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History of AAPT — Commission on College Physics

To understand the existence and the role of the Commission on College Physics during the 1960s, it is necessary to recall that the 1950s saw a great intensification of interest in science education, particularly education in physics. Physicists had contributed enormously to the winning of World War II, and people trained in physics had expanded their range of skills. New opportunities for employment arose in industry and in academic life; physicists had learned to extend their expertise to borderline and inter-disciplinary fields as well as to many applications outside the demands of pure research. Immediately after the war, young people, experienced with work in war laboratories or with sophisticated equipment in the field, returned to study physics professionally. The expanded job market seemed to be satiated in the early fifties, but this soon changed. It must be admitted that the Cold War played a significant part in the new demand for physicists. The development of sophisticated weapons had not ended with the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini; this effort was if anything intensified in the 1950s. The physicists active in education were not themselves motivated by the Cold War, but there are always so many humanitarian reasons for improving education that they were glad to take advantage of the funds available for this purpose.

As the NSF began to expand its continuing education programs for teachers in the late 1950s, and AAPT had every reason to be involved. A paper presented at the annual meeting in 1954 by Harold K. Schilling of Pennsylvania State University drew attention to the challenges facing the Association and noted forcefully that AAPT needed to redesign its administrative organization to reach new and expanded objectives. A grant was obtained from General Electric Company to hold a four-day conference in 1956 at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The conference was devoted to improving the quality and effectiveness of introductory physics courses and to orienting the courses toward meeting current needs and conditions [See the Carleton Report, AJP 25, 417 (1957)]. Meanwhile, as we have noted, the project at MIT to produce PSSC Physics was getting under way.

It is sometimes said that the Soviet launching of Sputnick in October 1957 led to all these efforts; that is not true, but there is no doubt the efforts were spurred by this event and more federal financing became available. That the U.S.S.R. could surpass American technology in this fashion was an unexpected blow to American pride, and causes were sought. President Eisenhower commented over a nationwide TV network: "According to my scientific friends, one of our greatest and most glaring inefficiencies is in the failure of us in this country to give high priority to scientific education" [Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 359 (1957)]. Federal support of science education was forthcoming, and physics received the greatest amount, at least at first, partly because physics is basic to the technology required to build and launch missiles.

Until the very late 1950s NSF support of science education was largely confined to pre-college study, predominantly in high schools. The extension to college physics was promoted both within and outside AAPT, particularly by the MIT contingent spearheaded by Jerrold Zacharias, already engaged in producing PSSC. The establishment of a separate commission was explicitly recommended in the report of three conferences held during 1959-60. The rationale was put cogently by the Steering Committee (comprising Francis Bitter, Francis L. Friedman, Walter C. Michels, Francis W. Sears, Frank Verbrugge, and Jerrold R. Zacharias):

The development of physics teaching in the United States colleges and universities has largely been the result of individual efforts. The increasing role of physics in our scientific progress, in our technology, and in our society and culture, as well as the rapid advances taking place within physics itself, demands consideration of new approaches to the improvement of physics teaching. These should be broadly coordinated and national in scope. Accordingly, a representative group of physicists interested in college teaching held three meetings supported by the National Science Foundation and sponsored by AAPT. . . . The objectives of these meetings were to analyze the aims and substance of college physics courses and the resources for the improvement of the teaching of physics at the college level throughout the country [AJP 28, 568 (1960)].

The conference report described the basic aims of college physics courses and suggested activities to achieve them. It is in many ways reminiscent of the Carleton Report, but there was now a strong recommendation for the establishment of a "Commission for the Improvement of Instruction in College Physics."

A grant from NSF brought the Commission on College Physics (CCP) into existence later in 1960; there were 17 members, including, ex officio, the President and President-Elect of AAPT and the Director of AIP. This was the first of several commissions in various science disciplines. The first chair of CCP was Walter C. Michels, and headquarters were established at Bryn Mawr College. Lyle W. Phillips, formerly of the University of Buffalo, was the first executive secretary. CCP issued a Newsletter which was widely circulated, but its formal reports to the physics community were published in AJP. The most extensive and comprehensive of these was Part II of the November 1968 issue, American Journal of Physics 36, 1933 (1968). The commission met four times a year, arranged and ran a large number of conferences, issued many publications, and encouraged the development of a multitude of teaching aids, all listed or summarized in the reports. The commission headquarters were moved to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on the resignation of Walter Michels as chair in 1964, and then in 1967 to the University of Maryland. As Executive Secretary, Lyle Phillips was succeeded by Edward D. Lambe in 1962, and in turn by E. Leonard Jossem in 1964. In 1965 John M. Fowler was made executive secretary, a post he held until the termination of the commission in 1971.

By 1968 it began to appear that a surplus of professional physicists was in the making, and federal support of physics education began to diminish. In January 1969 CCP was explicitly requested to plan an orderly phaseout, which was finally completed in August 1971. As noted above, it became clear by that time that many of the activities, duties, and responsibilities of CCP would have to be taken over entirely by AAPT or else abandoned. Mark Zemansky, AAPT Executive Secretary, wished to be relieved of his position in 1970, and it was at this time that the Executive Office was revamped to take on the larger role envisioned for AAPT.

It is interesting to note that when the National Science Foundation began to reinstitute its support for science education in 1983, the funding was again explicitly directed toward pre-college programs. Once again, AAPT took the position that there should also be support given to college-level programs. As a result of this and other pressures, the National Science Board appointed a committee to consider what role NSF might play. In November 1985, A.P. French, President, and Jack M. Wilson, Executive Officer, made a presentation to this committee. At French's invitation, the President of APS, Robert R. Wilson, appeared with them.