Fall 2003 Executive Officer's Report

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 3

AAPT’s Strategic Priorities

Over the past several years, AAPT has developed a set of strategic priorities to guide many of our activities. While any set of such priorities is always in a state of flux, since the world in which we teach is also in a state of flux, here are comments on the seven issues that currently constitute the AAPT list of strategic priorities. The first four of the AAPT planning initiatives were identified in 2001, two were identified in 2002, and the final one in 2003. At each meeting of the AAPT Board, members review these priorities so as to keep the “big picture” in mind at the same time as the Board considers an assortment of detailed projects and issues that inevitably dominate the agenda.

1. Physics for All
Our basic philosophy is that all students can learn physics. We need to reject the philosophy that physics is “too hard” for many people to learn; such a philosophy is self-fulfilling, since any lack of success in the subject can be ascribed to the student. The keys are to acknowledge that all students can learn physics and that it is our responsibility to teach the subject in a way and at a level that meets the needs and interests of all students, not just the “very best.”

The AAPT Board has adopted and published a statement on “physics early” which supports teaching physics to larger numbers of students and to consider such efforts as “experiments” intended to validate how best to accomplish this task.

Active Physics, the AAPT-developed curriculum designed to provide a high school physics class to “nontraditional” students, is a significant AAPT initiative aligned with the “physics for all” goal. Our own Physics Teaching Resource Agents (PTRA) program involving many of the best high school teachers in the nation addresses the two objectives of teaching “physics for all” and teaching “physics early.”

That the percentage of high school students who study physics has been increasing so that it is now at its highest level in over 50 years is heartening. That the percentage is still below one-third shows we have much more room for improvement in bringing the appreciation of physics to all students.

2. PER Dissemination
Physics Education Research (PER) is one of the most vibrant areas of interest among physics teachers and other physicists. This growing community of research physicists continues to improve our knowledge of how students learn physics and what techniques are most effective. In many ways they have stimulated profound changes in the ways that many teachers teach so that students become better learners.

Three issues of the Physics Education Research Supplement to the American Journal of Physics were published in 1999-2001. Since then, a PER section has appeared in the AJP every six months. The community also is exploring an electronic journal for publishing and disseminating their research findings. As research activities expand and as results are confirmed and disseminated, all physics teaching will benefit from the findings.

3. Physics Content at AAPT Meetings
Overview themes have been developed for the past three National Meetings: “energy,” “space,” and “form and function.” The theme for the Miami Beach meeting this January will be “waves.”

While a content theme may be one way to highlight the physics content of our meetings, it is not the only way. Our meetings often include strong physics content, but this may seem overwhelmed by the amount of pedagogy at the meeting. Nevertheless, any physics teacher or other physicist with an interest in current research and in current pedagogy will be gratified by the breadth and the depth of our meeting programs.

4. Physics Standards
At the national level and at numerous state, local and regional levels, educators are discussing and addressing science standards enumerating the knowledge and skills that students should acquire from formal schooling. Standards also exist for content and pedagogic skills that should characterize teachers at K-12 schools.

AAPT members have contributed to many efforts to define and implement such standards. Most of AAPT’s pedagogic efforts seek to conform to broadly accepted standards, understanding that educational activities in this nation retain strong local perspectives. While AAPT has not heretofore taken any formal position on “standards,” we have generally expressed support for efforts to organize science curricula at K-12 levels, to define criteria by which such curricula might be developed and evaluated, and to encourage “all students” to become more knowledgeable about science.

5. Assist Crossover Teachers
Most students who study physics in our high schools benefit from having teachers with strong backgrounds in physics and physics education. However, studies also show that a substantial number of teachers of physics are “crossover teachers” whose disciplinary training is not in physics or physics education. Many of these teachers also teach another science or mathematics.

For the benefit of the students who now study physics and even more so for the benefit of those many students whom we want to study physics in the future, AAPT will seek to enhance the knowledge of those teachers with less than adequate training in physics. Increasingly, the AAPT/PTRA program is addressing the needs of such teachers. This is especially true in the current expansion of the PTRA program, which addresses the needs of teachers and schools in rural areas. It also can be seen in PTRA’s earlier and continuing focus on teachers in urban schools.

A survey among some of AAPT’s current crossover teachers suggested several conclusions:
• Most crossover teachers had little choice about beginning to teach physics.
• Most worked extremely hard and used any resource or person they could identify to help them make the transition.
• They needed quick and effective pedagogical assistance to survive in their “new” discipline.
• Many relied on AAPT materials and many have become longtime members of AAPT.

6. Relationships with Professional Societies of Other Disciplines
As more and more students study physics in our high schools, their interests and expectations for studies in chemistry, biology and other disciplines will be altered. Likewise, teachers of all of these sciences will need to communicate openly and continuously about how to enhance the science knowledge and science awareness of all their students.

A premise of the “physics first” movement is the expectation that physics in ninth grade would provide good preparation for chemistry in the tenth grade and biology in the eleventh grade. Those schools where “physics first” has been implemented are characterized by close cooperation between the physics teachers and those who teach chemistry and biology. At the same time, based on the discussions among schools that have moved toward a “physics first” model, it appears that each school is implementing its own curricular revisions without much attention to what is happening in other schools.

The appropriateness of connections between science teachers at the high school level is no less true for science faculty at the college and university level. As the separate disciplines become increasingly interconnected, it is clear that disciplinary faculty need continued connections and interactions with one another so that the education of all students can benefit from the integration of the sciences. For all students, and especially for those who do not aspire to science careers, science must be seen as a holistic enterprise as well as a set of disparate specialties.

An AAPT task force is looking at convening meetings and conferences of several professional societies to see how we can best work together to benefit all of our students and disciplines.

7. Teacher Preparation
While only listed very recently as an AAPT “planning initiative,” this general area has drawn a great deal of activity over the past several years in AAPT.

With significant NSF support, AAPT developed and now distributes Powerful Ideas in Physical Sciences, a university curriculum aimed at prospective K-8 teachers. The AAPT Publications Committee is overseeing the major development of a “resource book” for new teachers. AAPT has established a committee on Teacher Preparation, which is charged to examine how AAPT can best serve the interests of prospective and current K-12 teachers.

In cooperation with APS and AIP, AAPT plays an active role in PhysTEC, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition, a systematic effort to work with physics departments and schools of education to improve the science preparation of prospective teachers, to revise science methods courses, to develop physics courses that better serve the needs of such teachers, and to bring strong high school teachers into physics departments to provide a “reality check” on these efforts. Seven physics departments are now receiving financial support in this project with more expected to join the effort in the coming months and years.