TERC’s commitment to improving education reaches back to 1965 when Arthur Nelson and Edward Van Dusen established the organization. Nelson, a lawyer and businessman with a background in physics, had worked as a research assistant in the Radar Laboratory at MIT during the second World War. There he had, in fact, been one of the first people to track an airplane with radar, a feat he accomplished standing atop a roof at MIT, beaming the radar off a plane flying overhead by moving the equipment by hand. The MIT Radar Laboratory left Nelson with three indelible impressions: first, that difficult objectives could be accomplished given an intensity of effort; second, that the success of large technological undertakings depended upon skilled support personnel, technicians, and other paraprofessionals; and third, admiration for the educational culture of MIT whose motto is mens et manus — mind and hand.
These impressions were still etched in Nelson's memory twenty years later when he met Van Dusen who was then Executive Vice President of the Wentworth Institute of Technology, a technical education college with a hands-on orientation. Van Dusen shared Nelson's vision of a non-profit research center to develop high quality instructional materials for training a new population of specialized technicians. Together they founded TERC.
The year of TERC's birth, 1965, came eight years after the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik. The launch had stunned the American educational community and inadvertently set in motion large-scale federal funding of efforts to improve high school science education. Driving this massive educational reform was an intent to recapture the technological cutting edge by creating more physicists and engineers. Nelson and Van Dusen, by contrast, observed that educational research and development were ignoring an area of primary importance to national economic and social health, namely the training of skilled workers essential to support sophisticated, rapidly changing, technology dependent enterprises. Accordingly, during its early years, TERC focused on various aspects of technical and occupational education, primarily at the postsecondary level. At that time, many of the philosophical underpinnings that guide TERC today were put firmly in place: dedication to public service; determination to make its programs accessible to all, including disabled and educationally disadvantaged individuals; emphasis on working with teachers in actual classroom and lab settings; confidence in the educational power of "hands-on" experience. Furthermore, TERC's unique projects immediately established it as an imaginative, assertive organization, identifying and defining problems rather than merely responding to those already described by others.
In the early 1970s TERC successfully initiated a series of projects that marked a transition from technical education to science education. These resulted in the design of science-based curriculum modules with explicit hands-on content. At the same time, TERC studied ways of accommodating physically handicapped students in secondary schools and community colleges, which led to enduring commitments in the areas of special needs, equity, and access, as well as deep expertise in research and evaluation. TERC's priority on closing the achievement gap began with its strong record for improving guidance, instruction, and occupational programs for women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.
During the late 1970s TERC was a leader in recognizing the potential of microcomputer technology to revolutionize science education. TERC developed a classroom package of instruments and software for collecting, analyzing, and displaying data. Nationally known as the Microcomputer-based Laboratories (MBL), this package offered an array of new tools and approaches to science education and eventually was licensed and sold by IBM. Continuing research delved into children’s learning of graphical representations, data, and statistics and led to a new line of work in mathematics teaching and learning. TERC opened a new era in producing innovative mathematics curriculum materials, including advanced technology tools such as Tabletop, first distributed by Broderbund. In 1990, TERC’s leadership in mathematics research and curriculum design led to National Science Foundation support for Investigations in Number, Data, and Space, a comprehensive elementary mathematics curriculum, published by Scott Foresman.
Classroom telecommunication was virtually unknown in the mid-1980s when TERC first introduced classroom computers to link teachers, students, and scientists in large scale, national and global data collection and problem solving efforts. A 1986 National Science Foundation grant enabled TERC and the National Geographic Society to collaborate in combining telecommunications technology with a carefully structured, hands-on science curriculum. The result was the award-winning NGS Kids Network. Network science continued to flourish at TERC through such benchmark projects as Star Schools, Labnet, and Global Lab. The research on its effectiveness also led to a major publication, Network Science, A Decade Later by Alan Feldman, Cliff Konold, and Bob Coulter, which takes a critical look at these early technology experiments in classrooms and schools.
In recent years, TERC has broadened its scope of work to include the development and implementation of visualization tools in educational contexts, particularly in teaching and learning of Earth and space sciences. At the same time it has a strong commitment to research on online learning, including assessment and evaluation of learning outcomes. TERC is also invested in content development for online programs through such programs as Leveraging Learning, Mars Quest Online, and Science Online: Science in Education Master’s Degree Program, a collaboration with Lesley University. These programs include evaluation and research.