APS News

Feedback: Members Respond to Kadanoff

Editor’s Note: At the end of his message, Leo Kadanoff asked for responses, and many were received. Below, Michael Marder, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, Austin, and Chair of the APS Committee on Education, presents some analysis of, and quotations from, those responses.

Overall Statistics

There were 188 responses by email. 143 or 76% were supportive of APS playing a strong role in education. 28 or 15% were opposed to an increased role, and 17 or 9% did not take a position on whether APS should increase its activities in education.

Against Expanding Educational Role

From those who opposed the expansion of APS education activities, there was a fairly consistent line of argument. Most emphasized that the AAPT should work in this area, not the APS. As Peter Wolynes put it,

“I think the differentiation in function between APS and AAPT is a good one. Let’s do what we each do well.”

Some additional common points were that education funding is a black hole, and that it drags physicists along with educational fads that they are ill-equipped to address. One respondent commented that when he was in high school many years ago there was a shift in physics education from what was then “standard” physics [more mechanics subjects, homework problem focus] to a Physical Science Study Committee [PSSC] curriculum [more focus on modern physics subjects like wave mechanics, and more discovery activities]. He thought the change was for the worse and that the high school instructor couldn’t teach the new material.

Another argument was that there are already too many unemployed physicists. A respondent wondered why we need to train more people for jobs that do not exist, and asked who would benefit from this, other than the people who are in the business of training people for jobs that do not exist.

In favor of Expanding Educational Role

The most common statement from those who favored sustaining or increasing the role of APS in education was that all efforts should be made in cooperation with AAPT, and to complement their strengths. Many spoke of the authority the APS commands in research universities and at the federal level. Ken Krane commented,

“When I did a survey a few years ago, I discovered that of the 5000 or so physics professorial faculty at research-1 universities, fewer than 500 were members of the AAPT. Some of our leading research universities have no AAPT members among their professorial faculty. And 2/3 of those who were members received their PhD degrees prior to 1971. The AAPT simply cannot speak to the education concerns of the universities that produce all of our graduate students and half of our baccalaureates.”

Eugen Merzbacher noted that:

“The tension within APS between those who would like to see the Society’s resources confined to the support of physics research and those who regard physics education at all levels a significant part of our mission has always been with us. In the 1930s it led to the founding of the AAPT.”

There also were calls for increased cooperation on education matters with organizations such as the Materials Research Society, and the American Mathematical Society. They carry some weight because the messages came from the current presidents of the Materials Research Society and the American Mathematical Society.

Many respondents talked of the responsibility of physicists to combat ignorance about science in the general population, often mentioning creationism and intelligent design. Joseph Abeles wrote:

“APS should place an emphasis on seeking to elevate what I may term the lowest-common-denominator physics competence in our society. The rest will eventually follow. The ability of the citizenry to comprehend and to respect the potential for advances in physics and technology is fundamentally based on demystification of basic physical principles. "

Many respondents spoke of the importance of engaging with educational issues in order to retain influence in Washington. Stamatis Vokos put it this way:

“If APS removes engagement with education as part of its mission, then the Society will return to a state of being a (relatively) small special interest group of research scientists that bemoans the state of science education K-20 but is unable to have any credible impact in the scientific preparation of our population and is impotent in any substantive involvement with policy makers on this issue.”

The importance of improving high school physics teaching was mentioned many times. Michael Walock mentioned the importance of a particular teacher for him:

“As an American graduate student in physics, I fall into a relatively small group. The vast majority of my colleagues are from outside the United States.... When I was a high school student, I fully intended to go into engineering (aeronautical to be precise).This was my goal, until I took a physics class in my junior year.  Even with the passing of almost 14 years, I still remember my teacher, Tom Lagina. Mr. Lagina’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. As a result of that class, I changed my career goals: I wanted (and still do) to be a physicist.”

