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President's CommentaryHarvey S. Leff

Harvey S. Leff
February 14, 2007


Why Does AAPT Exist?

The title of this commentary is intentionally provocative. Ask yourself: Why does AAPT exist for me? Why do I pay my dues each year? What draws me to AAPT?

Of course you are not alone because AAPT draws a substantial number of people. In November 2006, total AAPT membership was 10,153. I believe many of these joined to subscribe to the American Journal of Physics and/or The Physics Teacher, and some became members largely because of AAPT's stellar national meetings. Additionally, quite a few physics teachers are involved with AAPT's local sections, and some attend local meetings, but are not members of AAPT itself.

In short, AAPT exists because it offers services to physics educators that are unavailable elsewhere. It not only provides significant support for physics teachers, but works more generally toward strengthening physics education. It does this through its publications, meetings, and a wide variety of programs for both high school and college faculty. The American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher have no equals in terms of their quality, breadth, and depth. AAPT's programs include: (1) an annual New Faculty Workshop for beginning college and university teachers; (2) the Physics Teaching Resource Agent (PTRA) professional development program for high school teachers; (3) special topics conferences—the most recent of which was on teaching general relativity to undergraduates; (4) sponsorship of the U.S. Physics Team for the International Physics Olympiad; and many others.

AAPT's national meetings offer hands-on workshops, a potpourri of contributed and invited poster and oral presentations, textbook and scientific exhibits, and unparalleled networking opportunities. Where else can you spend four hours in a workshop on "Environmental Physics & Global Warming," listen to a talk on "Evidence from Type Ia Supernovae for an Accelerating Universe and Dark Energy" from a master teacher-researcher who gathered that evidence, and hear a Nobel Prize winning physicist speak on "Interactive Simulations for Teaching Physics; What Works, What Doesn't’t, and Why?" All of this was possible at the recent joint meeting of AAPT and AAS in Seattle.

Despite the valuable services offered by AAPT, and the seemingly impressive size of its membership, many physics teachers have no involvement with AAPT and its sections. A relatively small fraction of all high school physics teachers (3,174) are members of AAPT. A survey of 1,232 high school physics teachers by the American Institute of Physics found that only 24% belong to AAPT, while 34% belong to NSTA (some belong to both), and 54% are not members of any professional association. I know that the 76% who are not involved with AAPT would benefit greatly by AAPT membership. How could they not be intellectually stimulated by reading The Physics Teacher and by attending section and national AAPT meetings? And how could this not have a positive effect on their teaching?

At the college/university level, AIP estimated in 2004 that there were 9,000 full-time equivalent physics faculty. As of November 2006, the number of faculty at 2-year colleges (693), 4-year colleges (972), and universities (2,019) who are members of AAPT totaled 3,684—well under half of all such physics faculty. Many of those who are not members are not even aware of the advances made by physics education researchers in recent years. Some don't know how to do a physics lecture demonstration or how to make such a demonstration an interactive learning experience.

From where do the remaining AAPT members come? They are students (693), retirees (1,163) and others (1,466), including people in non-profit labs or the military, employees in industry, K-8 teachers, administrators, and the like. They derive benefit from AAPT or support the association as a matter of professional responsibility, even if they are not teaching.

How can AAPT expand its services to the physics-teaching community? About 13% of AAPT members come from outside the United States. This represents a small fraction of physics teachers abroad. AAPT has the potential to provide useful services to many physics teachers in countries where teachers are isolated and lack meaningful professional development opportunities. In countries where physics teaching organizations exist, collaborative efforts would potentially strengthen those societies as well as AAPT. We plan increased promotion of physics education across national boundaries, with emphasis on providing useful support for physics teachers. With modern technology, the world is only a few keystrokes away. When AAPT's revamped website (in planning) goes live, we will be able to provide even more educational materials electronically to people anywhere in the world.

How else can we bring AAPT to physics educators who are not members? AAPT's spiffy new bimonthly magazine, Interactions Across Physics and Education, offers analysis, news, tips, and thoughtful opinion on the ideas, issues, and initiatives shaping physics education worldwide. It will help expand AAPT's base nationally and internationally. Additionally, at its Winter 2007 Meeting in Seattle, AAPT held its first Symposium on Physics Education entitled, Overcoming Gravity: The Critical Force of Physics Education in Boosting National Competitiveness. This and future symposia will attract the interest of people who do not traditionally attend our national meetings. And AAPT is sponsoring a topical conference in July on Computational Physics for Upper Level Courses, which will bring new people to AAPT. In another move to grow its base, AAPT is considering the establishment of flexible membership categories that would provide attractive membership options both domestically and abroad.

As individuals, we can discuss AAPT with non-member colleagues. We can show them articles published by AAPT that have inspired us and helped us improve our teaching. We can convey the spirit and substance of AAPT's national meetings, and the multiple ways that AAPT is of potential value to them. Beyond the United States, we can communicate with physics educators, seeking ideas on how AAPT's rich history, journals, and programs can be used to support physics teachers and strengthen physics education in their countries.

I firmly believe AAPT to be a unique, indispensable organization. Physics teachers who are not involved in AAPT are in a sense incomplete. In an ideal world, every physics teacher would be a member of AAPT. Indeed, ideally, every teacher would take it as a professional obligation to support AAPT, the preeminent physics education organization—and as a personal obligation to become educated on the most effective teaching techniques.

The ambitious program of initiatives under way by the national AAPT office, together with the help of AAPT members, will enable more and more physics educators to appreciate AAPT and to answer the title question, "Why does AAPT exist?”

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