Letter from the Chair of the Forum on Education of the APS

David Haase
January 31, 2008

Like several previous Forum on Education Newsletters, this one has a theme. It is built around reports from the summer, 2007, conference Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research (PER). The Forum partially supported this conference. I voted for support because I think that physics education research is one of the special ways that physicists can contribute to the overall betterment of education. Our discipline can be proud that it has produced PER products that positively affect not only how we teach, but also how other disciplines teach. The effects of physics education research have implications from K-12 to graduate study.

For all of the success in PER, we have yet many challenges in physics education. Why are not more students enrolling in high school physics? Why is high school physics often an elective course, not required like biology or chemistry? Why do physics classes and programs include lower percentages of women and minorities? Why are the innovations resulting from PER not quickly and willingly adopted by university and high school teachers? Why have we not educated the public about the importance of understanding physics as part of general literacy?

Physicists demand solutions, but the questions above are not solved in the same sense that physicists use the word “solve.” There are no fundamental theorems to apply to these questions. Over the last 30 years I have visited with people from other cultures and learned new languages, in particular the expressions they use with regard to science and education. I have learned new words like “partnerships”, “leverage”, and “stakeholders.” These words are, of course, from the languages of the cultures of public education, business and politics. The three words above are just as meaningful and nuanced in those cultures as “force,” “momentum” and “solve” are in our culture.

Many physicists committed to education and to improving education have had the same experiences. We realize that we bring a lot to the classroom and to public forums. Yet, we are surely not the possessors of all the knowledge needed to improve science education. If we really want to make a broader impact on education, beyond our classroom, laboratory or campus, we must learn to hear and to speak in these other languages.

The Forum on Education offers opportunities to learn new languages at its invited paper sessions at the March and April meetings. Often the sessions bring in speakers from outside the APS to talk about education as they see it. Recently the speakers have included leaders from teacher preparation programs or science museums or education outreach coordinators associated with research laboratories, or writers who try to explain science to the public. There is no reason why there should not be invited speakers from public schools, corporations or government who could speak to us in their language about the place of physics in their education worlds.

I strongly urge you to attend the FEd sessions at the March and April meetings. They are good ways to increase your language skills. Please also volunteer to organize invited sessions that will help us physicists enlarge our vocabularies so we may speak to other cultures about the value of physics education. The APS is an organization rich in the talents and expertise of its membership. We are fortunate to participate in the enterprise of physics research and teaching. Education is one way we share our good fortune with the world, and coincidentally support the long-term health of our field.