Toward establishing a Physics Education Research Topical Group within the American Physical Society

Eric Brewe, John Thompson, Noah Finkelstein

Physics Education Research (PER) is a growing and vibrant field of physics. The establishment and expansion of PER has been supported heavily by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), which hosts both the PER Topical Group (PER-TG) and the annual, national PER Conference since 1998.1 Simultaneously, the American Physical Society (APS) has been instrumental in developing the field, especially with its 1999 Statement (99:2) "Research in Physics Education." During the January 2011 PER-TG Town Hall meeting, the notion of formalizing PER as a research field within physics by creating an APS topical group was introduced. A small group investigated the rules, created and administered a survey for both AAPT and APS members, and met with AAPT leadership.

The survey results are clear: there is a strong interest in the creation of a Physics Education Research Topical Group within the APS (GPER). Responses to these two surveys (described in the parallel article) also reveal three principal questions that we hope to clarify here, namely: How is the APS GPER different from the Forum on Education (FEd)? What are the benefits of creating a topical group? Finally, how will the proposed PER topical group in APS relate to, support, and collaborate with the PER-TG in AAPT?

Distinguishing PER-TG from FEd
The Forum on Education is the second largest forum within the APS, with approximately 5,000 members. With the charge of "advancement and diffusion of knowledge regarding the inter-relation of physics, physicists and education," this forum represents a broad interest in education within the membership of the APS. Because physics education researchers are by definition interested in education, the FEd has been influenced by and supportive of PER efforts in addition to many other education-related efforts. However, topical groups are distinct from forums in that a topical group is a representational body of a research field, while a forum serves to inform the membership of and advocate in broad areas of interest like education. Not surprisingly, the group interested in education in general is much larger than those who have made education a research pursuit. Thus, the formation of GPER would provide many professional benefits to physics education researchers within APS. While the benefits of the topical group may primarily relate to researchers in PER, the insights, methods and results of the research would benefit APS membership broadly and specifically those members of the FEd.

Benefits of a PER-TG
There are several benefits of creating a PER topical group within the American Physical Society. As the APS is the professional organization of physicists, and physics education researchers identify with the community of physicists and thus representation of PER within physics is important. The establishment of a GPER will formalize and further strengthen APS commitment to PER as a research field within the physics community and physics departments, and serve as a model for the rapid growth of educational research within disciplinary fields of all types. (See the recently released report on discipline-based education research (DBER) from the National Academies).3 Topical groups are also allowed to organize sessions at national APS meetings, which are prime opportunities to reach other physicists, who typically do not attend AAPT meetings and thus are not exposed to PER. These sessions should raise the awareness of PER and PER-based practices within the physics community, by allowing more interactions between physics education researchers and the rest of the physics research community. These interactions in turn have the promise to promote the uptake of PER-based practices by the broader physics community. The GPER would work closely in coordination with the FEd to ensure complementary and synergistic, rather than competing, efforts in education. Finally, APS has an active lobbying arm, which represents the members of APS on a variety of issues, including education. Formalizing the research field of PER within APS will allow the PER community to better have its interests represented by the lobbying efforts APS already undertakes. In addition to the benefits to the field of PER, a topical group formed within APS has the potential to bring members into APS and to formalize links between APS and AAPT.

Relationship of GPER with AAPT
One of the primary rationales for pursuing a topical group is that representing PER among physicists is valuable, just as representing PER to the physics education community is valuable. As mentioned earlier, a PER topical group already exists within the AAPT –the only topical group in that organization. The AAPT PER-TG has been very effective at supporting the growth of PER and building collaborations with physics educators: the PER-TG promotes the conduct of research and the exchange of ideas and information within the AAPT PER community as well as the adoption of teaching methods developed by PER researchers; practicing educators in AAPT ground and contribute to the practice of relevant PER. 

The PER community represents a significant opportunity to bridge the APS and AAPT communities; we are trying to sort out how to leverage this opportunity during the formation of an APS topical group. Formal relationships such as shared leadership across the two topical groups and the leadership of the PER-TG in AAPT are actively being considered. Other, less formal opportunities, such as bridged meetings between APS and AAPT, are also being discussed.

Path toward a PER Topical Group
During the upcoming months, several steps are needed to create APS Forum on Education Summer 2012 Newsletter Page 5 the PER Topical Group with APS. First, a petition needs to circulated among APS members and receive a minimum of 200 ‘signatures.’ The petition will be in the form of an electronic survey asking people to insert their name and email address and to state that they endorse the creation of a Physics Education Research Topical Group. While the petition is being sent to APS members, a set of bylaws will be generated, based on bylaws of other topical groups, which will also establish formal relationships between GPER, AAPT PER-TG and the leadership of the AAPT PER-TG and AAPT itself. The petition and bylaws, as well as documentation of the mission and impact drafts of the topical group, will then be submitted to APS Constitution & Bylaws Committee and the APS Council for approval. Once approved, the topical group will have 18 months during which 200 members need to be recruited and to be sustained, 300 members need to be recruited by year 3. This process is anticipated to take between 6 and 12 months, for approval and then the recruitment of members will begin. Those members of the Forum on Education who are interested in collaborating on these efforts are encouraged to contact Eric Brewe.


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.