Archived Newsletters

Comments From the Chair, Can We Communicate?

Ruth Howes

Panel after distinguished panel recommends improving the "communications skills" of physics students. We in the physics community heartily endorse their recommendations. Unfortunately, neither the physics community nor the assembled experts describe exactly what "communications skills" we need to improve. Research results are judged by publication and presentation to critical peers. Current teaching techniques include "having students write up lab results for Physical Review Letters" or "using class for 10 minute physics papers," or even "requiring proposals for senior projects." But today, the survival of physics research depends on constituencies outside physics and science itself.

For years, industrial physicists have pointed out that they interact regularly with engineers, mathematicians, chemists and even biologists. Today's corporations are moving away from central labs dedicated to basic research towards research tied closely to specific product development. Certainly small start-up companies tie research activities to production. In these arenas, physicists must work closely with business types trained in marketing and management.

Recent budget debates demonstrate that the general public (including politicians) do not understand science in general and physics in particular. The images of physics and physicists on popular television programs are problematic to say the least. Consider the recent commercials for tires, soft drinks and tennis shoes that claim to violate the laws of physics, use physics jargon to repel unwanted sexual advances and mangle the principles of physics to win games. Dare to ask a casual passerby what physics is or what physicists do. The results can be startling!

We physicists can no longer afford the luxury of talking mainly to ourselves. We must learn to appreciate the skills of the journalist, and yes, the public relations guru. Thus it is timely that this Forum on Education Newsletter is dedicated to physics and the media. Physicists must involve the media and the public they serve with physics and its exciting results.

Our students should practice writing press releases on their research projects as well as Phys. Rev. Letters. Physics students should explain their work not only to classmates, but also to groups from other disciplines and members of the public -- middle school students, perhaps? We must recognize that communication includes receiving as well as broadcasting. Attending seminars in other disciplines, our students should analyze them as physicists. Real-world problems present themselves in ordinary language. Therefore students must learn to recast them in physics terms--and of course, explain their physics results in ordinary language.

Finally, we must recognize that those who communicate physics to the public and to students possess a unique talent and a practiced skill. Not all of us can push the envelope of physical understanding. Nevertheless, all physicists should have a solid understanding of the major ideas of physics and the fundamentals of physics research. Not all of us can explain frontier research results to the person on the street. But all physicists must learn to do this adequately, see that our students' skills exceed our own, and value those among us who can communicate.

Book Review

A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching, Randy Knight

Arnold Arons must have felt, for many years, like an Old Testament prophet crying in the wilderness. For more than twenty years, Arons has been studying how students really learn physics, in stark contrast to how most of us assume they do or think they should. He has tried, in an outpouring of articles in the American Journal of Physics, The Physics Teacher, and elsewhere, to get our attention. His efforts, and those of a small group of like-minded colleagues, are beginning to bear fruit as the field of physics education research grows in stature.

This book is a masterful compilation of what Arons, and others, have learned about the learning of physics. It presents powerful and insightful suggestions about using this information to change and improve the teaching of physics. Blended throughout are Arons' knowledgeable views on the history of science, the role of language, and the importance of critical thinking. It is seasoned liberally with his dry wit and personal vision. Every teacher of introductory physics, from high school through the calculus-based course, should have a copy of this book within easy reach.

Anyone who has taught introductory physics is all too familiar with the student who can work all of the end-of-chapter problems but is completely stymied by even the simplest request to "explain" an observation. More distressing are the great number of students who, despite high SAT scores and impressive high school credentials, flounder hopelessly in physics and "just don't get it." For those of us who have spent years assimilating the concepts of physics, until they seem clear and obvious, it is extremely difficult to remember just how difficult, abstract, and non-intuitive these concepts really are. The fact that it took scientists the stature of Galileo, Newton, and Faraday to recognize the fundamental ideas and concepts of physics, while most of their contemporaries "just didn't get it," should remind us of this. Perhaps, just perhaps, a nine-month forced march through an enormous body of material is not an effective means for teaching, or learning, what is important about physics.

Arons' contribution to education has been to learn, via direct interviews and the analysis of carefully constructed questions, what students are thinking of and about as they work problems, watch demonstrations, or attempt to reason about a physical situation. He, and his colleagues who have made significant contributions to this research, have discovered a wide range of thought patterns and reasoning strategies that are used by students in introductory physics. Their findings, it should be noted, have been widely replicated by many researchers using students at many different universities. The results are as robust and reproducible as the results of any physics experiment.

Many of what we, as teachers, call "misconceptions" of our students are more correctly identified as "preconceptions" or "prior conceptions." Much instruction, and instructional material, is based on the tacit assumption that students are empty vessels, tabula rasa, waiting to be filled with the correct knowledge of physics. But, in reality, students have spent 18 or so years of their lives before they reach our classrooms as "experimental physicists," forming their own "theories" to correlate and explain their experiences in the physical world. These prior conceptions are not well articulated, or even consciously recognized, by students, and they often contain what, to us, seem blatant logical inconsistencies. Yet these naive theories underlie our "common sense" views about the world, and many correspond closely to physical theories held by the wisest pre-Newtonian scientists. They have been extremely successful in allowing the theory holder to get through life and to make sense of his or her experience.

