Thoughts on Chairmanship of the American Physical Society Committee on Education

Michael Marder

David Haase has asked me to describe the job of the Chair of the American Physical Society Committee on Education. I have just completed two one-year terms. The second term was thanks to my wife, who needed medical treatment the day before the last meeting of my first term. I was unable to go, and the committee took advantage of the empty chair's seat to elect me again.

The mechanics of the job are simple and can be described in one sentence. They consist in preparing meeting agendas, attending and chairing meetings in person and by phone, reviewing minutes, reviewing requests for APS signatures for education-related lobbying efforts, and making recommendations for a prize committee. There is not much more to say about the mechanics of chairmanship, even if there are some mildly amusing stories, one of which involved an ice storm in Washington and had me saying to a cab driver at 1 am, “Please take me to the [nonrefundable room I just booked at the] Cleveland Airport Hyatt” to which he replied, “You do realize you're in Cincinnati, don't you?”

On the other hand, the point of being chair is more interesting to think about. The education landscape in physics is complicated, mainly because current societal pressure to improve physics instruction in high schools is intense, but most physicists stick to the optimistic view, largely borne out, that if they can just keep from volunteering at just the right moment, someone else will deal with the problem. This combination of intense social pressure and intense community ambivalence has led over time to a large variety of organizations and committees.

Ambivalence about education has a long history in American physics, and in 1930 led to the creation of the AAPT, mainly because the APS felt then little concern for the improvement of undergraduate physics instruction. However, creation of the AAPT seems not to have been sufficient to remove pressure from the APS to improve education. The Forum on Education, which readers of this newsletter will all know is one response to the continued pressure, and the Committee on Education of the APS is another.

The theory of the Committee on Education is that it will come up with policy statements and policy initiatives for the APS, and APS staff will help implement them. So, giving an example of a policy statement, if a science advocacy group in Washington is urging Congress to allocate more funds for high school laboratory equipment, they might seek a letter of support from the APS, and the APS can turn to the Committee on Education (sometimes just the Chair if the turnaround time is short) for a recommendation whether or not to sign on. As most physicists might expect by analogy with their experience in research, the experimental reality of the committee does not correspond especially well to the theory. The APS staff concerned with education can devote their full-time jobs to thinking about what they think should happen and making it a reality, while the committee members are all volunteers with three-year terms and full-time jobs elsewhere. In fact there are two different clusters of APS staff with education portfolios. One of them, under Rebecca Thompson-Flagg is concerned with Outreach and interacts rather little with the Committee on Education, while the other under Ted Hodapp, Director of Education and Diversity, communicates with the Committee on Education on a weekly basis.

Over the time I have been chair, there have been two principal activities associated with the Committee on Education. The first of these was PhysTEC/PTEC. PhysTEC is a program to increase the number of high school physics teachers coming out of 12 specific universities. It is funded mainly by the NSF with additional support from the APS. PTEC is a broader alliance of over 100 universities that have expressed support for the goal of preparing more teachers. The main accomplishments of the past two years have been to hire an additional permanent APS staff member to assist with PhysTEC, Monica Plisch; she in turn was largely responsible for the second main accomplishment, which was acquisition of a $750,000 NSF Noyce grant to provide scholarship support to future physics teachers at PhysTEC sites.

The second main activity was promotion of the APS Doubling Initiative, which has the goal of doubling the number of physics majors at US universities within the next 5 – 10 years, mainly so as to prepare more physics teachers. This initiative had many components, but it has not gone very far, except that physics enrollment is slowly increasing at about the right rate for reasons that probably have little to do with the APS initiative. A part of this initiative I hoped to see go forward was some way of helping improve science and mathematics instruction in middle schools, where I believe the US loses almost irrevocably most potential physicists from under-represented groups. The time for such an effort was not right. We could not come up with an action more specific than organization of a workshop, and even the workshop eventually felt like too unfamiliar territory for us to commit to organizing it.

Dwelling on unrealized hopes sets the wrong tone for a close. Commitment of the APS to improvement of education is slowly but demonstrably increasing. More permanent APS staff work on it than ever before. More and more members of the APS believe that education is among the most important charges of the physics community, and some, including very prominent ones, believe it is the single most important charge. The Chair of the Committee on Education is invited to attend meetings of the APS Physics Policy Committee, and education issues arise very frequently in discussions of the full APS leadership. Providing the US with enough physics teachers is a race against time, and we are far behind, but most of the physics community is starting to run.

Michael Marder ( is Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin and Co-director of the UTEACH Program.
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.