Fall 2006 President's Report

President's Commentary (Fall 2006)
by Kenneth Heller

, Vol. 36, Iss. 3

Mapping the Future Path of AAPT

A Diamond Anniversary is a good time for reflection and rebirth. As we celebrate our past accomplishments, I hope each of us will take some time to contemplate why we are members of AAPT, and why some of our colleagues are not. How does our organization strive to accomplish its mission of “Enhancing the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching”? In what ways has it not lived up to this promise? Answering these questions will help AAPT to respond to today’s challenges and those of the next decade.

The challenges have been clearly expressed in the recent National Academy of Sciences study, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” (available at www.nap.edu/catalog/11463.html). It is not news to AAPT members that the survival of our society depends increasingly on citizens’ understanding of the values and limitations of science and technology. We understand the need for increasing numbers of scientists, engineers, technicians, and science educators, who all receive their professional education at our community colleges, colleges, and universities. The process of achieving a scientifically literate population involves the entire AAPT membership. Every student should learn physics from a qualified high school or community college teacher. All of those physics teachers would have learned from physics professors at our colleges and universities. Those physics professors were educated in high school and undergraduate physics programs and then in the graduate schools of our research universities. As the only organization whose membership spans this range of physics instruction, AAPT must provide the support that enables its members to lead the efforts to meet this challenge.

In June the Executive Board held a retreat, skillfully organized and facilitated by Karen Johnston, to examine the state of AAPT and to map the terrain through which our organization must navigate. Using data from the Executive Office, Area Chairs, and Section Representatives, the retreat participants discussed how AAPT could facilitate the efforts of its members to improve physics teaching and communicate the importance and excitement of physics to the public. The outcome of the retreat is the beginning of a process to adjust the organization and programs of AAPT to meet the needs of the future. A concise summary of the retreat is available here.

The conclusion of the retreat participants was that AAPT needs to: (1) become more agile and action oriented; (2) improve its communication with those who influence education at national, state, local, and classroom levels; and (3) have important goals that stretch the capabilities of the organization and its members. To accomplish this general vision, the retreat participants recommended that the existing organization of AAPT be strengthened. Area committees would be more influential in determining the policy of AAPT within their domains. Since most educational policy and implementation is local, sections would be more closely linked to the national organization and would be provided with resources to become more action oriented.

Specific areas that were identified as important goals include: (1) increasing the fraction of students that take high school physics; (2) increasing the number of highly qualified high school physics teachers; (3) increasing the number of physics majors, especially from underrepresented populations; (4) improving the quality of physics taught in colleges and universities; (5) broadening the membership of AAPT to include more underrepresented populations in physics and more research physicists from industry, national laboratories, and research universities; and (6) making AAPT a recognized leader in physics education. These are obvious goals but the path to achieving them is not obvious.
Realizing the vision that came from the retreat will take planning, resources, dedication, and courage. The next step is to forge a practical plan and move from the terrain map of the retreat to a road map for AAPT. A draft of this plan will be prepared by our new Executive Officer, Toufic Hakim—together with Executive Board members Ruth Chabay, Alan Gibson, Dwain Desbien, and Dick Peterson—by the 2007 Summer Meeting. They will draw upon the data base assembled by the retreat facilitator, Karen Johnston, and continue to collect ideas from the membership and the Executive Office. Once the plan is drafted, it will be presented for comment and revision before being adopted by the Executive Board.

Any plan that includes increased activity will require increased financial resources. To this end, the AAPT has begun a drive to increase donations. The first stage of this drive will focus on funding AAPT awards by establishing an endowment to guarantee their future. Donating any amount to AAPT is tax deductible and can be done electronically via the AAPT website at www.aapt.org/Donations. This page gives you the option of directing your donation to several important AAPT sponsored activities.

Mapping the future path of AAPT does not diminish the need to focus on present concerns. For several years, the Executive Board, the Area Chairs, and the Section Representatives have been in the midst of examining our national meetings. The meeting program committees have been attempting to address member concerns, especially the frustration of many interesting parallel talks. In keeping with most other national organizations, we have introduced posters as an effective communications method. At the 2006 Summer Meeting, the program committee, under the leadership of program chair Harvey Leff, created an innovative meeting structure that tried to address many past complaints. The meeting structure emphasized flexible time for the participants to network during the day without conflicting with too many parallel talks. The meeting had the largest number and highest quality of posters ever. These sessions generated a great deal of excitement as evidenced by the extended discussions that ensued. Plenary sessions were well attended and seemed to please the audience. This structure did have its difficulties, which the next program committee will address. If you have suggestions for tuning the structure of meetings please email them to the current program chair, Lila Adair at adairtlj@mindspring.com.

A larger issue is that national meetings serve less than 10 percent of our members, yet take a significant amount of AAPT resources. Attendance at winter meetings has been steadily declining over the past five years from a high of about 600 to less than 300 fully paid registrants, while attendance at the summer meetings over the same period has held fairly steady at about 600. Based on previous task force reports, we have begun to schedule some winter meetings in conjunction with other organizations of interest to our members. This winter our meeting will be held jointly with the American Astronomical Society. Future winter meetings have been scheduled with the American Physical Society and with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Executive Board and the Section Representatives have been examining criteria for choosing meeting locations that will be attractive to a larger fraction of our members.

A task force comprising Area Chairs and chaired by Gordon Ramsey has also just completed a study of our national meetings. Some of their findings included: (1) meeting attendance is correlated with location, and should be held primarily in areas of high population density; (2) total cost to the participants was an important factor, so a meeting site should have a major airport with low cost flights and be within driving distance for a large number of members; (3) there should be a sufficient density of colleges and universities at the site; (4) the presentation format at the meetings should be balanced in time and space between talks and posters and within the different subject areas of interest to members; (5) sufficient time should be scheduled for networking; (6) the winter meeting should be moved to February or March to be more compatible with teaching schedules. Since the Council, composed of all Section Representatives and the members of the Executive Board, chooses the site of the meeting, please contact your Section Representative or an Executive Board member with suggestions on criteria for determining meeting locations.

Finally, while we are considering the changes necessary to ensure AAPT remains a vigorous organization into the next decade with Toufic Hakim, our new Executive Officer, at the helm, we do have continuity. Bernie Khoury’s position as Executive Officer Emeritus means that he remains an active staff member for the coming year and will be taking on special projects for AAPT. In AAPT, emeritus does not mean retired. We can all look forward to another year of Bernie’s active help during this time of transition, and many more years of his continued contributions as an active member of AAPT.

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