Examples of such prior conception are that a force is needed to sustain motion (which implies that force is proportional to velocity rather than to acceleration), that objects in space are "weightless" because there is no gravity there, that batteries are sources of constant current, and that the current is "used up" by circuit elements such as light bulbs. These prior conceptions, and many others that Arons describes, are extremely robust and resistant to change. They do not vanish just because we announce the "correct theory" to students. Neither, it has been shown, do standard demonstrations or laboratory experiments have much success at changing students' concepts. The student who can solve the problems but not give an explanation has partitioned his mind into "knowledge for solving physics problems" and his still unaltered "knowledge about how the world really is." As unwelcome as this news is, Arons provides extensive documentation as to its pervasiveness.

These underlying, prior conceptions are not recognized, or are quickly glossed over, by traditional texts and teaching methods. Arons contends, and he marshals an impressive array of evidence to bolster his assertion, that these prior conceptions must be explicitly unearthed and confronted head-on before students can succeed in physics. His objective with this book, he states, "is to bring out as clearly and explicitly as possible the conceptual and reasoning difficulties many students encounter and to point up aspects of logical structure and development that may not be handled clearly or well in substantial segments of textbook literature."

Arons presents a strong case that we, as teachers, have a lot to learn about learning. But his book is far more than an academic analysis of the problem. It is, in addition, very much a presentation of specific and practical ideas for how to teach physics more effectively. It is, you might say, a guide for how to be a teacher rather than just a lecturer. Roughly half the book is devoted to Newtonian mechanics, and most of the rest to electricity, magnetism, circuits, and waves. There is a short section on early modern physics, while other topics, such as thermal physics, are mentioned only in passing. This uneven coverage is understandable, since research into the nature of student learning difficulties has focused most heavily on mechanics. Even so, the reader is sometimes left wishing for a more balanced treatment.

The book provides extensive suggestions for presenting material in novel ways, for filling in the many logical gaps that trip up students (and which we, through familiarity, rarely see at all), and for activities and demonstrations that engage students in active learning. Arons stresses the importance of multiple representations of knowledge through graphs, pictures, free body diagrams, and so forth, but he cautions that students need explicit instruction and much practice before these become useful tools. He notes, in conjunction with free body diagrams, "It is a well-known phenomenon that many students, when they first start drawing free body diagrams, produce pictures resembling a porcupine shot by an Indian hunting party."

While students can learn to make very successful use of free body diagrams and other thinking tools, they need instruction and repeated practice to do so. Since traditional texts offer little or no appropriate practice opportunities, Arons provides an extensive sample of supplemental homework and exam problems focused on these issues. This is one of the major strengths of the book. These are, he notes, not intended to replace more traditional quantitative problems but, instead, "to confront the mind of the learner with aspects otherwise not being made explicit."

Arons' perspective on the teaching, and learning, of physics is summed up in two questions he insists we pose, over and over, to students: "How do we know ...? Why do we believe ... ?" This is, after all, the essence of understanding physics as a science, a way of knowing, rather than as a collection of loosely related formulas. Perhaps, just perhaps, there really is a hope that science education, and physics education in particular, can be improved if Arnold Arons just keeps prodding us along.

Randy Knight is Professor of Physics at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He is developing new curriculum materials based on physics education research.

Profile of a Science Writer

Ivars Peterson

Ivars Peterson has been covering the worlds of mathematics and physics for the weekly magazine Science News for 14 years. Peterson earned an undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry at the University of Toronto in his native Canada, followed by an education degree. As a high school physics teacher, he was involved with AAPT, gave presentations at meetings, and developed his own newsletter. Photon: Physics for Fun began as a tool to show his students that physics is not only fun and interesting, but is also relevant to everyday life. Over five years, he produced 50 issues (he notes that this was before the days of desktop publishing) and had an international subscriber list of over 500 people.

After eight years of teaching, Peterson found that increasing administrative duties prevented him from staying as current and involved in science and teaching as he wanted to be. Science writing seemed to him to be an ideal way to combine his love of sharing science with others and his desire to keep abreast of new developments. Peterson entered the master's degree program in science writing at the University of Missouri, in part due to the opportunity to compete for an internship at Science News. Science News shares the philosophy of relevance and timeliness, reinforcing Peterson's interest in explaining how science is relevant to everyday life. "I like doing stories," he relates, "on things like scotch tape and why it doesn't stick when it's wet." His efforts at the University of Missouri program were rewarded by his winning the internship, which eventually led to his current job. Initially, Peterson covered the "miscellaneous beat" at Science News -- things that were not being covered by other reporters due to lack of time or lack of interest. "I got into math writing partly because no one else was doing it," Peterson explained, "The trick in journalism is to do things other people don't do. You can either really compete and try very hard to be first with something, or brilliant with something, or you can pick a field where there's practically no one else writing and make that your specialty. I chose the latter." One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a science writer, Peterson says, is talking to scientists about their research. Peterson marvels that, "in 14 years, there has practically never been anyone who has refused to talk. Everyone is interested and excited about what they're doing." Due to the small staff at Science News, Peterson does all of the background work for his stories himself. To prepare for an interview, he consults preprints, publications in journals such as Physical Review Letters, press releases and databases. "Sometimes," Peterson says, smiling, "I have to do the interview blind, and then it's exciting because it tests how quickly I can think!".

