President's Commentary (Fall 2005)
On "Wanting To Be a Hilton:" Advanced Labs and AAPT
While I’ve never watched reality TV, it’s been hard to avoid the hype for the NBC reality show "I Want To Be a Hilton" and its dedication to opulence and competition. For me it primarily brings to mind a personal hero who may have represented the best of "Hiltonville" – not Conrad, Kathy, or Paris, but Wallace A. Hilton, AAPT Oerstad Medalist in 1978 and professor for nearly four decades at William Jewell College of Liberty, MO.
Wallace Hilton was an experimental "whiz" during his teaching career who used clever apparatus—much of his own construction—to introduce what he called the "fun of physics." Past students (many being distinguished physicists today) recall the challenge of the still continuing departmental program, "Independent Study and Research." Does AAPT presently offer a professional home for the likes of Wallace Hilton? How can we best serve a nationwide need for advanced laboratory, undergraduate research, and faculty/student mentoring programs?
First, I must add a little more about Wallace Hilton. I recall wanting to be a Hilton in the 1970s while a young faculty member at Western Illinois making a trip to the Missouri AAPT section. If you are lucky you might find a copy of Hilton’s Experiments in Optical Physics in your library. Even now, few departments in the United States would find the resources or faculty expertise for these 70 loosely guided experiments, many of which still have amazing relevance and challenge within modern optics. Over 30 years, dozens of papers and notes on undergraduate physics were published by Hilton in American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher, and his activities at national and section levels of AAPT served as a major focus in his professional life.
Last fall, at the Sigma Pi Sigma Congress, I was privileged to share a table with Wallace Hilton’s son John Hilton and John’s daughter and son, Diana and Mark Hilton, who passed on a few stories from a truly rich Hilton family – rich in tradition, discipline, and both professional and personal service.
The Hilton legacy is not unique in AAPT history, as our organization has traditionally borne the responsibility of inspiring, facilitating, and communicating such exemplary efforts at upper-division physics levels. But how are we doing these days? We hear some members at our national meetings say, "Not too well, I’m afraid. All I see is pedagogy and PER."
This I would argue has more to do with perception than with reality, yet I believe we can do better in tapping our membership resources to communicate both the highest quality physics and closely allied teaching methods.
In this context, physics means much more to me than state-of-the-art plenary or invited presentations by "near-Nobel level" researchers who play an important and celebratory role at our meetings. For example, anyone reviewing recent summer meeting programs will have no trouble finding hundreds of papers dealing with physics topics at all levels. However, they are spread among at least as many papers that dwell more directly with how to effectively teach our craft (often competing in 12 or more parallel sessions). And there is no shortage of upper-division sessions that would intrigue anyone charged with teaching either advanced theoretical or experimental physics. (Some examples from the 2005 Summer Meeting in Salt Lake City include, Upper-Level Classical Physics, NSF-CCLI Projects, Advanced Labs, Non-Linear Dynamics, Thermal Physics, Undergraduate Research, Quantum Mechanics, E & M, Topics in Modern Physics, and dozens of advanced undergraduate poster papers).
For several years our summer meetings have also included well-attended workshops (e.g., "W38: Advanced and Intermediate Instructional Laboratories," from the 2005 Summer Meeting) which featured participant directed work with advanced laboratory apparatus organized by the Committee on Apparatus and Laboratories.
How can we do better? I would cite the recent efforts of AAPT Vice President Harvey Leff and TeachSpin’s Jonathan Reichert in helping form a national taskforce that will make recommendations for encouraging and assisting faculty and staff working on "advanced laboratories," whether they are stand-alone courses, guided student/faculty projects, or integrated into other upper division courses. We envision conferences and listservs for better communication, databases for experimental approaches and apparatus, professional forums for documenting experiments, and awards for exemplary work. I may even suggest an AAPT Wallace Hilton Prize!