FEd April 1995 Newsletter - Comments from the Chair

April 1995



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Comments from the Chair

Forum on Education: Looking Back and Heading Forward

It's my turn to serve as chair of the Forum on Education. I'm very glad that Drasko Jovanovic, Forum's first chair, took on the task of building a viable organization from a collection of enthusiastic physicists. Drasko's unfailing humor and good will guided us through the confusing days of implementing our bylaws, starting a newsletter and establishing program sessions at APS meetings. Those were long, hard committee meetings.

Ken Lyons, Forum's second chair, steered us to an established newsletter with real editors replacing executive committee volunteers, a database of members and even a dedicated home page (see articles in this issue). By working with other fora, Ken has established the Forum on Education as an important element of the APS. The Executive Committee, the Fellowship Committee, the Program Committee, the Nominating Committee, and the Publications Committee have all functioned (relatively) smoothly this year. The Forum has grown to 3780 active members. What better tribute could there be to Ken's outstanding organizational and leadership skills?

Today, the Forum on Education has survived its birth trauma. We members of the Forum have the opportunity to concentrate on projects to support excellence in physics education. As we begin to move forward, we must consider concrete steps by which our membership can most effectively impact the system.

Physics education faces change on several fronts. The National Standards movement has begun to influence both the content of K-12 science courses and the way they are taught. Colleges will have to modify course content and pedagogy to accommodate their students' expectation of more active learning environments. Teachers at all levels will need help implementing the demands of new curricula for open-ended investigations. Forum members can serve K-12 teachers as local sources rich in physics knowledge.

Physicists must work as partners with their colleagues who teach science at the K- 12 level. Physicists understand physics and have ideas about how to present it. K-12 teachers understand how children learn and are expert in managing their classrooms. We need each other! The Forum on Education must work with groups such as the high school physics teachers in the AAPT's PTRA program to put physicists from industries and universities in touch with K-12 teachers. In this way, we can actively support excellent physics instruction in schools around the country.

Physics graduates at all levels need jobs that use their training. With the end of the Cold War, national research priorities have shifted from defense to civilian technologies. Corporations, seeking to meet the challenge of international competition, are downsizing their research labs and shifting their research focus to projects promising commercial payoffs in the immediate future. Basic research in physics frequently pays off handsomely in commercial products and technologies, but it often takes decades to do so. Despite physics' history of discoveries that underlie new industries, the public perceives physics to be remote, abstract and impractical. Many of the most exciting research discoveries come from emerging fields which cross the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines.

Physics education at both the graduate and undergraduate levels must respond to today's changing research and economic climates. The physics community must decide whether the traditional physics major should be broadened to serve as basic preparation for a wider range of employment opportunities including business, medical school and even law. Perhaps graduate education in physics should include courses outside physics departments so graduates can enter the new cross-disciplinary research areas. Should we develop new degrees combining physics with business and management training or preparing teachers for two year colleges? In this time of change, we must ensure that our enthusiasm for reform does not destroy our tradition of scientific excellence or the rigor of graduate programs. These complex problems and compelling values defy simplistic solutions. Forum on Education members represent all segments of the physics community and should be active participants in the discussion.

The two year colleges teach about half of the introductory physics taught in the US and more than their share of minorities and women. Tomorrow's high tech industries are likely to demand two year graduates with better understanding of physics. Forum members can work productively to help their colleagues in the two year colleges provide creative, challenging physics education geared towards future technicians. Physicists in industry have an especially critical role to play in bridging the gap between traditional physics education and the needs of industrial labs and high tech manufacturing. The Forum on Education should help its members make connections with physicists in the two year colleges by working in partnership with the two year college committee of the AAPT.

Last, but by no means least, physicists must explain the importance of physics to the general public. In addition to specialized science and children's museums, Forum members must work in partnership with local media including newspapers, magazines, television and radio. The Forum on Education must investigate ways of forming partnerships with experts in these arenas. Not all of us can produce successful media materials and museum exhibits, but we need to discover excellent materials which we can distribute to local markets.

We in the Forum on Education face an interesting year. There is both good and bad news. The bad news is that physics education faces a variety of challenges. The good news is that, among us, we have the resources to meet these challenges and that there is interesting work in education for all of us to do. We need your involvement and ideas today. Together we can move towards excellence at all levels of physics education.