Although his science background assists in preparing for an interview, Peterson feels that the most essential skill a science writer needs is the ability to find a story, identify what aspect of the story is interesting and then to tell the story well. Unlike many other publications, Science News editors usually allow the writers to initiate story ideas, as opposed to assigning stories. Learning how to identify a story -- especially when faced with a massive amount of information -- is something that is missing from a journalism school education, Peterson says. "It's an important skill no matter what you do, and it's something that's not taught so easily."

One place where Peterson is routinely confronted with having to winnow through huge amounts of information is at meetings of the professional scientific societies. Readers of Science News are familiar with the `Ivars Peterson reports from the American Physical Society meeting in ....' byline used to introduce the one- column brief reports of meeting highlights. When asked how he chooses what stories to cover, Peterson laughs. "Let's take the March meeting," he says, "You get this big thick book of abstracts and I used to go all the way through, and read every one. But that's not very efficient!" His current distillation technique involves limiting his reading mostly to invited papers. His own interests play a role in selecting topics he finds interesting, and he also checks to see if the topic has been covered before. "My innovation for this year," he continues, "is that I've put it all on a computer grid and I put in which things look interesting. Some things conflict and are eliminated." Topics of press conferences presented by APS during the meeting may also influence his choice of stories. Reports of results that will shortly appear in a journal like Science, Nature, or Physical Review Letters receive high priority, both for their timeliness and for providing background prior to the talk.

In addition to his writing for Science News, Peterson has authored a number of books. The difference between the two types of writing, he notes, is that the longer format of a book allows him to present more details of the story. Science writing -- like most types of journalism -- requires above all accuracy and quickness. The shorter space available in Science News each week means that aspects of the story must be left out. In some cases, these aspects generate an idea for a book. For example, Peterson's current book- in-progress is based on twelve topics he's written about for Science News, but with a more thorough and leisurely telling of the stories. Each chapter will start with an event familiar to the reader -- perhaps a sneeze, fireflies, or soap bubbles. These common events will be used to introduce some basic science. Finally, he'll explain how mathematics plays a role in understanding the events. "These are the same discoveries I wrote about in Science News," he says, "but presented in a way that brings people into the story. You might call them `math x-rays'". After fourteen years, is there anything Peterson would like to say to the physicists he's covered? "Just thanks," he says, smiling, "you've made this a very interesting job." Ivars Peterson's most recent book is entitled Newton's Clock.

How I Went From Comedy Writer to Science Teacher In Sixty- Five Easy Lessons

Casey Keller

Editor's Note: Those tuning into Beakman's World for the first time may be surprised to find that Mr. Wizard now wears a lime green lab coat (with Lyle Lovett hair) and has as his sidekicks a stylishly dressed young woman and a guy in a rat suit. Beakman's World can be see on CBS affiliates and on cable's `The Learning Channel'.

Well, it's finally happened... Responsibility for the education of America's future scientists has been passed on to a couple of guys who used to write for The Loveboat and Who's The Boss?. What's wrong with you people? What can you be thinking?

My partner, Richard Albrecht, and I had spent fifteen years writing situation comedies when we interviewed for a job as head writers on a new show called Beakman's World. We watched a ten minute presentation tape. On it we saw a bizarre man with bizarre hair in a bizarre laboratory talking about the most excruciatingly boring subject we had ever considered -- and making it fascinating and fun. Best of all, it made us laugh.

We had reservations about taking the job. We're not scientists -- we're comedy writers. Mark Waxman, the show's executive producer, assured us that our lack of scientific knowledge would not be a problem. The research people would write the lessons. All we had to do was add jokes. That was the biggest lie since, "we'll make up the teachers' salary cuts next year."

Mark Waxman isn't a liar but he was badly mistaken. Beakman's World is about teaching science in new and exciting ways. Those new and exciting ways ARE the jokes. Our research staff, Al Guenther, M.J. Miller, Jok Church and Frank Hernandez did a heroic job, but they could not deliver on Mark's promise. That was really up to us.

