Retiring President's Address - 2006

Reflections on a "Different" Year

Richard Peterson
Announcer, Vol. 36, Iss. 1

In the Lake Woebegon dialect of my “edge of the prairie” home, it is well known that to encounter a situation and then proclaim, “that’s different,” is not normally a laudatory observation. Rather, it denotes an undesired perturbation from the status quo that is likely to bring a Scandinavian scowl, in somewhat the same tradition as the curse, “may you live in ‘interesting’ times.”

This AAPT year has indeed been both interesting and different, yet reserved Minnesotans would still observe, with their twisted optimism, “you bet … and it could have been a lot worse.”

Following 15 very effective years at the helm, Bernard “Bernie” Khoury announced early in the year his plans for retirement, and the Executive Board has worked with him in laying out a period of transition to a new Executive Officer. Our Executive Officer Search Committee began its work in mid-2005, and, at the time of this writing, is looking carefully at candidates for this crucial leadership position. We trust that by late spring of 2006 the new Executive Officer-designate will have been chosen and is preparing to work with Bernie and staff leaders during this year of transition.

And then there were the apparent medical risks for AAPT workers in 2005. Bernie Khoury had major surgery in early August and missed the Salt Lake meeting—AAPT’s director of Programs, Maria Elena Khoury, called to a strong nurturing role, was also absent. A meeting without Bernie’s leadership has been hard enough to imagine, but a meeting without Maria Elena’s charisma and organizational skills is enough to really give one pause. Still, our very large summer meeting prospered through the gallant efforts of Associate Executive Officer Warren Hein, Director of Meetings and Exhibits Carol Heimpel, Director of Member Services Valerie Evans; and many, many others. Following surgery in July, AAPT Secretary Mary Beth Monroe was only able to participate in the meeting by phone, and Roxanne Muller (Khoury’s executive assistant) and Sina Kniseley (former director of Communications/Publications) both missed the meeting due to six-months leave of absence following childbirth. John Roeder, board member, needed to skip the summer meeting due to earlier open-heart surgery, and later that year AAPT vice president and program chair Harvey Leff also had major surgery.

Those stressful times have confirmed that we have a strong and resilient team who will work well beyond the call of duty to keep this ship cruising nicely ahead. I should add that we are delighted that all of the folks mentioned above are doing very well indeed—including the Moms! But still, my family has observed that the AAPT Board has endured a 30 percent major surgery casualty rate—surely a dangerous occupation.

So What’s Different?
Beyond our many vital continuing programs (like PTRA, TPT, AJP, PhysTEC, New Faculty Workshops, U.S. Physics Team/International Olympiad, NSTA Strand Days), let me mention some promising new ventures.

  • The Physics Education Research (PER) community has established AAPT’s first official topical group (PERTG) with well over 250 members who pay incremental dues and maintain their own leadership council (PERLOC). In addition, AAPT has made a commitment to co-sponsor and contribute toward costs of a new “open access” electronic research journal published by APS, Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research. The journal has NSF start-up funding and is edited by Robert Beichner (North Carolina State Univ.), who is now a member of the AAPT Publications Committee.
  • We have a new staff position, Senior Staff Physicist, which has been filled by Charles H. Holbrow, an AAPT past-president and the Charles A. Dana Professor Emeritus of Physics at Colgate University as well as visiting physics professor at MIT and an associate at Harvard University. Holbrow’s charge follows from our intent to more directly serve the physics teaching needs of college/university faculty members, physics staff, and graduate TAs. Many initiatives are underway, including (a) a topical “Teaching General Relativity to Undergraduates” conference prior to the 2006 Summer Meeting in Syracuse, (b) addressing physics graduate TA needs at several universities, and (c) spreading systemic physics teaching reform in research universities, including a conference of leaders in early June 2006.
  • Past-President Karen Johnston is leading the preparation for a strategic planning retreat for AAPT leaders in late June 2006. This has been given very high priority by the Board, with the guiding retreat question being, “How can AAPT strengthen its role as a recognized leader in physics education?” Johnson, working with the Board and staff leaders, has noted at least four areas of anticipated discussion and action: (a) prioritizing and sequencing actions that will respond to trends in association membership, needed member services, and the broader physics teaching community; (b) developing synergy between the national AAPT and AAPT Sections; (c) improving AAPT’s visibility, viability, and influence in the physics and science communities; and (d) building partnerships with other professional associations and government agencies (state and federal) in ways that enhance AAPT’s stature in the professional community.
  • ComPADRE has secured four years of funding within NSF’s National Science Digital Library (NSDL) through an AAPT proposal. This is an extremely competitive area of federal funding, and principal investigator Bruce Mason (Univ. of Oklahoma) and Warren Hein deserve special recognition for seeing ComPADRE through to its current status as one of nine NSDL major pathways. ComPADRE builds on the collaborative efforts of APS, AIP/SPS, and AAS; its roots trace a decade of Physical Science Resources Center (PSRC) experience, and it is now able to greatly expand introductory and advanced undergraduate physics/astronomy collections for students and teachers.
  • Following helpful suggestions from the membership, a national Advanced Laboratory Task Force (ALTF) was formed by the efforts of Harvey Leff. The Laboratory and Apparatus committees strongly encouraged this effort and suggested possible participants. AJP’s Apparatus Notes editor, Jeff Dunham (Middlebury College), has agreed to chair the committee, and other members have been appointed. Initial recommendations to the Board are anticipated from ALTF in late March 2006.

In spite of the stresses and concerns of this year, I can report that it has been my most rewarding year of national AAPT work. We seem to be reaching out more visibly into the full breadth of the physics teaching community on several fronts, and, indeed, are fulfilling responsibilities that simply could not be accomplished by any other physics organization. The empowering strength of AAPT for 75 years has been members who not only enjoy physics, but who are also passionately committed to skillfully sharing that experience, knowledge, and deep sustaining beauty at all levels. In that context I can with great confidence pass the gavel to Ken Heller, associate head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. He adds double meaning to the term “high energy” physicist. Heller is an energetic, true believer in the principle that the knowledge, spirit, and vision for excellence in physics teaching simply must be more broadly shared throughout the physics community. We all welcome Ken Heller to this position and commit ourselves to working with him in the very eventful year that lies ahead.