August 1994



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E. Leonard Jossem

The education of physics graduate students has become the subject of increasing attention and concern in the physics community. Evidence for this is provided, for example, by the Career Workshops1 held at the APS-AAPT meeting (April 1994) and by the Joint Symposium of the APS Committee on Education and the AAPT Committee on Graduate Education entitled "Expanding your Horizons with a Ph.D. in Physics"2 at that meeting. Publications in Physics Today and elsewhere3 also attest to concerns in the physics community about current employment problems, the desirability of changes in the physics graduate curriculum and, more generally, about the overall relations between the physics community and society.

The interest of society in the role of graduate students as teaching assistants found expression recently in the US Congress in Title V of H.R. 3254, the National Science Foundation Authorization Act of 1994. Section 501: `Requirement for Funding' begins as follows:

"Each educational institution that receives a research grant from the Foundation in fiscal year 1995 shall, as a condition of receiving such grant, provide to the Foundation the following information on its undergraduate mathematics, science, and engineering activities: (1) A description of teacher training programs mandated by the institution for teaching assistants, including the number of training hours required. "

Seven other categories of information about institutional policies concerned with undergraduate education are required by the bill, but information on what is being done to prepare graduate students to teach undergraduate classes has pride of place on the list. HR. 3254 is awaiting action by the Senate, which may adopt this (or its own) approach, but final passage of the NSF Authorization Act is expected some time in the Fall of 1994.4

"One never steps twice into the same river", and the details of the concerns of today are different from those of a generation ago, but this is not the first time the physics community in the US has been obliged to give serious consideration to the nature and character of the education it provides for its students.5 It is, in fact, a continuing responsibility in response to which each generation must find its own appropriate courses of action.

In the past decade or so, several developments have begun to influence the situation. One is the increasing public recognition of the problems in our educational systems, including the problems with the math and science literacy of the general population. Universities as well as the primary and secondary school systems have come under increasing pressure to improve the quality of education they provide to their students. Another factor is the increasing recognition of the need for a better system of mentoring for graduate students and new faculty in physics departments. A third is the increasing recognition of research in physics education as a legitimate, and indeed a necessary, activity within university physics departments. The Topical Conference for Physics Department Chairs sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers and The American Physical Society in April of 1993, entitled `Physics Departments in the 1990's' (6) had sessions addressing all of these matters.

In particular, the session on mentoring graduate teaching assistants presented a sampling of programs for new graduate students at various universities. Those represented were Cornell, Minnesota, North Carolina State, and The Ohio State University. The programs run in length from a few days to a full summer session in the case of Ohio State. All have follow-ups during the academic year. Many other physics departments have or are planning such programs.

Of major importance for such programs is the growing body of serious research in physics education, the results of which are increasingly being incorporated into programs for the education of graduate teaching assistants. Much yet needs to be done, however, and the process of assessing and improving instructional programs in physics at all levels calls for the continuing interest and active support of all members of the physics community.

1. A workshop on Career Choices in Physics was hosted by the AIP Career Planning and Placement Division on 17 April 1994. Bull. Am. Phys. Soc. 39 (2), 971 (1994)

2. Session C'5 Bull. Am. Phys. Soc. 39(2), 1050 (1994)

3. "Physics, Community, and the Crisis in Physical Theory", Silvan S. Schweber, Physics Today 46(11), 34 (1993); "Physics Round Table: Reinventing Our Future", Physics Today 47(3), 30, (1994); "America's Academic Future: A Report of the Presidential Young Investigator Colloquium on US Engineering, Mathematics, and Science Education for the Year 2010 and Beyond", National Science Foundation Publication NSF 91-150

4. Reported in FYI #70 19 May 1994 Richard M. Jones, Public Information Division, American Institute of Physics

5. See, for example, The Transition in Physics Doctoral Employment 1960-1990: Report of the Physics Manpower Panel of The American Physical Society 1979. The American Physical Society ISBN 0-88318-257-2

6. Physics Departments in the 1990's American Association of Physics Teachers & The American Physical Society ISBN: 0- 917853-52-0 Available as TC-07 from the American Association of Physics Teachers One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740- 3845

E. Leonard Jossem is Professor Emeritus at Ohio State University