It turned out to be great fun. We immersed Beakman in a tank of water to explain displacement. We had Josie and Lester sing Bee- Barf-A-Loo-La to remind our viewers that honey is regurgitated from the stomachs of bees. Beakman, Lester and Liza got their hands dirty fixing a clogged drain pipe to explain how doctors treat heart attacks. We call these gags that make you laugh and learn at the same time, the aha's. It's that moment where the light bulb goes off over the heads of our audience. When our writing staff, Elias Davis, Dan DeStefano, Barry Friedman and Phil Walsh would pitch ideas to us, Richard and I would always ask, "Where's the aha?"

I had to turn from comedy writer to science teacher overnight. And the weirdest thing happened. All that old stuff I thought I hadn't learned back in Mr. Creen's ninth grade science class jumped up out of my unconscious memory and into my conscious memory. Weirder still, it started making sense. Suddenly, Archimedes' Law became clear as a bell and I finally understood the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy. (Don't laugh. I told you I'm not a scientist.)

Here it is, sixty-five episodes later. Beakman's World has won three Emmys, the Cable Ace Award for best children's show and the Ollie Award for Excellence in Children's Programming. More importantly, my children love the show and love to talk about science. On a recent vacation, Zoe, my five-year-old, took the pilot of our plane aside to tell him that the four forces of flight are thrust, drag, lift and weight.

As I said, I'm not a scientist, I'm a comedy writer. But I have learned a few things during my time at Beakman's World.

Children don't hate learning -- they just hate school. And why shouldn't they? As important as it is, school is the process by which we harness up our children so they can be put to work for our society. We impose structure on their unbridled free spirits. For a few hours each day we take away their spontaneity and make them focus their energies on things that often don't interest them. School is where many children get their first tastes of failure and inadequacy. At Beakman's World, we receive thousands of letters every week from school kids who want answers to their questions. Nobody tells them to write to us. They do it because they want to know. The hunger for knowledge is out there.

Get the kids on your side. Beakman's World is the opposite of school. Instead of imposing structure on our audience, we appear to be chaotic. Our irreverent comedy, our underground comix style animation and our sound effects, particularly the sound effect you hear coming from Lester (the guy-in-a-rat-suit), tell the audience that we're not their parents or their teachers. We're the bad boys (and girls) of science.

Don't talk down to the kids. Kids know when you're patronizing them. By writing a show we enjoy and that makes us laugh, we are assured of never talking down to our audience. Of the thousand letters that arrive at Beakman's World every week, some of my favorites are from adults who write to confess that they watch our show even though they don't have kids.

You can eat a whole cow if you do it one hamburger at a time. There is no principle, scientific or otherwise, so complicated that children cannot learn it. The trick is to break it down into bite- sized pieces that little minds can consume. It's also critical that we explain the little things that may seem terribly obvious to us, but are not to our youngest viewers.

All television is educational television when kids are watching. Those powerful little brains are sponges, soaking up everything they see and hear on that small screen. But those little minds don't have the tools to discriminate between things worth learning and things not worth learning. If you doubt me, ask my son, Max, to recite TV commercials for our local Ford dealer.

Since all television is educational whether we intend it to be or not, it's our job as parents to help our children choose the shows they watch. The things our kids learn from Sesame Street are extremely valuable, empowering and life affirming. The things they learn from their local news show may not be. More importantly, it's our job as broadcasters to provide shows for children that are worth watching and lessons that are worth learning.

I've picked up a bit of scientific knowledge over sixty-five Beakman episodes. I've learned that the main purpose of every life form on earth is to pass on its genetic information. But we humans are probably the only species that has something else to pass on besides our genes. We have to pass on our culture and our civilization. Not just because it's a nice thing to do, but because it's essential to our survival.

We must equip our kids with the knowledge they need and the skills to acquire that knowledge if we're going to keep our civilization alive. There were two and a half billion people on this planet when I was born. Today, there are close to six billion. Who knows how many people there will be by the time my kids are young adults. We've got to equip these people with the knowledge they'll need to survive. We've got to empower them with the learning skills and thinking skills they'll need to keep civilization civilized -- or as close to civilized as it gets.

And it's not just my kids, Max and Zoe, who need this empowerment. The quality of their lives and their survival depend on everybody's kids learning, and more importantly, learning to learn.

Casey Keller is a television writer-producer with a long list of credits in situation comedy. With his partner, Richard Albrecht, Casey has worked on shows like Who's The Boss?, 227 and The Hogan Family. Casey and Richard's latest educational show, A.J.'s Time Travelers, will premiere in syndication this Fall.

Scientists and the Media

Those involved in communicating science to the public come from a broad variety of backgrounds. Ivars Peterson, who is profiled elsewhere in this issue

Ben Stein, a science writer for the AIP Public Information office, was an undergraduate physics major at SUNY-Binghamton. He worked in a research lab his junior year and realized that he enjoyed physics, but didn't enjoy the laboratory work as much as he enjoyed writing up the results. He also worked with an undergraduate research journal where he helped writers make their papers accessible to other students. The combination of love of physics and writing made science writing a `mission' for him. Stein received a Master's degree in journalism, with a certificate in science and environmental reporting from New York University. Stein interned at AIP and started as a regular writer in 1991. Stein and Peterson gave their impressions on the roles of the media, physicists and the relationship between the two.

Many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar to those needed to be a good researcher. For example, Peterson believes that the most essential characteristic for a science writer is the ability to distill out the interesting aspects of a story when faced with a massive amount of information. Stein identifies another essential characteristic as not being afraid to ask questions and (like researchers) being able to identify which questions to ask.

If many of the skills necessary to be a good science writer are similar to those needed to be a good researcher, why is there the current perception that physicists are not very good at explaining what they do to the public? Peterson notes that science writing is really very different from the writing a Ph.D. does. For one thing, "(a science writer) has to focus on what elements of the story will be interesting to other people. That's a good skill for a researcher, but it's not essential." Stein notes that the would-be science writer must also be interested in explaining science to non-scientists. There is often a large gap between the vocabulary and culture of the two groups, which complicates effective communication. He believes that the best science writers are those who are both good researchers and good scientists, because "they have how all the science fits together in their head, whereas I have to call up three people to get those same connections."

Stein cites Hans Christian Von Bayer and Robert Park as examples of scientists who have been successful in communicating with the public about science. Robert Park, who writes `What's New' for APS, decries the "narrowness and special vocabulary of the physics profession. We don't think twice about saying that we're going to do something adiabatically -- which is meaningless to someone who doesn't know the jargon." Park continues, "Part of the problem is that the physicist is most concerned with impressing his colleagues. The worst colloquia we ever get are from candidates for assistant professor jobs, because they are intent on showing people how much physics they know -- not how simply they can explain it. That culture is throughout the whole profession." Park adds that sometimes the most respected physicists are at an advantage in communicating with the public because their already-established reputation in physics frees them from having to impress anyone.

Peterson agrees with the necessity for breadth, noting that the best journalists are usually also the best Trivial Pursuit players. Stein believes that breadth includes staying in touch with the public so that you can develop creative analogies that are understandable to your readers. All of the writers mentioned that a good test for a scientist considering a foray into communicating science to the public is for the scientist to first explain their topic to a parent or spouse.

Writing for the public can be frustrating due to the need to be complete and accurate, but not overwhelm the audience, Stein says. "As satisfying as it is to understand all the steps of a complex process, you have to avoid boring the reader to death. As for accuracy, you may come up with a cute analogy or a simplified explanation that reads well, but it may turn out to be incorrect or inappropriate."

With the current difficulty many graduates are having finding employment, the suggestion is made that some of them might be doing a service to the physics community by becoming involved in science writing. After cautioning that "...there isn't a big demand (for science writers)," Peterson emphasizes the value of a formal science writing program. "Journalism is a very specific kind of trade with very specific kinds of constraints and practices," Peterson says, "My experience at the University of Missouri gave me an education in what journalism is about: meeting deadlines, writing quickly and accurately and learning a basic set of formulas you can use when you need them." Science writing programs also offer courses in journalistic ethics and style conventions. The most important aspect of attending a formal science writing program is the opportunity to make contacts: both Peterson and Stein won their present jobs via internships. Stein adds that the programs also force you to write, which is the only way to improve. He also adds, though, that a formal degree is not absolutely necessary -- one way of breaking into the business is through freelancing. Many magazines are interested in 200-300 word pieces from freelancers, he says, and magazines are currently hiring fewer full time employees and using more freelance writers. Peterson goes further to suggest that, if it is your intent to work for a newspaper or magazine, that you get your writing experience in a similar format.

"The tricky thing for Science News is that we have to do things quickly and accurately, so it helps if your experience shows that you can do things under a more journalistic type of deadline."

Both writers remain surprised at how willing scientists are to talk about their research. Contrary to what one might think, some of the best leads come from people who approach them. Peterson relates one particularly relevant story. "I got a call a few months ago from a student at the University of Massachusetts who was doing a research project on Newton's Gravitational constant. She had just heard that the recent measurements disagreed with the standard values given in the textbooks by 0.1% -- and that's a lot. She was trying to track down where the information about this disagreement was and one of her professors suggested that something this important would certainly be in Science News. This student called me and said that her professors had said that this was going to be big news and that it would definitely be covered in Science News. I didn't know anything about it at that point! I checked into it and I ended up suggesting to the APS people that they set up a news conference on this because it sounded good. They did, which made it convenient for me because they got all four people -- two were from Germany and one from New Zealand, which would have been hard for me to reach, or even to catch at the meeting. So I worked with them (APS) -- the disadvantage was that it meant that all the other reporters were looking at the same story. That will be the main story I will do from (the April APS) meeting. It turned out to be very interesting for all kinds of reasons. It was extremely important for physical reasons, but also in terms of how science is done."

