APS News

October 2013 (Volume 22, Number 9)

Letters to the Editor

AAPT Plays Lead Role for Physics Olympiad Team

I was delighted to read the article in the August/September APS News regarding the US Physics Olympiad Team. The Team had an outstanding performance this year in the International Competition. I appreciate APS highlighting the Teamʼs success to its members. I also appreciate the support that APS provides every year (along with AIP, the other AIP member societies, and University of Maryland's Physics Department).

There was, however, a substantive omission in this article. The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) is responsible for recruiting, selecting, and training teams each year to compete in the International Physics Olympiad. We oversee the Teamʼs training program and make sure that the Team has the opportunity to learn physics and integrate into the physics community. Finally, with the financial support of the Teamʼs sponsors we are able to cover the expenses of the Team members and coaches as they represent the United States and the physics community in the International Competition.

Beth A. Cunningham
College Park, MD

The writer is Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Cultural Bias Can Make Teaching Seem Less Attractive

In addition to the attitude toward and role modeling of physics teaching demonstrated by college and university physics faculty ("The Role of Physics Departments in High School teacher Education" APS News Back Page, Aug/Sep 2013), the ethos of one's institution cannot be overlooked.  In my nearly 40 years of full-time undergraduate physics teaching I regularly featured a career in secondary school physics teaching as an option for my students. We had a well-respected School of Education on our campus with a vigorous and well-supervised student teaching experience. Yet in all those years, only one physics major actively sought secondary teaching credentials and subsequently became a high school physics teacher. My institution's ethos was strongly biased by a predisposition toward health care. A show of hands in a class of 50 General Physics students might yield five or six who were NOT intending on a career in medicine, dentistry, etc.

Over the years a number of my physics majors expressed interest in teaching, often after doing a stint as a General Physics lab TA. But invariably teaching as a career was put in second or third place, as a bailout position if something better didn't work out. This attitude was initially inculcated at home and within their social groups, but strongly supported by the campus ethos within which they subsequently matriculated. I readily agree with Meltzer, Plisch, and Vokos that college and university physics faculty must see themselves as the first line of defense against the decline of competent high school physics teachers. But they may find that their success heavily depends upon their institutional setting and the culture of the student body it attracts. 

Edwin A. Karlow
Walla Walla, WA 

Bold Solutions Help with Children on Campus

In her letter in the July APS News, Keri Haruza mentioned several accommodations for working mothers that seem to be missing on university campuses, such as changing tables in bathrooms and play areas for small children. As a female who earned tenure while concurrently raising a toddler, I thought I might suggest a few ways to view a college campus from a small child's eyes. I brought my son with me everywhere, but in some meetings he had to be silent. To accomplish this, I brought quiet toys for the meeting, and then let him pick his favorite green space on campus; after the meeting we went directly to his choice of green space for some un-hurried play time. I never left until he said he was done playing. We would string ropes up stairwells, and climb 'K2', every time we came on campus. Once I had to bring him to a graduation ceremony because I had a PhD candidate to hood. I tucked him under my robes, pretending we were in 'The Princess Bride' under the holocaust coat, and after we marched in, I sat him on my lap. The people next to me kindly watched him when I had to leave to hood the candidate. The provost noticed, and when he mentioned it to me, I told him that innovation was the hallmark of a good scientist. He and I laughed about my 'innovative solutions' for a few years! I agree with and appreciate Keri Haruza's comments, but I thought presenting the work-arounds that I fashioned for my child might help others. Be bold enough to fashion your own innovative solutions–after all that's why we enjoy this field so much.

Louise Perkins
Hattiesburg, MS

Get Volunteers to Help Educate Science Teachers

The Back Page article in the August-September APS News talks about the need for colleges to foster people that are interested in going into teaching. Good. That is a piece of the solution, and of course there are lots of pieces.

Many years ago I taught high school physics myself in NY state. Why did I leave high school science and physics teaching? One of the problems is that I had nothing in common with the other teachers. Aside from physics, I wanted to be able to talk to my work mates about where I could buy brakes for my car or why it is difficult to fly an airplane using solar cells. The majority of high school teachers were more interested in their social life.

Next difficulty was the administration. All but one of my physics students passed the NY state regents exam. Administrators were very happy about that, but reminded me that I needed to take the required education courses to continue teaching. Sorry, I was not interested in learning that I had to place all the window shades at the same level.

The scarcity of good physics teachers in high school is a big problem, I agree. There was a time, about 20 years ago, when APS had a program to help educate K-12 teachers of science in Montgomery County, MD. The NSF funding ended, the APS leader went away, and all of the scientist volunteers were left cold. We were willing to go on helping Montgomery County teachers but as far as I knew, the program fell apart. I am willing to volunteer again and try to help educate the local teachers, even way down to the K level. I suspect that many of the other scientists in the area would also. I would rather work with the physics teachers but I know there is value working with all levels. Any chance APS can organize helping local public schools?

Victor J. Sank
Rockville, MD

Ed. Note: The Back Page in this issue of APS News describes a program in Santa Fe, NM that is similar to what the writer is advocating.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella