One of the directors of BSCS who I worked with, was a man named Joe McInerney. He came up with an idea that we should concentrate some of our materials on human genetics. During the decade of the ‘80s, I was part of that writing team. This team was composed of two pediatricians and three biology teachers. We focused on several modules dealing with the genetics of biology. At appropriate times, I used the modules as a part of my course of study.
In the early ‘90s, I developed a one-semester course with the emphasis on human genetics, using the modules.
In the early 2000s, I received a letter from a former student who had been enrolled in my first class in human genetics. She told me that her college advisor had noticed she had taken a course in human genetics in high school. As a result of this information, her advisor suggested to her that she look into becoming a student laboratory assistant. She continued to focus on the biological sciences. She graduated with a major in biology. In her letter, she thanked me for encouraging her interests in biological sciences. She emphasized the human genetics course that had been offered in high school. It played a key part in directing her course of study in college.
In my first 10 years at Pius XI Catholic High School in Milwaukee, I felt I was not using the most appropriate methods of teaching biology.
In March of 1961, I attended the annual convention of the National Science Teachers Association in Atlantic City, NJ. A team composed of 13 Milwaukee area biology teachers was chosen to field test one of the three versions, the Yellow version, of BSCS. We met every Monday evening for a semester. We reviewed the past week’s experiences in the classroom and discussed what we would present the next week.
I was convinced this was the way to go. I loved the idea of teaching students science from an inquisitive point of view, as opposed to lecturing them on supposed “facts.”
Before BSCS, biology was based on a rhetoric of conclusions. Everything was “known,” and I was simply teaching things there were “known.” With BSCS, there were a lot of unknowns that we could look at. The kids left the class knowing about biology but having a lot of questions. I hoped they were interested in those questions and kept on with the subject material. It was not a finished thing; it was an ongoing thing, literally, for the rest of their lives.
It’s hard to describe. You’d have to experience it to appreciate that it was a much better way of teaching. I would never have taught that way if I weren’t getting a lot of direction from the people in Boulder and experiencing new things all the time.
I remained active with BSCS for the rest of the 1960s, and for the next 5 decades. I spent the summers in Boulder helping to write and revise a variety of materials, returning each fall with renewed enthusiasm. I participated in a BSCS final study as recently as 2010.
I retired after teaching and using the many unique methods, applications and laboratory activities found in the BSCS materials.
Read other contributions to our 60 Years of Stories.
Milwaukee-based freelance writer Kay Nolan interviewed Ed Drexler about his experiences with BSCS, and how it shaped his career as a high school biology teacher.
Do you remember what the thinking was to having three versions of biology textbooks?
They started out with a group of interested people and they found out that there wasn’t just one interest. There were the ecologists who felt the book should focus on ecology, and the biochemists who felt they should focus on biochemistry, etc. So they said one book wouldn’t be enough for everything. They were, I guess, wanting to revolutionize biology education. They decided to go with three different approaches. It stayed that way for a long time. They revised these versions every four, five, six years and I was involved in helping to revise the yellow version. Today, the only text they’re still involved with is called the “human approach.” The blue, green and yellow texts stopped being developed.
Were teachers at the time encouraged to use all three?
No, it was a single textbook (for the school year). But you might change your selection from year to year. I know some teachers who had the yellow version for three or four years and then changed to the green version and used that one. I never used any book other than the yellow version.
So there was plenty of material in each version to last the entire school year?
Oh, yes. You could hardly teach everything that was in the book. The idea wasn’t to finish the book, finish the 30 chapters or so, but each chapter that was gone into was in great depth, which was far better than trying to skim over every chapter.
Do you remember any names of people you worked with over the years?
Arnold Grobman. He was one I heard speak in Atlantic City. I was really impressed with him. After Arnold Grobman, we had Bill Mayer. He was from Wayne State University in Detroit. He was real strong on the study of evolution. He was a driving force behind (the belief) that evolution is a vital part of understanding the science of biology.
I learned from him that evolution is fact and theory. Life changes, [it] has changed. There’s all kinds of evidence that it has changed since the first life. That’s the factual part of evolution. But we still have the theory of evolution. How? What factors were involved in this change? How did it change? Why did it change? And so on.
Prior to BSCS, [teaching] evolution was a no-no. There were some biology books in existence that never used the word. Some states even had ruled against teaching evolution. I remember in particular the state of Texas. Every time the books came up for adoption, Bill Mayer would go to Texas and appear before education committees [to argue] they should be adopted or they wouldn’t have good biology books. He became somewhat famous and began to appear in different parts of the country. He was a witness sometimes in lawsuits.
One of the other directors I worked with was a man named Joe McInerney. He came with an idea that we should concentrate some of our materials on genetics. Genetics was only Mendel’s sweet peas (at the time) and he had ideas we should get more involved with modern genetics. I was involved in writing materials for genetics and I taught genetics at Pius. My name was on the book, but I wasn’t the only writer.
Were the fellow educators at BSCS in agreement about evolution, or was that also controversial among them?
No, it wasn’t controversial. Occasionally, they might get a writer who might not be in agreement. I remember one fellow, but I don’t think he lasted very long. But, [evolution] was pretty much generally accepted, which made our books educationally true.