Stein also encourages APS members with interesting news to make the APS Public Information Office aware of their findings. As a public relations officer at a scientific organization, "People should be free to contact us when they think they're doing something interesting. We won't know about many of these things because there are so many things going on." Stein welcomes preprints of articles accepted for publication, with a cover letter explaining why the paper may have wider interest. Stein also suggests how physicists can make the writer's job easier:

"(Scientists) should think of everyday analogies to describe their work. They should have simplified pictures or diagrams illustrating their experiments or the basic concepts behind their research. Scientists should avoid jargon, and be receptive to any questions from the writer, no matter how basic they may seem."

Increasing attention is being paid to the importance of communicating the relevance and importance of physics to the government in the post cold-war period. Peterson believes that this attention runs on a cyclical basis, with the most recent cycle spurred by the cancellation of the SSC and other funding cuts. He also notes that professional organizations periodically feel that they are not being adequately represented and engage in public relations campaigns. Stein disagrees with Peterson, believing that that the end of the cold war will force a permanent change in how physicists interact with the media and the public. In his view, the cancellation of the SSC was not a one-time anomaly, but was the wake-up call for physicists that things are going to be different in the future:

"There are some factors which I hope are cyclical: pseudoscience is on the rise, much of the public is suspicious of science and scientists, and Congress is calling for much tighter Federal budgets. But I think that the need to justify scientific funding to the general public won't go away."

Get Involved! TYC21 - Breaking Down Barriers

Mary Beth Monroe

In March 1995, the National Science Foundation announced funding support for an American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) project entitled "The Two-Year College in the Twenty- First Century: Breaking Down Barriers" (TYC21). During the next four years, TYC21 will develop and foster a national network of two-year college (TYC) physics faculty. The goal is to enhance learning opportunities for students in physics and technical science courses and to empower TYC faculty as a newly recognized, but experienced, voice within the science-mathematics-engineering- technology community.

Two-year colleges are an important part of physics and technical education in the United States. TYCs currently enroll 43% of the students in introductory physics and approximately 50% of the women and minorities in undergraduate courses. Physics departments at TYCs are very small (often a single physicist) and focus on education instead of active technical research efforts. In addition to offering technical programs on TYC campuses, some TYCs provide on-site instructional training for industrial employees.

During the 1989 topical conference (supported by AAPT and NSF) entitled "Critical Issues in Two-Year College Physics and Astronomy - 1990 and Beyond", the participants realized that TYC programs are often invisible to the science community, to the general education community and to the industrial and business communities. Motivated by the issue of professional isolation, TYC21 will establish a personal network of TYC physics faculty by creating opportunities to share ideas on a professional and personal basis throughout the physics community. Members of organizations like the American Physical Society (and the Forum on Education) represent the target audience of the larger physics community in which TYC21 wishes to increase the recognition of the roles that TYCs play in preparing students of all ages as future scientists or citizens who are scientifically literate. APS members will be actively sought out by TYC21 and encouraged to examine and discuss the physics taking place in TYCs and to help TYC faculty members make productive contributions to the larger physics enterprise.

The TYC21 network will develop through a series of local and national meetings. At the local level, TYC21 will foster professional involvement through a series of fifteen regional meetings led by regional coordinators. The coordinators and regional leadership teams will organize local meetings and involve participants as they develop regional activities related to critical issues identified from the proceedings of the 1989 conference and the 1992 NSF Workshop on the Role of Professional Societies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education in Two-Year Colleges. To engage the local networks and provide a national forum, the regional coordinators and three elected delegates from each region will attend an annual national meeting, convened as an AAPT Topical Conference, where resource speakers and consultants will involve participants in a more global discussion of the critical issues and timely pedagogical issues. The activities of TYC21 will provide opportunities for the community to foster leadership, communication and scholarship and, thereby under the auspices of AAPT, the network will be self- sustaining past the funded term of the project. In addition, the activities of TYC21 will promote outreach and partnerships with members and professional societies of higher education, precollege education, industry and business.

See the sidebar discussion on how you can help.

Mary Beth Monroe is Professor of Physics at Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde Texas, and is a PI for TYC21 with Carol A. Lucey, (Vice-President for Academic Affairs, Alfred State College of Technology in Alfred, New York.)

Editorial: A Report on the Department Chairs' Conference on Graduate Education

Diandra L. Leslie-Pelecky

In May, I represented the Forum on Education at an APS and AAPT jointly sponsored Physics Department Chairs conference entitled "Physics Graduate Education for Diverse Career Options". The conference format was composed of presentations and smaller discussion groups. The presenters, representing academia, government laboratories and industry, discussed the value of the graduate degree and the overall future of physics. AAPT Executive Officer Bernard V. Khoury provides an excellent overview of the presentations in his column in the July issue of the AAPT Announcer.

