President's CommentaryHarvey S. Leff

Harvey S. Leff
March 15, 2007

What Is AAPT?

My February 2007 Commentary was entitled, "Why does AAPT exist?" and I provided reasons why I believe AAPT exists. Here I raise a related question: "What is AAPT?" When I joined the Executive Board in January 2005 I thought I knew what AAPT was. I was wrong. As I became more educated, I learned (as educated people typically do) what I did not know.

AAPT is a much more complex and interesting organization than I had realized. To oversimplify a bit, it consists of six main parts: 1) a national office with a highly professional staff of about 30 people; 2) an Executive Board of 11 voting and 3 ex-officio non-voting members; 3) more than 40 section representatives; 4) over 30 committees that have a total of about 200 AAPT members; 5) about 30 editorial board members for AAPT's publications, and 6) a membership of over 10,500. Notably, much of AAPT's work is done by member volunteers on its committees and the Executive Board.

An answer to the title question is implicit in my comments on AAPT's many and varied activities. Although some of these activities are visible and perhaps "obvious," others are less so, but do deserve to be known. In what follows, I address a potpourri of AAPT activities that illustrate what AAPT does and, in large measure, what AAPT is.

Highly Visible Activities:

Probably the most visible aspects of AAPT are its three paper publications and its website. The American Journal of Physics, a peer-reviewed monthly journal of undergraduate and graduate level physics, has 6,500 subscribers (libraries constituting one-third of them). AJP offers physics teachers the opportunity to share their teaching ideas for lecture and lab classes with the international college-university physics community.

The Physics Teacher,
a peer-reviewed four-color monthly journal/magazine intended for teachers of introductory physics courses from conceptual to calculus-based physics, is published nine months each year. It has 11,500 subscribers. TPT articles are intended for teachers in high schools, two- and four-year colleges, and universities.

AAPT's new full-color bimonthly magazine, Interactions Across Physics and Education

Since you are probably reading this on the Internet, you know that AAPT has a comprehensive website that is updated regularly and contains current announcements and AAPT NEWS. It has listings of all AAPT committees and section representatives. Additionally, you can (1) read minutes from Executive Board meetings; (2) learn about the history of AAPT; (3) browse the AAPT Store catalog and make online purchases; (4) search for a job; (5) find links to the American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher in electronic form; and (6) find a link to ComPADRE, the network of digital collections of physics and astronomy teaching materials. ComPADRE is sponsored jointly by AAPT, the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the American Institute of Physics Society of Physics Students, and the American Physical Society (APS)—and is funded by the National Science Foundation. There is much more on the AAPT website, and visiting it offers an open-ended opportunity for exploration.

AAPT National Meetings
Also highly visible are AAPT's annual winter and summer meetings. These meetings offer the opportunity to attend workshops, contributed paper and poster sessions, invited presentations, plenary sessions with major AAPT awards winners, exhibits of textbooks and laboratory equipment, committee meetings, and more. Our last two meetings had total attendances, including guests and exhibitors, of 968 (Seattle, January 2007) and 1,056 (Syracuse, July 2006). AAPT's meetings expose thousands of physics teachers to new ideas in physics education.

Conferences, Workshops, and Symposia
AAPT offers topical conferences, the last two of which were on The Introductory Calculus-Based Physics Course and Teaching General Relativity to Undergraduates. A topical conference on Computational Physics for Upper-Level Courses will be held at Davidson College in July 2007. In 2006, AAPT sponsored a workshop on Achieving Systemic Change in Physics Teaching at Leading Research Universities, and held a workshop for New England graduate teaching assistants. Also in 2006, AAPT held a 50th anniversary celebration of the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC), America's largest effort ever to reshape how physics was taught in high schools. The first of a planned series of symposia on physics education, Overcoming Gravity: The Critical Force of Physics Education in Boosting National Competitiveness,

AAPT also holds an annual workshop for new physics and astronomy faculty members—in collaboration with the AAS and the APS—at the American Center for Physics. Now in its 12th year, this conference helps new faculty understand how students learn physics and astronomy and how this information can improve a new professor's teaching methods. On alternate years, AAPT co-hosts, with the APS, a Department Chairs Conference. Each conference has a theme and is limited to the first 125 department chairs who apply.

AAPT presents Distinguished Service Citations to a handful of people annually to recognize their exceptional contributions to physics teaching via committee, section, editorial, and related work. At each summer meeting, one physics teacher is honored with an annual Excellence in Undergraduate Physics Teaching Award; another receives an Excellence in Pre-College Physics Teaching Award; the Klopsteg Memorial Award is presented to a notable physicist; and the Robert A. Millikan Award is given to a person who has made notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics. At its winter meetings, AAPT presents its highly prestigious Oersted Award for notable contributions to the teaching of physics, and a Richtmyer Memorial Award to a notable physicist. Occasionally, AAPT presents a Melba Newell Phillips Award to an AAPT leader who "displays a truly unique life of creative leadership, dedicated service, and exceptional contributions in AAPT." Descriptions of these awards and lists of past winners, which read like a Who's Who of Physics and Physics Education, are on under Grants, Competitions, and Awards.

International Physics Olympiad
AAPT and the American Institute of Physics (AIP) sponsor a competition each year for high school students to represent the United State at the International Physics Olympiad Competition. AAPT administers the program, including recruiting, selection, and training for these teams on behalf of AIP and its member societies. In 2006, the five U.S. team members won four gold and one silver medal at the Competition in Singapore's Nanyang University. AAPT members in the United States have good reason to be proud.

But Wait, There's More …

Some of AAPT's important activities might be unknown to many members. Below is a smattering of some less visible activities of AAPT.

