UC Berkeley professor Barbara White dies at 64

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Barbara White, a UC Berkeley professor of education whose work involved mathematics, psychology and computer science, passed away Oct. 20 after a battle with cancer. She was 64.

White was a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education, where she was the cofounder of the masters and credential in science and mathematics education program and chair of the graduate group in science and mathematics education.

“On the surface, she was incredibly humble and soft and caring and kind,” said Hillary Swanson, a campus graduate student who had White as her postdoctoral dissertation adviser. “Underneath this was this brilliant sharp intellect and a strong woman.”

Recognized by her colleagues, White’s research focused on the nature of scientific expertise and new instructional strategies and technologies such as computer-based learning environments.

“She was a pioneer in understanding what it really means to have deep conceptual understanding in science and how to develop instructional programs,” said Alan Schoenfeld, a campus education professor and colleague of White’s for 25 years. “She put those understandings to work in (campus) programs.”

In 1998, White co-authored a study that evaluated how middle-school students reflected on the scientific inquiry process through a computer-enhanced curriculum and how this reflection led to increased understanding of scientific concepts. The journal Cognition and Instruction dedicated an entire issue to the piece.

According to Schoenfeld, White and her colleagues were planning to rebuild the masters and credential in science and mathematics education program.

“The fact that we don’t have her pitching in is a huge loss for everybody,” Shoenfeld said.

In addition to her professional success, White is remembered for her warmth and humility.

White often had meetings with her students in her home, which allowed her to form very personal bonds with them. She often served cheese and chocolate, which she told her students was the most important food group.

“She was so supportive of all of her students,” said Jennifer King Chen, a campus graduate student who also had White as her postdoctoral dissertation adviser. “She said to me that she thought of all her graduate students as her children.”

Both Swanson and Chen were inspired by White’s tenacity, highlighting the fact that White completed her postdoctoral degree in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a time when few women were a part of the field.

“She will be very much an inspiration for the rest of my life,” Swanson said. “She’s really made a big difference in my life as a mentor and role model and kind-spirited friend.”

White is survived by her husband, John Vaccaro, and two stepdaughters.

A memorial service will be held Dec. 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Berkeley City Club.

Contact Sonja Hutson at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @SonjaHutson.

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