The general outcome of the conference was well summarized by conference co-chair David Campbell as `Quasi Status Quo': although the machine is running, it is time to make some much-needed modifications. The consensus was to refrain from any radical changes in the traditional graduate program (advanced course work followed by an independent research project), but also recognized the need for students to develop additional skills that have not been emphasized in the traditional program. The current system produces scientists with skills -- such as critical thinking and problem solving--that are highly valued by academia and industry; however, speakers emphasized that physicists do not adequately develop oral and written communication skills and so-called `people' skills. These missing elements become increasingly problematic as physicists find increasing competition for employment, funding, and the taxpayers' opinions that what we do remains important.

Increasing the breadth of experience was strongly encouraged. Some suggestions included: meaningful minors in other sciences, engineering or business, developing foreign language or advanced computer skills, and internships in research and/or teaching. At the same time, however, participants also suggested efforts be made to decrease the time needed to complete a Ph.D. Although deliberate extension on the part of advisors or students may be a factor, the main contributor to this problem is poor management. Advisor, student and department must all actively contribute to expediting the process. The requirements for the Ph.D. must be explicitly stated, with goals and milestones set (and periodically evaluated) by both advisor and student. Although some artificial limits were suggested, (e.g., restricting the time the student can be supported, making student progress a condition for the PI's grant renewal, etc.) these were rejected as being difficult to uniformly and fairly implement.

Many felt that graduate programs implicitly suggest that most students will find academic research positions. In reality, academia has always employed only a small fraction of physicists. Despite the numbers, the perception exists that a job with a title that does not include the word `physicist' is an `alternative' career and that the person with that career ceases to be part of the physics community. A similar problem is that of the `terminal' Masters degree, which is often viewed as a consolation prize for those not `good enough' to earn a Ph.D. We were introduced to some outstanding `professional Masters' programs that provide intensive training in response to a strong local or national demand. It is imperative that faculty, departments and the professional societies recognize the breadth of employment obtained by people with graduate degrees in physics. Those employed outside academe or the select remaining industrial research laboratories must be made to feel welcome in the physics community. While some may perceive the emphasis on nomenclature as a type of political correctness, students are strongly affected by their perception of how various career paths are valued by those around them -- who are almost always exclusively academicians. We should take the same care with these terms as we do in differentiating between mass and weight.

Many of the activities applauded at this conference are being pursued in different parts of the physics world. For example, local meetings -- such as the joint meetings of the Texas Sections of APS/AAPT and SPS I enjoyed attending as an undergraduate -- provide students with numerous chances to develop their presentation skills in a professional setting. A student paper competition, which awards a cash prize to the best presented student talk, has recently been established to motivate student participation. Most importantly, if faculty make an effort to introduce their students and help guide them through the conference, students have an opportunity to begin learning the intricate rules of the physics community early in their careers.

There are numerous other opportunities for students to develop necessary skills: journal clubs, group meetings, oral presentations instead of a final exam, participation in activities for the public, etc. Combined research/teaching post-docs give the future candidate documentable teaching experience under the supervision of experienced teachers in addition to the research credentials. A faculty member taking a graduate student to accompany her on a trip to granting agencies provides an introduction to the funding process at the feet of a veteran. Although participation in these activities takes time away from doing research per se, the end result is a better prepared physicist -- regardless of what the student's eventual job title is. All of these activities have the same goal: to formalize mentoring so that the transition from graduate student to professional physicist is second order. The conference explicitly rejected across-the-board changes to be uniformly enacted at all institutions. The implication of this is that the future of the field is in the hands of the individual faculty and students, with professional societies providing a forum for discussion of the issues.

The examination of graduate physics education initiated by this conference is promising, but there is more to be done. Department chairs are a relatively homogeneous group: the conference would have benefited from the presence of more women and/or minority physicists. I encourage AAPT and APS to not only continue their interest in this topic, but to include a broader spectrum of physicists -- particularly those in the early stages of their careers. It is especially important to bring these different groups of physicists together so that they can appreciate each other's constraints and perceptions, and share successes. As one of those `early career' physicists, I was heartened by the seriousness, dedication and passion of the attendees as we discussed problems and possible solutions. I was also disappointed at the laughter in response to a colleagues' explanation of why many junior people are angry about the current situation. In the end, what is most important is that the physics community has recognized that it is time to examine the process of educating physicists.

One of the issues raised by the conference was the need for physicists to improve their communication skills. Most often, the public is aware of what we do through the efforts of a newspaper or magazine writer, a television show, or a radio program. This issue of the Forum on Education Newsletter focuses on the interaction between science and the media. I hope their comments on how they `translate' our words and what they think the public finds interesting will help you communicate the importance (and fun) of what you do to non-scientists.

Browsing Through the Journals

Tom Rossing

In the April issue of The Physics Teacher is an anecdotal article about salt fountains by Arnold Arons. It illustrates, according to the author, "that classical physics is not devoid of opportunities for discovery of new and interesting phenomena." In the same issue is a thought-provoking editorial about precision, error analysis and science standards by Cliff Swartz. These are two master teachers from whom many of us have learned so much about teaching physics.

