Patrick Suppes, a philosopher of science and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who helped to launch the use of computers in the classroom, died Nov. 17 of natural causes at his home on the campus of Stanford University, where he taught for more than 60 years. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by Michael Friedman, a Stanford colleague and founding director of the university’s Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science.
Suppes was “a leading 20th century philosopher of science of the postwar period” who was particularly known for his work on logic, probability, physics and psychology, Friedman said this week.
In 1990 President George H.W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science for his scholarly contributions as well as for his pioneering role in developing interactive computer programs for instruction.
Decades before the spread of personal computers, Suppes founded the Computer Curriculum Corp. in 1967 to develop educational software for use in elementary schools. Believed to be the first company of its kind, its programs were used by millions of students in the 1970s and 1980s. The company was later sold to Simon and Schuster.
Initially focused on improving learning for low-performing students, Suppes later turned to using technology to teach gifted youngsters, whose needs were often neglected in public schools. He was a driving force behind Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth and the first online high school for gifted students.
“If I said he was the Thomas Edison of computer assisted learning, it would not be an overstatement,” said Matthew Mugo Fields, whose company, Redbird Advanced Learning, now runs the Stanford gifted program.
Suppes joined Stanford in 1950 and co-founded its Institute for Mathematical Studies in the Social Sciences in 1959. He was a prolific scholar who wrote or co-wrote textbooks that became classics in the field, including the three-volume “Foundations of Measurement.”
His interest in classroom learning began when his first child entered kindergarten in 1957.
He and a colleague who also had a daughter starting school “looked at the curriculum and we were aghast at the mathematics curriculum,” Suppes told interviewer David Roberts in 1999. “We decided the thing most missing was intuitive geometry, and so he and I used to go regularly to the class, and we took notes.” Before long they were giving lessons, and Suppes wrote a widely used math textbook, “Sets and Numbers,” published in 1960.
In the early 1960s he began collaborating with Richard C, Atkinson, a Stanford psychology professor and future University of California president, on a proposal for an automated learning lab. With funding from the Carnegie Foundation, they used a TV screen and a teletype machine connected by phone to tutors at Stanford to deliver one-on-one instruction to low-achieving students in a Palo Alto elementary school.
The program flashed arithmetic problems on the screen and showed a smiling face if the student typed in the right answer and a frowning one if wrong. The drills were tailored to each student’s ability, increasing in difficulty once mastery of lower skills was demonstrated.
Suppes said slow learners benefited the most from the individual attention. “It takes the patience of God to get these children off the ground, and the computers have it,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967.
He summarized the benefits of computerized learning in a 1966 Scientific American article, “The Uses of Computers in Education.”
In 1985 he founded the Education Program for Gifted Youth, which relied on computerized instruction to reach high-IQ students in elementary through high school.
In 2006 the program launched what was believed to be the nation’s first online high school for the gifted.
“The gifted are among those left behind,” Suppes told the San Jose Mercury News in 2006. “Schools have been under budget pressures for quite a while now, so programs for the gifted have been cut and hurt, and there aren’t that many good programs in the schools.”
Suppes was born on March 17, 1922, in Tulsa, Okla. The only child of an oil man, he attended public schools and in sixth grade was selected for an experimental program in accelerated education that continued through high school. He later said the program was instrumental in his intellectual development.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of Chicago in 1943 and served as a meteorologist in the Army in the Solomon Islands and Guam during World War II. After the war he earned a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, in 1950.
Although he retired from full-time teaching in 1992, he continued to work, conducting brain research and directing the Education Program for Gifted Youth until 2010. He taught advanced seminars at Stanford until last spring.
He founded research institutions at Stanford, including the Suppes Brain Lab and the Patrick Suppes Center for the History and Philosophy of Science.
Married four times, he is survived by his wife, Michelle Nguyen; five children, three stepchildren and five grandchildren.