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In Loving Memory of Ed Drexler: Pioneer for BSCS

March 28, 2023

Henry “Ed” Drexler was a pioneer of BSCS textbooks and beloved high school biology teacher for 67 years. He dedicated his career to tapping into the inquisitive spirits of students through meaningful biology education, and remained closely connected to BSCS through it all.

We are deeply saddened to learn of Ed’s recent passing. He directly impacted the BSCS community and countless educators and learners across the country. And today, we are grateful to celebrate his legacy with stories about and from him.

Article written by Kay Nolan for BSCS in 2018

The year was 1961. Ed Drexler was a science teacher at a Catholic high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He was turning 35, eight years younger than John F. Kennedy⁠—who’d become the nation’s 35th president that January⁠—but three years older than the president’s glamorous wife, Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Science was all over the news⁠, at least insofar as space exploration was making headlines. NASA, an agency less than two years old, was in a frantic race with Russia to launch satellites and eventually, manned spacecraft.

Drexler had attended Pius XI High School himself, served in the Navy during World War II, then obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’d originally hoped to become a physician, but struggled with chemistry, which was a prerequisite for medical school. Still, science fascinated Drexler, so he studied to become a biology teacher. His former high school principal, whom he’d approached after college graduation for a recommendation, offered him a job, and well, there he was, a decade later.

But Drexler was becoming frustrated in the classroom. “I liked what I was doing but I felt that I wasn’t doing right by giving the kids a program that was interesting,” said Drexler in a recent interview for BSCS. “For instance, I wasn’t doing any laboratory work. It was all textbook materials. I knew that’s not the way to teach biology, but I didn’t know how [else] to teach. I was teaching the way I learned to teach at the university.”

A trip in March 1961, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, to attend a science teachers meeting, changed everything.

“Dr. Arnold Grobman lectured on something called the BSCS,” said Drexler. “I asked him afterward if I could participate in the program. He took my name and phone number. Two months later, he called me and said there was going to be a field test in Milwaukee (of newly designed curriculum) at different high schools and would I like to participate? I said yes.”

Grobman was the first director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, an agency created the same year as NASA, with the goal of improving science instruction in American high schools.

Drexler traveled to BSCS headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, for orientation and instruction on how to present the new textbooks, which were designed in three versions: blue (molecular), green (ecological) and yellow (cellular). “All dealt with biology, but they dealt with it from a different aspect,” Drexler recalls.  Back in Milwaukee, “We were in the testing program for the yellow version. We met every Monday night and talked about what we found out, problems with the books and so forth.”    

Front cover of the green version, first edition: High School Biology
Front cover of the yellow version, first edition: An Inquiry Into Life
Front cover of the blue version, first edition: Molecules to Man

Drexler was hooked. He 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 a rhetoric of conclusions,” says Drexler. “Everything was ‘known’ and we were simply learning things that 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 about biology, and, we hope, were interested in those questions and kept on with the subject material. It wasn’t 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 in order to appreciate that it was a much better way of teaching,” Drexler says. “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.”

Drexler remained active with BSCS for the rest of the 1960s and for the next several decades. He spent summer after summer in Boulder, helping to write and revise textbooks, returning each fall to teach with renewed enthusiasm. He participated in a BSCS field study as recently as 2010.

And in his early 90’s, he was still teaching. He remained on the faculty at Pius XI High School for nearly 70 years, after joining in 1950.

On March 13, 2023, at 96 years old, Ed Drexler passed away peacefully surrounded by family. Read his obituary here.