Suggestions of how to improve high school teaching ranged from preparing more and better teachers, to providing workshops for teachers, and developing recommendations for curricula:

“You could try to see if the APS/AAPT could formulate a clear set of curriculum guidelines for high school physics teachers. Give a direction. I doubt that you will succeed.”–Gerald Gabrielse

Many respondents mentioned the importance of improving science instruction at elementary and middle school levels as well:

“Partly our students are being intellectually smothered by the standardized testing, which starts in elementary school. I have seen this in my daughter’s class here in Amherst MA, and in Santa Barbara CA—two places which are known for their excellent schools! They are being taught a jumble of factoids on test-prep worksheets.” –Jennie Traschen

It was stated several times that research and teaching are inseparable, and that it is a pity that professional advancement at the major universities depends so much on research to the exclusion of teaching.

Twelve of the responses overall came from women, and all supported increasing the role of APS in education. Amy Bug remarked:

“I have many women colleagues who could not cover all three vertices [of] the “teaching, research, family” triangle... and changed the nature of their research to “research on teaching” in order to actually make their lives work. Men more typically feel they are able to modify that triangle in other ways.... My point is that the gender imbalance exists; no one is smart enough to know how to change it; and it is not going to change any time soon. If APS backs off on education as a core value, it backs off on a woman-biased core value.”

A good fraction of those who support increased APS involvement with education are already actively involved. Many of them wrote to point out particular programs they feel are strong, or to ask for assistance in working with middle or high school students, particularly in economically disadvantaged parts of the country.

There was also much emphasis on the importance of increasing communication with the public at every level. Suggestions ranged from contacting local and national news organizations about important developments in physics to speaking before school boards and maintaining a steady flow of information about physics to Congress. There were several protests that APS journals are not freely available. And Don Correll advised:

“Give every high school physics teacher free on-line access to Physics Today. Consider a middle school level summary of physics news highlights provided as a very visible link available from the APS home page.”

There were several strong statements of support for a continuation of the PhysTEC project, some saying APS should devote its own funds, and also some fond remembrances of PSSC physics from cases where it was taught well.

Finally, some remarks from Don Langenberg (former APS President and former Chancellor of the University of Maryland  System) that are representative of the strength of feeling in many of the messages.

“When we talk about STEM education we’re not just talking about high school and early college students. You and I are both aware that post-baccalaureate education in physics is an example of Darwinism in its purest form. It has one and only one purpose, the propagation of the physics faculty’s own specialized subspecies, research physicists. We’re here solely to make more just like ourselves. Recently, though, there has arisen the radical idea that there is a role in the workforce for individuals educated to the master’s level in physics (or other sciences) and also equipped with skills useful in non-research careers, like operating large genomic data bases, running high-tech start-up companies, leading venture capital operations in new fields, etc. These are called Professional Science Master’s degrees, and might be thought of as the scientific equivalent of the MBA or the MPH. There are now over a hundred such programs across the country in about fifty universities, and their number is growing. I’ve joined the PSM crusade.

“I am of course aware that many of our colleagues see teaching and learning as the province of lesser beings. I can’t count the times I have heard “But obviously you don’t understand. This is a research university, not an educational institution!” I would argue that teaching and learning are worthy subjects of scholarly research in themselves. Happily, some of our colleagues have embraced that idea. There are perhaps fifteen or twenty significant physics education research programs across the country, and I have been told by scientists in other disciplines that physics is leading the way in this. Some quite respectable physicists are leading such programs, including several Nobel Laureates. So there’s hope. (I’ve found the following quotation from Albert Einstein inspiring: “I never teach my students; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.)

“All that leads me to recommend in the strongest possible terms that APS enhance its emphasis on education and make it one of the Society’s primary functions! It should do so in partnership with AAPT, which has the very positive feature of engaging both college and pre-college teachers. APS should be–and be seen to be–the organization representing the whole sector of science called physics in all of its aspects. It should not be a narrowly-purposed organization of researchers in physics. I empathize with the argument that education is a huge issue in which APS cannot expect to play a dominant role. True. But it can play an important leadership role, as some of its members already are. That argument has never stopped physicists from weighing in on national security, energy policy, environmental policy, climate change, and many other huge national issues. If we crawl into our shell and say we’ll focus entirely on our noble (and Nobel) searches for the Higgs boson and the nature of dark energy, eschewing any involvement with the pressing problems of our nation in education, I don’t see any reason why our nation should continue to support us as generously as it has.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff