The FGSA in 2008 and Prospects for the Future

Amber L. Stuver

The Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) has had a year of continuing growth and is beginning to lay foundations to establish more collaboration with other similarly interested parties within the APS and the AAPT.

In 2008:

In 2008, the FGSA was pleased to have its first voting representative on the APS Council. This achievement recognizes the growth of our forum, which has tripled in population in the last four years to represent nearly 7.5% of the total APS membership (as of 1 January 2008). We were invited and sent representatives to the APS/AAPT sponsored conference “Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward?” and submitted our own poster. We are also pleased that at the 2008 Unit Convocation, the participants advocated the institution of an official student representative position to APS units and divisions.

At the March Meeting in New Orleans, the FGSA sponsored a panel discussion on non-traditional careers for physicists (which is also an ongoing topic of interest for us: a collection of non-traditional physicist profiles is available on the FGSA page at and co-sponsored a session with CSWP (Committee on the Status of Women in Physics) to discuss issues related to balancing family needs with career goals, and a panel discussion with FPS (Forum on Physics and Society) on the topic of universities affected by Hurricane Katrina and how to plan for other similar catastrophic events.

At the April Meeting in St. Louis, we sponsored another session on non-traditional careers in physics and co-sponsored a session with the FPS on equipping scientists to run for political office, and a session with the FEd on preparing teaching assistants to teach.

In an effort to expand the reach and influence of the FGSA, our executive committee has also made a formal proposal to the AAPT Committee on Graduate Education in Physics to express our interest in collaboration and to attempt to open a means of communication between our two groups.

For the Future:

Along with continuing to sponsor programming at APS meetings and being a source for invited student representatives at appropriate meetings, I see many potential collaborations between the FGSA and other similarly interested parties. I must stress here that the following views are mine alone.

My motivation for establishing collaborations derives from the experiences I had at the “Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward?” conference. I, along with two graduate students (I was no longer a student at the time of the meeting), represented the FGSA at this meeting mostly composed of department heads and directors of graduate studies. I was more than impressed at the willingness of the other attendees to hear and even actively seek out our opinions and student points of view. Near the end of the meeting, Kenneth Heller, Past President (2006) of the AAPT, asked who was a member of the AAPT and I was surprised that not more than a handful of participants raised their hands (of which I was not one at the time). This made me think about why I was not a member and why so few of these people who had a vested interest in physics education as a profession were not either. My conclusion was that I did not see myself as part of the ‘physics teacher’ community and I think that many of the other attendees did not either; I think that in higher education we often see ourselves as a separate entity from physics teachers in the primary and secondary levels. This is likely a self-propagating condition as graduate students are trained by other physicists in higher education who are also unlikely to be members of the AAPT - what connection would a graduate student then feel to the broader physics teacher community?

My solution to this is to actively encourage graduate student participation in the AAPT through collaboration with the FEd and the FGSA. There is already AAPT recognition for exceptional teaching assistants but this impact is limited since few students can be recognized. I would prefer to see more programs designed to encourage and enable graduate students to lead outreach programs for students and the public. Such programs are becoming a favored component to grant proposals and, with many faulty members already often overwhelmed with other teaching, research and administrative duties, having students take active roles in such programs would be beneficial to their PI’s research group as well. Programs could be as simple as helping a local scout group earn a science related merit badge, developing and conducting educational activities with local schools, having public events which feature interactions with graduate students and having graduate students participate in teacher professional development programs for both pre-service and in-service physics teachers. Documentation and publication (in The Physics Teacher, for example) of new or innovative educational methods would be not only beneficial to the graduate student’s CV but would also be an outreach deliverable for grants. Such experiences would help graduate students see themselves as a contributing part of the larger physics teaching community by having experience educating others who are outside of the Ivory Tower and having this service valued by those within the higher education community. Of course, this is not a goal achievable only by the AAPT as the FEd can help encourage the same experiences in graduate students.

The health of the physics community is largely dependent on the relationship between physics teachers in higher education and those in the primary and secondary levels: certified physics teachers prepare students who will someday become physicists or taxpayers (who fund physics research) while higher education prepares future teachers. I hope that a collaboration between the FGSA and the FEd will help bring more young physicists to be participants in the larger physics teaching community and encourage their membership in the FEd and the AAPT.

Amber L. Stuver ( is the FGSA Councilor and a postdoctoral associate at the California Institute of Technology/LIGO Livingston.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.