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President's Commentary (Summer 2003)
Charles H. Holbrow
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 2

Opportunities to Be Relevant

SWOT isn’t the sound of a fly dying. It’s a cacophonous business school acronym for “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.” It’s intended to keep our attention from wandering during a planning exercise.

Let’s SWOT the AAPT. One strength, carefully fostered over the past decade or so, is the professional support it offers to members who teach physics in high school. Nearly a third of our members are high-school teachers; PTRA, PIRA, PSRC, our publications, and our websites provide them with encouragement and useful information. AAPT regional and national meetings also contribute to this effort.

Diversity of membership is another strength of AAPT. Our association comprises teachers in high schools, two-year colleges, four-year colleges, and universities as well as physicists in industry and research laboratories. As a result, AAPT can provide bridges between these groups. Potentially this is the most useful function of the association.

But this strength can be threatened by parochialism — a potentially serious weakness. We are parochial if we focus only on the physics teaching that we do ourselves and ignore the vast amount of physics teaching and experimentation and innovation going on elsewhere. For example, large efforts to reform the teaching of introductory physics at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin have been largely unreported in our national meetings. Another kind of parochialism may be fostered by the AAPT committee structure: Sometimes committees with well defined constituencies generate events for national meetings that are of interest only to their constituents. This builds no bridges.

Irrelevance is the principal threat to the AAPT. We can be a bridge between groups most effectively when they participate in our organization, but no group will stay connected to AAPT for long if we don’t do something useful for them. We are accused of irrelevance in different ways. We hear from four-year college and university teachers of physics that there is too little for them in the national meetings. Some high-school teachers ask why AAPT doesn’t help them more in dealing with the burdens of state and federal teaching standards. Some government agencies ask why we do not do more to inform, shape, and implement federal policies. Research universities, national laboratories, museums, and major federally-funded research programs mount extensive programs of physics instruction and public outreach. They teach large numbers of people and they make major innovations in physics teaching, yet most of them work apart from the AAPT, largely unaware of our existence.

We can respond creatively to these challenges. We probably do need to enhance our relevance to physics teachers in four-year colleges and universities. One step might be to increase the amount of physics content in our national meetings. Another step might be to improve communications with members of the American Physical Society, many of whom are deeply involved in teaching physics. We might also set up a program of mentoring analogous to the PTRA but tailored to the needs of college faculty. These and other possibilities deserve careful consideration, so I plan to ask the AAPT Executive Board to set up a commission to examine ways to make AAPT more useful to college and university faculty.

AAPT has never worked much with teachers of graduate level physics. Until recently there has been little perceived need, but now three issues have emerged that warrant our attention. First, in the past decade or so a number of universities have begun to provide rudimentary teacher training to graduate students who work as teaching assistants. AAPT should develop contacts with these universities to work cooperatively in defining and publicizing such efforts. TAs are important and influential teachers of physics to large numbers of students. I believe that they and their schools would welcome AAPT assistance in helping them to teach physics. This is an area of special opportunity for AAPT to contribute to university teaching.

The question, “What constitutes the core of graduate education in physics?” is closely related to the concern that physics is losing its intellectual unity, fragmenting into specialties so narrow that the practitioners of one specialty are unable to communicate with those of another. In the September 2002 Physics Today, Sidney Nagel wrote “Physics is in crisis. We have lost our ideals and focus as a unified field.” If you haven’t done it already, read this thoughtful piece, and then read the letters of response in the January 2003 Physics Today, especially John Rigden’s. The AAPT Committee on Graduation Education has called upon the AAPT Executive Board to set up a commission to examine this problem. Because of the obvious overlap of interest, we are discussing how such a commission might work closely with the APS. The AAPT should play a major role in any effort to preserve and foster the unity of physics. That’s something that physics teachers have done for centuries.

There are many other ways for AAPT to be relevant. Let us know your ideas, and then let’s work together to make them happen. We are an organization of volunteers. Action requires activists. This means you!

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