Executive Officer's Commentary (August 2007) undefined
August 21, 2007
Toufic Hakim

An Open Letter to AAPT Members

Dear Members of the AAPT Community,

The professional staff of AAPT sends you greetings from the central office. We wish you a healthy and successful, new season ahead—no matter your professional setting (be it a middle school or high school, a college or university, or a national lab; whether you are student, a teacher, a researcher or a consultant; and regardless of where you are involved in physics education, within or outside the North American continent). For those retired or emeriti members among you, we know you have stayed quite engaged in physics; so we wish you continued engagement.

We thank you all for supporting AAPT through your membership. Your interest in our signature journals and programs is greatly appreciated. We hope you find our services valuable, and we strive to enhance our services and serve you better.

We thank those among you active in the organization through committees and sections. Your efforts and leadership on behalf of physics education are essential; what you do for, and on behalf of, AAPT is truly a labor of love. We commend you on your participation and encourage you to stay active.

The purpose of this open letter is to comment on AAPT developments during the past year, to place them in context, to update you on our state of affairs, and to announce a new AAPT member blog intended as a lively platform for exchanging perspectives and ideas.

Embracing the Essence of AAPT
Volunteerism and diversity of professional interests are unique characteristics of AAPT. Members of AAPT are all passionate about physics. All are committed to advancing learning. The work of AAPT is done collaboratively between volunteers and professional staff. You, the volunteers, provide the physics education content and programming. Our community brings physics educators together from across the educational continuum. There is camaraderie and fellowship in our interactions—some even call it family. These are strengths of AAPT; we will protect them and continue to cultivate them.

Another good organizational feature of AAPT is the networks we foster and synergy we fuel among members of similar, special interests. Namely, AAPT is the home of physics education researchers, laboratory and instructional resource professionals, and many other specialized area committees. AAPT is stronger because of these groups. If you belong to these groups, we at the central office thank you for your participation, and pledge our support to help you take your activities to the next level.

Taking AAPT to the next level is the goal toward which we have been working diligently and creatively. You may have noticed a few changes during the past year, but what came through in our communications were the surface effects, piecemeal, and perhaps at times without a convincing context. We are operating to realize an organizational vision of greater leadership and service—with a strong dedication to maintaining the core values of AAPT. These values represent a sturdy, anchoring frame of reference for our common journey ahead.

Moving Toward a Stronger AAPT 
The notion that AAPT stands at a crossroads was explicit in the scope document (framing the search for the Executive Officer), as it was clear from the June 2006 Retreat of the Board and select AAPT leaders. The collective vision is to make AAPT the leading voice and driving force of physics education. AAPT strives to become the go-to resource organization for all physics educators and the lead association dealing with issues relating to physics education, from addressing issues relating to human resources in physics to fostering excellence in teaching, content, and curricular development.

Thus it was clear that AAPT must become a stronger membership society (which means that we enhance our services, recruit and retain members more effectively, and speak with authority on behalf of our large membership pool in the area of physics teaching and learning) and, at the same time, serve the larger community (through professional development and public policy, among other activities).

In view of this, the past year has been a year of transition:

  • The Executive Officer, managers and staff reached out to members and listened. We researched. We read survey results, commentaries, meeting minutes, and other documents.

  • We met extensively with colleagues in a planning group formed in the fall of 2006. Together we penned statements of vision, values, and constituency (which we shared with you through AAPT News in January), and proposed impact goals, objectives, and strategies. The thinking was that AAPT must be fully engaged in advancing pre-college, undergraduate, and graduate education in physics and, by simple extrapolation, teacher preparation in physics. We should do so through faculty development programming and outreach to departments, schools, and officials who influence physics education. (If not AAPT in the lead, who? If not now, when?)

  • We produced a strategic framework, currently with the AAPT Board for review, that lays out the work of the association across the next 7-10 years in terms of operation (areas of focus for the central office), organization (areas of focus for the volunteers and the central office), and impact (areas of focus for AAPT in serving the larger physics and science community).

  • We also started the efforts to review the organizational structure: how AAPT should serve the area committees and sections better, and vice versa. We asked questions about the role of area committees, whether it should be limited to content development for our meetings or could have a broader intellectual responsibility; such as, developing position statements, organizing topical conferences, and supporting the local sections with resources in the areas of specialty. Similar questions were asked about the sections: whether they should be defined by the meetings they hold, or act like local AAPTs and be involved in other types of programming, networking, and as liaisons vis-à-vis the local entities that influence and benefit from physics education (pK-20). The context of course for these reviews is to make AAPT the leading organization in physics education. (We are still in the early stages, as described further below.)

These activities are consistent with the vision before us. Three axes frame that vision: community, scholarship, and advocacy.

  • The community dimension refers to a vibrant membership association, with active volunteers who are involved in academic content and programming, and an organizational structure that is highly effective.

  • The scholarship dimension speaks of pertinent, high-quality, and content-rich programming, from regular topical conferences (à la General Relativity and Computational Physics), to workshops for new college and university faculty and new high school teachers, and from published meeting proceedings to comprehensive digital resources for physics educators at all levels.

  • Advocacy represents the high impact that AAPT should have on physics education through public outreach, student recruitment, and engagement with state and federal officials. Working closely with our sister societies, AAPT can be quite effective in the public policy arena by, as examples, promoting more relevant course and lab content, disseminating good teaching practices and findings of physics education research, improving professional development and work conditions for pre-college teachers. Furthermore, AAPT should have a role in making physics an attractive course of study at all levels (from middle school onward) and promoting gender, racial, and ethnic diversity within the field.

Addressing Member Concerns
There have been concerns about the pace of change, the context for change, and the change itself. We have tried to keep the membership abreast of developments and board actions, but we can of course always do better at communication. At the recent Summer Meeting in
Greensboro, we debuted two open forum sessions with the Executive Officer (something we plan to do at every meeting) to have dialogue about these concerns. There were many significant questions, including some about the Announcer, a considered name change, section relations, topical groups, membership, governance, and public policy.

It is important to mention here that some of these efforts may have come across as mere window-dressing. We urge you to look at them more globally, as integral components of an effort to revitalize our organization’s work and our presence—nationally and internationally. We all understand the importance of programmatic enhancement and improvement of services, which is at the core of what we do; but these depend to some extent on the process of decision making, measures of quality, and how AAPT is perceived within the external community. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the value of branding and marketing: good product and good packaging are linked in making the organization strong and promoting this strength.

For the sake of the general membership, it may be valuable to address the issues of the Announcer, considered name change, and our organizational structure:

Regarding the Announcer
We realize that we did not effectively communicate with you our planned transition away from the Announcer. We apologize. It was not for lack of trying. As you know, the magazine included primarily lists, some news about AAPT activities, financial statements, and meeting abstracts (most significantly, the latter appeared to be of value and primarily to the members who attended the meeting). It was observed that we had not been using the web effectively in communicating with our members; we had no vehicle to highlight either issues of interest in physics education or the many activities that AAPT was leading or co-leading in the domain of physics education, e.g., PTRA, New Faculty Workshops, PhysTEC, ComPADRE, etc. Furthermore, we had no print materials that we could take to foundations and corporations—nothing that spoke of our character and values, and showcased the scope and breadth of our programs and activities.

It was important for us to develop communication vehicles that supported our members and kept them informed, while at the same time sharing with them and the outside world the work that we do as a community. Whatever the new vehicles were to be, their development would be based on the facts that (a) we highly value the need to communicate with our members (both to give them the opportunity to share their perspective with us and to share news and updates with them); and (b) AAPT needed to be more effective in advocating publicly for physics education.

It was within this context that we decided to transition away from the Announcer by doing the following:

  • Producing an annual report that captures AAPT activities, highlights our collective accomplishments, and recognizes all volunteers and contributors; and that could double up as a marketing piece—this first annual report is in development.

  • Creating a general-interest magazine about physics education through AAPT (hence the birth of Interactions Across Physics Education). Interactions deals with the human side of physics education, the people, programs, practices, and policies that influence physics teaching, and is accessible to teachers and non-teachers alike, and could be of interest to non members.

  • Developing a stand-alone meeting program guide and abstract book (we did so this year, but limited the printed version for onsite delivery to attendees and to members who requested it). The goal was to have a PDF available (which we did), and print copies to all attendees (and others who wish hard copies) prior to the meeting.

