The first commercial edition of IPS was published in 1967, the ninth, in 2010. IPS became so widely used that much of the introductory material it covered was eliminated from PSSC Physics by the third edition.

In addition to directing and taking part in the creation, evaluation, and revision of curriculum materials and equipment, Uri was concerned with expanding the ranks of qualified science teachers. He designed teacher-training programs and conducted workshops and institutes all over the United States and in many other countries, from Chile to Japan.

Uri loved music and had two grand pianos in his home in Belmont, MA, where he frequently played chamber music with friends. He conducted the Belmont Orchestra for many years, and recorded an album of Schubert piano duos.

Uri once wrote in memoriam to a friend: “Life is a succession of accidental events interspersed with the exercise of free will.” Throughout his lifetime, Uri made the most of both.

by Arthur Eisenkraft