Meetings Planning
AAPT's national meetings have variable venues and are complex organizational events that require considerable planning beginning several years in advance. Meeting sites are approved by the AAPT Council, which consists of the Section Representatives and the Executive Board. Under the leadership of the AAPT Vice President, a Programs Committee of 18 Area Committee Chairs plans each meeting's program. The Area Committees develop calls for papers on a wide variety of topics and arrange for invited speakers. A subgroup of Area Chairs synthesizes information from contributed and invited presenters and schedule sessions in a paper sort at the AAPT national office in College Park, MD.

A newly instituted Meetings Committee will identify and research future national meeting sites to assure that they satisfy AAPT criteria for successful venues. The Meetings Committee will work toward maintaining continuity between past and future meetings. Additionally, it will oversee logistics, engaging in discussions with physics departments near each meeting venue to assure their active involvement before and during the meeting.

At the high school level, the AAPT Physics Teaching Resource Agents (PTRA) program provides sustained professional development to teachers of physics and physical science. This is done with a cadre of more than 100 accomplished high school teacher-leaders across the country. These teacher-leaders are trained and updated yearly, and they then conduct a series of workshops in their respective locales. At the completion of their training they are certified as PTRAs by AAPT. Two hundred such certified PTRAs now support a large set of in-service programs. An annual summer institute provides PTRAs with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively lead outreach institutes for rural teachers.

PhysTEC and PTEC
In collaboration with APS and AIP, AAPT sponsors the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC). A network of 12 primary institutions works toward producing more and better-prepared elementary, middle, and high school teachers who are committed to interactive, inquiry-based approaches to teaching. At these institutions, physics and education faculty collaborate to develop essential program elements.

An outgrowth of PhysTEC is PTEC, a coalition of more than 80 physics departments that are dedicated to the improvement of K-12 physics and physical science teacher preparation. The broad goals of PTEC include building relationships among physics departments, schools of education, and school districts; engaging future teachers in inquiry-based science learning; and recognizing the continuum of efforts required to successfully train and support physics and physical science teachers.

Public Policy Statements
Occasionally, AAPT issues policy statements on major issues. Although these are public, they might not be known to some members. These include: 1) TIMSS: Bringing Visibility to Science and Math Education, 2) Education of Future Teachers, 3) Physics First, 4) Research in Physics Education, 5) Teaching of Evolution and Cosmology, 6) The Goal of Introductory Laboratories, 7) The Role of Laboratory Activities in High School Physics, and 8) What is Science? AAPT's public policy statements can be found at

AAPT offers listserv opportunities to members and friends. These offer a wealth of networking opportunities in diverse areas and are all accessible from the AAPT website under Teaching Resources. Fourteen of the 18 AAPT Area Committees have listservs that are open to friends, and AAPT also sponsors active, open listservs on: Advanced Labs, Physics First, Teacher Preparation Coalition, Powerful Ideas in Physical Science, and Two-Year College Physics. As interest groups emerge, AAPT is happy to sponsor new listservs.

Career Center
In collaboration with the AIP, APS, and AVS, AAPT operates a career center that reaches the broad community of science and engineering. Members can post their resumes and view job listings for free. The level of usage reflects the Career Center's utility: its website receives about 20,000 hits monthly.

Among others, AAPT has sponsored two major studies resulting in reports on "Strategic Programs for Innovations in Undergraduate Physics (SPIN-UP)." One study, which focused on two-year colleges, identified exemplary physics programs from which a large number of minorities and women enter science, technology, engineering, or math programs at four-year colleges or universities. Another study, centered on four-year colleges and universities, was done in collaboration with APS and AIP via the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics. Departments that increased their number of bachelor's degrees granted or maintained a number higher than the national average, all aggressively maintained and improved their programs. The important results of both studies can be found at

Other Competitions
AAPT sponsors an annual Apparatus Competition to recognize, honor, and publicize worthwhile contributions to physics teaching through demonstration and experiment. There is a popular annual High School Photo Contest, and selected winning photographs are used for AAPT's annual calendar. An annual Video Contest encourages high school students and faculty to produce videos that illustrate physics in action. AAPT is also the sole Educational Partner for the 2007 Team America Rocketry Challenge for middle and high school students—the world’s largest rocket design launch contest. It is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Rocketry in partnership with DoD, NASA, and AIA member companies. And this year, AAPT is introducing the Rocketry Lesson Plan Competition to help generate educational best practices. Details of these and other competitions can be found at

Member Services
Currently, AAPT offers regular, student, retired, emeritus, and life memberships. AAPT is currently reviewing this structure to identify ways to provide more effective member services and thereby increase the number of members. AAPT also offers sustaining memberships to corporations and institutions, and is considering other forms of institutional memberships.

Development and Stewardship
AAPT is in the process of establishing a fundraising plan. Objectives are to offer a variety of giving options such as planned giving, legacy giving, memorial funds, and the like—and to identify prospective donors. This is a new area of focus for AAPT, and one that will help assure long-term fiscal health and stability of the association.

Affiliated Organizations
AAPT has a number of affiliated organizations. One of these, Physics Instructional Research Agents (PIRA), is active at national AAPT meetings. PIRA consists mainly of experts who develop physics lecture demonstrations and select, purchase and maintain equipment for physics departments. It co-sponsors sessions at national meetings, and operates a resource room staffed by instructional resource specialists for meeting participants.

Concluding Remarks:

Clearly AAPT engages in a wide and deep spectrum of activities for the community of physics teachers and others who have interests in physics education. The description above, though brief, is intended to illustrate the breadth of those activities. As I learn more about AAPT, I become more aware of its comprehensive nature and substantial value to physics educators and physics education. I hope that this Commentary will help you better understand what AAPT is generally and more specifically, what AAPT is for you.

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