The 2011 Oersted Award Talk, “The Particle Enigma, High School Physics, and the Search for Science Literacy,” by Dr. F. James Rutherford

For more information, please contact:
Marilyn Gardner, American Association of Physics Teachers
301-209-3306 (office)

College Park, Maryland, November 18, 2010 – “There is a compelling reason why students should study physics in high school. It is not, however, for the reasons so often given. It is not, for example, to enable students to understand contemporary physics research or to learn to think like physicists, nor is it because our Nation’s future depends on our capability in science and engineering or because U.S. students as a whole perform poorly on international comparisons of scientific proficiency. Rather it is,” Rutherford argues, “because physics is essential for achieving scientific literacy, a vital component of the general education of all students.”

The Oersted Award Talk and Medal presentation will be on Monday, January 10, at 3:30 pm.

Born in 1924, F. James Rutherford earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and Harvard University. In 1949, he began his career in science education as a teacher of general science, algebra, chemistry, and physics in a high school in which the students were mostly children of first-generation Greek and Italian immigrants. In 1951, another school district recruited Rutherford to participate in the creation of its first post-WWII high school.

Rutherford became assistant professor of education at Harvard in 1964, there joining Gerald Holton and Fletcher G. Watson as co-directors of Harvard Project Physics (later simply the Project Physic Course). Over the course of the project, he served as its executive director and senior author and editor, and now as curator of the Project Physics Collection (

From 1971 to 1977, Rutherford was professor of science education and head of science and mathematics education at New York University. There he taught doctoral seminars and a series of graduate courses for education and science majors that included the public understanding of science, the scientific enterprise, history of science, and science and the humanities. He also initiated and directed Project City Science, a federally-funded effort engaging graduate students (education and science) in cooperating with the junior-high science teachers to improve instruction.

Rutherford then served in two federal agencies. In 1977, he was appointed assistant director of the National Science Foundation responsible for all science, mathematics, and engineering education programs, preschool through postdoctoral. When the new U.S. Department of Education was launched, he was appointed assistant secretary with responsibilities for the Office of Education for Research and Improvement, the National Institute of Education, the National Center for Educational Statistics, the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education, and the federal programs supporting libraries and the development of educational technologies.

Rutherford’s last position before retiring was as chief education officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. At AAAS, he started a variety of projects reasserting the role of the AAAS nationwide science education reform. The most important of these was Project 2061, begun in 1984 as a long-term, comprehensive effort of the scientific community to foster nationwide reform in science, mathematics, and technology education.

In retirement, Rutherford, currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, created the Website Science Education Encore, produced Radioactive Waste and other environmental teaching modules for middle and high school science courses, co-authored Understanding Physics, an undergraduate textbook, with David Cassidy and Gerald Holton, and has continued to serve on national committees.

The 2011 AAPT Winter Meeting takes place January 8-12 at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel in Jacksonville, FL. This year’s theme is “100 Years of Nuclear Physics.” The full meeting program, workshop, and directions to the hotel are at:

Journalists are invited to cover the meeting onsite. News releases describing meeting highlights, including this year’s plenary lectures featuring several nationally renowned speakers, are available at:

Members of the press can request information and are invited to cover the upcoming meeting onsite. Credentials can be obtained by contacting Marilyn Gardner at or 301-209-3306.

AAPT is the leading organization for physics educators -- with more than 10,000 members worldwide. Its mission is to enhance the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching. AAPT was founded in 1930 and is headquartered in the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland.