From the Editor – What Are the Best Conferences You Have Attended?

Paul J. Dolan, Jr., Northeastern Illinois University

If you are like me, you did not receive much ‘formal’ training as an educator when you were in graduate school. I was fortunate at Dartmouth, in that the TAs were quite well supervised, guided, and assisted (as needed), and I had a great advisor with whom I co-taught for a year.  However, I know that many who are now physics faculty may not have had such a fortunate experience.

So, where do we now get that needed boost to our educational skills, and also that enervation to keep us going and add new skills?  I find this at various professional meetings – and ‘various’ is perhaps the key term here – much as we may try, no one meeting will fulfill all one’s needs.

Certainly for research, one would rely on APS meetings, whether it be the March or April Meeting, or one of the many Division Meetings that occur throughout the year. Not only can  one report on and learn about one’s research area, and of course attend FEd sessions, but one can learn about new topics, and find useful information to bring back to the classroom to supplement upper level, and perhaps even lower level, classes.

Depending on one’s research area, one may attend meetings of one of the many member societies of the AIP, or perhaps something more interdisciplinary, such as meetings of AAAS.

Often one needs more, pedagogically — I have long attended my local AAPT section meetings, but in the past few years have become a regular participant in the Summer &/or Winter National AAPT meetings. The regular interaction (and the ongoing discussions that ensue throughout the year) can be quite invigorating, especially as one find colleagues who have similar teaching challenges. In fact, in a round-about way, it was through attendance at AAPT that I became actively involved with the FEd.

Sometimes one needs more than just the physics point of view – for example, I teach in a middle school pre-service program. While it is the physics course that I teach, knowing more about how the other disciplines are taught, and about the overall educational picture, is useful. For this, one can attend NSTA (National Science Teachers Association) meetings, and in particular sessions sponsored by the college affiliate organization of NSTA, the SCST (Society for College Science Teachers). One gets to learn new (to us) educational techniques, but ones that have been  proven in other sciences; one gets to meet new colleagues across other disciplines. Attending the SCST sessions also keeps one sane at a National NSTA Conference – these meetings dwarf most APS or AAPT meetings, and as a first-time attendee, can be even more intimidating than being a graduate student at an APS meeting. Actually, NSTA really NEEDS more physicists & more college professors to attend – I have found that we are sorely underrepresented – which does not bode well for the students of the thousands of elementary, middle, and high school science teachers who do attend these meetings. Fewer physics participants also means fewer physics sessions being offered! At least, each NSTA meeting does typically include a session run by the local AAPT section; for example, recent AAPT President David Sokoloff led a fascinating session at the 2011 NSTA meeting in Seattle.

What then does one do when one needs help with specific courses or specific topic areas that one  teaches?   Perhaps there is a special gathering, a Gordon Conference, Topical Conference, or some other meeting that is pertinent to the subject, possibly co-located with an AAPT or APS meeting. One such meeting with which I have recently been involved was the 2012 Conference on Laboratory Instruction “Beyond the First Year” (aka BFY), sponsored by ALPhA and AAPT; BFY took place last summer in Philadelphia, immediately preceding the Summer AAPT meeting. ALPhA is the organization that was formed among those of us who teach ‘Advanced’ physics labs, and BFY is the second (large) Topical Conference that has been organized by ALPhA. It is different from other meetings, in that a large portion of the meeting is spent not in sessions, but in workshops, some run by academics and some by vendors; each session of a workshop is limited to a small number of participants (typically 2 – 4), so that one can really get a ‘hands on experience’ with the experimental topic of that workshop, and the equipment – and yes, vendors & participants BRING their equipment to the meeting (or find someone local from whom to borrow it); it really IS a hands-on experience.   Even the poster sessions are likely to be ‘poster plus equipment’ (not picture or sketch of equipment).  Among the really neat workshops I took, and will be implementing in my classes, were ones on the Arduino and related programmable controllers, and one on microfluidics, which has some interesting interdisciplinary applications. If you missed all the fun, the proceedings are on the ComPADRE site.

One of the spin-offs of the ALPhA conferences is the Immersion program (see details below), where one gets to spend not just an hour, but 2 – 3 days, learning all about a particular experiment, and becoming ready to implement the experiment with one’s own students – the great learning experience of being back in grad school, but without the hanging sword of a thesis or a grade. Another spin off is mini-sessions at local AAPT or APS section meetings – see for example the letter below from Joss Ives.

These Advanced Lab Conferences seem to be falling into a three-year cycle, so we hope to have the next conference in Summer 2015, in Maryland. (And we expect that it will once again be a sold-out meeting.)

Of course, if you aren’t the Advanced Lab instructor at your institution, then perhaps this would not be the meeting for you – but there are so many options available, among the meetings of APS and its affiliates, the other science & science education societies, and special events such as Gordon Conferences. Find the ones that are right for you.

Paul J. Dolan, Jr. teaches General Education, Pre-Service and Advanced Lab courses in Physics at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He spends considerable time at local, state, national, and occasionally international,  science education and  physics meetings. In the interest of full disclosure, the editor is a member of the Board of the SCST, and is President-Elect of ALPhA; he would be thrilled to see any fellow FEd members at an SCST or ALPhA event.

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 the APS.