Transforming science education through research-driven innovation

Remembering Manert Kennedy

June 25, 2024

A Tribute by former BSCS Executive Director Joseph McInerney

Manert Kennedy served as the Associate Director of BSCS for 17 years. Former Executive Director, Joe McInerney, reflects on his friendship and collaboration with Manert over the years.

My first conversation with Manert Kennedy occurred in the spring of 1977, over pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s Deli, in Manhattan. Manert was in the city on BSCS business, and I had just completed my master’s program in genetic counseling at SUNY Stony Brook, on Long Island. Bentley Glass, the architect of the genetic counseling program and the first chairman of the BSCS board of directors, had suggested to Manert that he meet me to discuss BSCS’s then-nascent efforts in genetics education. This meeting was the beginning of a long and productive professional relationship and a friendship that extended well beyond our formal work together.

When Manert returned to Louisville from New York, he discussed our meeting with Bill Mayer, then BSCS’s director, and Faith Hickman, a BSCS staff associate, first-rate writer, and accomplished project director and curriculum developer. Manert and Faith invited me to join a two-week summer writing conference on the CU campus that summer to develop guidelines for education in human and medical genetics. My two-week stint turned into 22 years on the BSCS staff, 14 as director.

Though almost 20 years separated us in terms of age, Manert and I became fast friends, and we grew to know one another through extensive travel together on behalf of BSCS. It was during those trips, for example, that Manert told me about his life-defining experience as a 19-year-old Marine in the legendary Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, in Korea.

Those trips also provided opportunities for Manert to share with me his views about BSCS and science education, views that informed my own thinking during my work with the organization and beyond. I always have considered Manert to be among the people – staff members or otherwise – most committed to BSCS’s educational philosophy, and especially to the centrality of inquiry as an instructional method.

Early on, I was amazed at the number of people Manert knew nationally and internationally, and I came to realize that those extensive contacts were a function of BSCS’s processes and mission. Manert’s dedication to BSCS and its educational philosophy was evident in the projects he pursued and in their execution. A notable example is the BSCS film “The Tragedy of the Commons,” based on the classic Garrett Hardin essay published in Science in December 1968. Though some on the staff thought it impossible to convert the essay into a workable educational film, Manert persisted and produced a highly successful instructional product with built-in interludes that engaged the audience in discussions of the compelling issues that Dr. Hardin raised.

That Dr. Hardin himself agreed to appear in the film was testimony to BSCS’s stature and credibility and to Manert’s commitment to ensuring the scientific integrity of BSCS programs. That commitment, of course, pervaded the organization and was central to the involvement of first-rate scientists in the development of our programs.

As a former teacher, Manert also recognized the importance of including experienced teachers in the planning and development of our programs to help ensure classroom validity. I learned that lesson early in the development of our programs in human genetics when our genetics experts – some of the best in the world – would propose content, only to be told by the teachers in the group that their suggestions were unworkable for the students in question. That BSCS accorded the scientists and the teachers equal respect was a position that Manert supported without fail.

Manert and his wife, Grace, had eight children, four or five of them teenagers when he and I first started working together. My two kids were little then, just toddlers. One Monday morning, after what clearly had been a challenging weekend at the Kennedy household, an exhausted Manert sat down in my office and said, “Joe, I know your kids are very young now. But when they get to be teenagers, if the technology is available, have them frozen, and thaw them out when they’re 20.”

There are numerous funny stories about our work on BSCS programs and associated activities, but my favorite concerns Manert and the development of our single-topic inquiry films, perhaps the best thing we’ve ever done in terms of inquiry. These very brief, silent film loops show biological phenomena and ask students to draw conclusions from them. Among the most famous is “prey detection in rattlesnakes.” Here, a rattler is in a glass cage with two lightbulbs, covered in cloth to protect the snake’s mouth. The snake is inactive when the lights are off. When the lights come on, the snake strikes both. Some daring herpetologist (maybe Walter Auffenberg, who was on the BSCS staff briefly) then blindfolds the snake, which still strikes one light or both when they’re illuminated. Next, the herpetologist removes the blindfold and obstructs the heat-sensing pits on this viper with cotton. The snake does not react when the lights come on. Manert showed this film to a Kansas high school class during field testing and asked, “What can you conclude?” One kid responded, “Never, ever go in the woods with a lightbulb in your pocket!”

Manert did not accompany us when BSCS moved from Louisville to Colorado Springs in 1982. Nonetheless, he and I remained friends and collaborated occasionally. In 1993, the 25th anniversary of Dr. Hardin’s paper, Manert and Dr. Hardin joined us for a celebration at the Wingspread Conference Center (a Frank Lloyd Wright building), in Racine, Wisconsin, an event supported by the Johnson Foundation. The deliberations there resulted in a revised edition of the original film, with a focus on the Grand Banks fisheries as an example of a commons in need of regulation.

Manert and I spoke regularly by phone until his death, and we often reminisced about our time together at BSCS. We always remarked on how fortunate we were to have spent so much of our professional lives at such an extraordinary organization and to have worked with so many superlative scientists and educators. BSCS will honor Manert by continuing his commitment to scientific integrity and educational innovation in its programs.

Photo Credit: Valley Courier