  • Producing meeting and conference proceedings online (and even in print if warranted) that could be searched and archived (this is in the planning stages).

  • Expanding AAPT News and making it more accessible (a monthly electronic communiqué with our members about the life of AAPT)

  • Strengthening section news and creating a robust web presence for all sections (we have made significant headway on this, but this is still in development).

  • Creating a member corner for individual news and issues of interest to our members (not yet done).

Regarding the Considered Name Change
Please bear in mind that an organizational name change requires a membership ballot since it will be a constitutional change. What we sent out in June was a straw poll to get a sense of our members’ perspective. As President Leff stated in his July commentary, we received a record number of responses with some generous comments. There may have been some problems inherent in the straw poll; some expressed the need to have another name choice; others were not sure why this was even an issue.

We had heard repeatedly that the name may not reflect the membership (we have student members; members who are not physics teachers but are teaching physics; members at colleges and universities who, while committed to teaching, may not identify with the name “teacher”; and international members outside North America who are not attracted to the organization because of its name, and who could help us expand our reach and role internationally). It is also feared that AAPT is considered by many entities, because of its name, as a teachers’ union that is here to serve a limited group of people instead of the “greater cause of physics teaching”—which would make it difficult for us to get funding from private sources and inappropriate to do advocacy work on behalf of teachers.

We are now conducting an independent study of how the current name is perceived among non-members. Based on the outcome of the study, the Board will decide what the next steps are in exploring a name change. This is by no means an attempt to discredit the past or take away from the commitment of what a teacher is or does. We are all teachers at the core and proud of it.

Regarding Issues of Organization and Governance
As stated earlier, the idea of reviewing the organizational structure is timely, considering new strategic directions being contemplated. The goal of this review is to figure out an effective model for the committees’ work and for local action (complete with structure, communication vehicles, member selection process, interaction with the Board and central office, and reporting among other pieces).

The planning group that led the May 2007 retreat, during which most area chairs and section representatives participated, will take the work of the retreat one step further and start fleshing out the general model(s) resulting from the retreat discussions. This group will propose to the Board at its October meeting a number of possibilities, at which point the Board will decide how to gather input from the membership and how to proceed to the next step.

In preparation, a new Governance Review Committee has also been formed by the Board to review the official documents (officers’ handbook, bylaws, etc.) and stand ready to revise the appropriate documents to reflect any changes that the association is poised to adopt.

A New Blog for Members
In order to ensure that you, the members, have an opportunity to express your perspectives and engage in an ongoing dialogue about the life of AAPT, we will be establishing an AAPT blog within the month. We urge you to express your views here or write us at the central office with any ideas and concerns that you have (we accept positive comments as well!). We are here to serve you and help AAPT fulfill its mission of advancing physics through education.

Our Central Activities
As to our current efforts in College Park, we are heavily involved in planning for the January 2008 Winter Meeting in Baltimore, which promises to follow the successful lead of the Summer Meeting (see President-Elect Adair’s commentary about the Greensboro meeting).

We are in the midst of establishing the 2008 operational goals that will guide our budgeting process. And as many of you know, we are also searching for a number of positions, among them: Acting Chief Academic Officer (who will replace Warren Hein during his time at NSF—we wish Warren well); Academic Manager and Events Planning Specialist (replacing Maria Elena Khoury, who is retiring after 22 years of loyalty and dedication to AAPT and our members—we wish Maria Elena a healthy and happy retirement and hope to tap her knowledge on occasion); a fundraising coordinator, and a Senior Fellow for Middle and High School Programming to energize our involvement in the pre-college arena.

In addition, we continue to improve our web presence. We are currently implementing new software to support more effectively our meetings’ registration, our growing system of online applications, and web-based management of committees’ activities.

In Closing
At our core, AAPT serves its members and the greater good of physics education. We will continue to do everything in our capacity to stay honest to our mission and bring us closer to its ambitious vision. We do so for our current and future teachers. We also do it for our current and future students. Thinking of it this way, our work at AAPT becomes not a choice, but an obligation.

On behalf of the central office, I thank you for your support.

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