How about at Pius? That is a Catholic school and always has been. Did you ever encounter any push back from the faculty or parents?
Not at all. I think that’s a misconception that people have about evolution, that it’s something religious schools don’t believe in. You don’t “believe” in evolution. Students sometimes would say, “Do I have to believe in evolution?” I tried to get them to accept the fact that evolution isn’t something you “believe in”—you look at what the evidence is. Whether you accept evolution as a result of that evidence or not is up to you, but it isn’t a belief, it’s a concept that has been developed over the years based on all kinds of biological evidence.
You’re Catholic yourself. You have never felt any conflict at all with your faith?
No, not at all. I never heard the word “evolution” at all when I was in high school. When I started teaching, I taught a little a bit about it in respect to Darwin, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, as it didn’t seem to be an important part of biology. Now, evolution is considered the basis of all biology.
There are all kinds of ethical questions surrounding the field of genetics. What kinds of questions have come up in your high school classes?
I guess the modern thing is prenatal testing. There’s [also] artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. There’s a technique very new called CRISPR (genome editing) where they can take DNA from an individual and if there’s defects in the DNA, they can literally take out those defects and insert the right DNA, and the kid that’s born won’t have the disease that he or she would have had if the manipulation of the DNA hadn’t take place. People say that the danger is we’ll have test-tube babies and from them we can select maybe the eye color or the hair color or determine the gender. We can literally play God with the genetics of a particular person. But there are so many good things that can be done with techniques that are being developed.
As far as class discussion of ethical questions, I far prefer if the students see a problem and bring it up themselves; I don’t present them with the problem. Being in the Catholic school, they will ask, “Will the Church allow this kind of thing?” Well, it depends upon what’s being done.
Can you describe the change in enthusiasm over the decades in science education?
It all began with Sputnik. We were worried that we were going to be left behind. Not only in biology, but they had special chemistry programs and special physics programs. The idea was to upgrade science education. The government began to provide rather huge amounts of money to support not only the development of these different courses, but they used to have what they called summer institutes, where teachers were given funding to attend. It was also teaching the biology teachers who were interested in improving what they were doing.
You presented a lot of workshops in various cities?
Yes, BSCS was sending me to different summer institutes in different parts of the country. Foreign countries were interested in what we were doing, too, so I went to an institute in Iceland and in India and in Amman, Jordan. We tried to present the concepts of BSCS to them.
I don’t know how successful we were in Jordan. I was over there when they were revising their biology books, which were all in Arabic, of course. They would tell me what they wrote and I would try to tell them how maybe it would be better to do this or not do this, and so on, and they would write it down, but I never knew whether they really understood the changes that I was recommending. So I never knew for sure the end result.
The time I spent in India was in Chandigar, at Panjab University. They wanted to adopt the yellow version in India. We went and taught the concepts. When it was all finished, one of the teachers came up and told me, “The inquiry method you’re using in the U.S. sounds very good but we can’t use that. We have to follow the state-mandated biology program, we can’t change it. If we do, the students might not pass the course.” In India, the time when you fail a course, that was the end of your education. I never experienced it, but I was told that teachers who failed somebody, that teacher’s life was in danger. They even had some prayer towers that were closed up during testing season because now, I was told this, I never experienced it, students who failed would climb the tower and commit suicide because their education was over with.
As you were developing this curriculum, was there talk about how to test and how to grade students?
Not so much how to grade students. Maybe how to test instead of giving yes and no answers to questions, try to dig a little bit deeper. But we never really concentrated on testing because that varied so much around the country.
You took your wife and kids out to Colorado in the summer. Did they enjoy the state while you were busy working?
I went out a total of 30 summers and every summer was new in the sense of new ideas. My kids all grew up in Colorado, in fact, my one grandchild is so enamored with Colorado that she’s still out there. I rode my bike all the time. I used to come home and it was very warm and so on, and my wife, especially, would be floating in the swimming pool and she would give me a wave. She was very happy out there. The kids all liked it.
Colorado has “fourteeners,” mountains that are 14,000 feet or higher. I hiked nine of them. My granddaughter, who’s living out there, has done all the nine that I did, plus about six or seven others.
Did any of your kids go into science?
Anna Drexler-Dreis, my granddaughter, is now director of a land grant which is dealing with water usage. Denver gets all its water from two rivers on the western side of the state, and she’s with an organization that is working to make sure they don’t take all the water from the two rivers, so nobody else has any water. She’s working on her master’s degree at Western State Colorado University.
Was this something you were paid to do?
Oh, yes, it was very lucrative. I don’t remember doing much that I didn’t get paid for, but I wasn’t doing it for the pay. I just felt very strongly about the whole concept and it gave me an insight into what biology education should be all about.
What’s your vision for the future of biology education?
I think it’s going to include—in a very big way—genetics. I went to a summer workshop at Harvard Medical School a couple of years ago and they are in the process of developing a program they call personal genetics. I think there will be an awful lot of biology textbooks that will be based on personal genetics. Kids will learn more about themselves and why they are the way they are. Whatever happens to you has a genetic basis, to a degree. I think that’s where biology or genetics is heading.
Do you think every student should study basic biology?
Basic biology should be something that, if it’s taught properly and the topics are good topics, every student should have the chance.