FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - A Message from the Chair

Fall 2001



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A Message from the Chair

Jack M. Wilson

This must be a time of celebration in the APS and AAPT. One of our own, Carl Wieman, has won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Carl is a very active member of both APS and AAPT and is a significant contributor to the community of educational physicists as well as the research community. This is indeed symbolic of the dualistic nature of the APS Forum and dual nature of so many university faculty. In the last newsletter I discussed the release of the National Research Council's most recent decadal survey of physics. (Physics in a New Era: An Overview; Physics Survey Overview Committee, Board on Physics and Astronomy, National Research Council; 208 pages, 7 x 10, 2001. http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10118.html ). Carl was a tireless leader throughout the lengthy process. Together Carl and I slogged through many revisions of the section.

Why is this important? There is always a tension between research in physics and education in physics. There are those who see the tension through polarized perspectives as research versus teaching. Some of those are the research faculty who see teaching as simply another obstacle to their research productivity while others are educators who devalue research and see it as the enemy of education. This tension plays out in many faculty members lives nearly every day. Should the non-tenured faculty member get involved in educational innovation? Should physics departments devote resources to the introductory courses or just put the students in large lectures and teach them with the fewest faculty and the largest number of TA's? Should educational activities receive as much weight as research in the appointment/promotion/tenure process? These are the kinds of balances that must be struck by faculty and administrators in the universities.

When AAPT spun out of APS in 1930, it was because of that tension. When the APS formed the Forum on Physics Education and did so in collaboration with AAPT, it was precisely to reduce these kinds of tensions. Strong leadership from APS and AAPT officers over the years have reinforced this unity of physics.

At the recent inauguration of Lawrence Summers as the 27th President of Harvard, this tension was evident. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education a former economics professor at Harvard, Mr. Summers pledged to hire more faculty members to strengthen undergraduate teaching at Harvard. He also said that Harvard's professors needed to continually examine their teaching to find ways to improve. He said the faculty and administration should be thinking carefully about what we teach, and how we teach. In addition, Mr. Summers said he wanted to improve the science education of all undergraduate students, even if they were studying the humanities. While most Harvard students are familiar with Shakespeare's works, he said, "it is all too common and all too acceptable not to know a gene from a chromosome." Reportedly, the revitalization of undergraduate education was an important factor in Summers's selection.

That is why it is important. There have always been those in the universities who felt that research and teaching are not at opposite ends of some spectrum. Instead they see them as interdependent as the heart and the brain. It makes no sense to trade one off against another. A healthy organism demands that both be healthy and functioning cooperatively.

Carl epitomizes that kind of a faculty member who values both aspects of his career and devotes time, energy, and resources to advancing each. The APS Forum symbolizes this link and endeavors to support those like Carl, and so many of the rest of you, who care deeply about the advancement and the unity of physics.

By singling out Carl Wieman, I certainly do not intend to slight his colleagues Wolfgang Ketterle, and Eric Cornell, but simply to recognize Carl's dual contributions as a model to which we might all aspire. Congratulations Carl Wieman, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Eric Cornell.

Jack Wilson is Chair of the Forum on Education. He is the founding Chief Executive Officer of UMassOnline, the University of Massachusetts Virtual University. Prior to this he was the J. Erik Jonsson '22 Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management and was the Co-director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer. At RPI Dr. Wilson led a campus wide process of interactive learning and restructuring of the educational program.