Making physics attractive to women requires positive measures and a change in culture, Paul Slattery and Priscilla Auchincloss remind us in an article "A climate and culture for women" in the March issue of Physics World. Recognizing that research experience often correlates strongly with college students' long-term retention in science, the authors established a Research Experience for Undergraduates program that achieved its goal of 50% participation by women and minority students.

The Education Exchange column in the MRS Bulletin (Materials Research Society) highlights the experiences of scientists and engineers with local schools, along with helpful hints and resources. In the April issue, Douglas Ivey described demonstration experiments with high-temperature superconductors, nylon, and molten tin, among other things.

A thought-provoking editorial by Neal F. Lane, Director of the National Science Foundation appears in the April issue of American Journal of Physics. In the 50th anniversary year of Vannevar Bush's treatise Science: The Endless Frontier, it is appropriate to note how well Federal government is contributing to "promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth." One criticism of the current system, he points out, is a perceived lack of connection between research and undergraduate education. The author observes, however, that many of our most distinguished researchers are also among the most outstanding teachers of undergraduate and well as graduate students, both in their classrooms and research laboratories.

Short News Items

NAS/NAE/IM Report on Graduate Education Completed
The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine report, "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers," responds to the changes in the national need for scientists and engineers. Among the recommendations are: retaining a broad background, including formal education in non science (i.e., business, law, communication) areas and decreasing the time to Ph.D. A copy of the report can be obtained by contacting the National Academy Press at (202) 334-3313 or 800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $30.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. A copy of the executive summary can be found on the WorldWide Web at, or by gophering to

Elementary Science E-Zine Moves
The e-zine 'Elementary Science' has changed its address. You can now find it at The most recent issue featured information on how to get a free poster from NASA showing pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, suggested some cheap and simple experiments for the elementary school classroom, and shows a number of links to other science and education related sites.

Internet Discussion Lists
Three on-line electronic fora are offered to follow up on sessions held at recent APS and AAPT meetings. Electronic discussion works like an open forum -- you may comment on what was said, open a new line of discussion, or ask a question by sending a message to the list. Those familiar with discussion lists know that many topics may be discussed in parallel.

Clim-fys follows two live fora on "Site Visits to Physics Departments to Improve the Climate for Women" organized by the Forum on Physics and Society, the Forum on Education, and the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP) at the March and April meetings of the APS. An article summarizing these panels appears in the Summer, 1995, CSWP Gazette.

Val-sci follows the live forum session co-sponsored by the Forum on Education at the April APS/AAPT meeting. This list addresses answers to the question "What is the value of science?"

Jobs-ed follows the live forum session on the topic of jobs and education, cosponsored by the Forum on Physics and Society and the Forum on Education.. A summary of the panel discussions is available through the discussion lists.

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We received a number of letters in response to Stan Jones' editorial in the Spring FEd Newsletter (which was reprinted in the June issue of APS News). Due to space limits, two representative letters were chosen for this issue.

Are Students Willing to Work?
In his editorial in the Spring 1995 issue of the Forum newsletter, Stan Jones has downplayed one of the most important issues we face in physics education -- whether our students are willing to work hard on physics. I have been involved in a study of teaching and learning physics in the algebra-based physics courses (which are populated mostly by life science majors) at Florida State University for several years. This study has produced several publications and a Master's thesis for a student in FSU's Science Education program. In our efforts to identify obstacles to learning and implement reforms, I and my collaborators in teaching and studying students have repeatedly run up against the limits of the willingness of most of our students to work on physics outside of class. We find this alarming since our science forms the foundation of much of the modern understanding of biology and allows an understanding of some of the most important tools in the life sciences.

In one stage of our study [1], G.E. Hart, a science education graduate student, met with six students in our first semester algebra-based physics class each week for two hours during the fall 1993 semester. The sessions were held three days before the course's weekly quizzes. The six students, who had volunteered to be members of Hart's group, had deficiencies in their academic backgrounds that indicated increased risk of failure in the course. Hart sold the weekly sessions to the six students as "help sessions", but allowed the students to decide how the sessions could best be used. After several weeks, the students settled on a cooperative learning arrangement in which group discussions on particular homework problems were led by members of the group who had seriously attempted (or successfully completed) the problems. The readers of this letter will immediately recognize this as the ideal study pattern: a cooperative learning situation in which the participants have prepared in advance for a useful discussion.

However, Hart ran into a situation he had not anticipated. Among this group of students who had voluntarily joined this study group, preparation prior to the study session was inconsistent, even after the students had become convinced that early preparation helped their performances on the weekly quizzes, which fell three days after the study sessions. One member of Hart's group wrote in her journal, "Every single quiz that I took where I started my problems [before the study session with Hart] I got an 18 or higher [out of 20 possible points]." Nevertheless, Hart noted in his thesis that this student was unprepared for about 75% of the study sessions, and he mentioned that she was often distracted by extracurricular activities. His experiences with the other five students in the group were not much different.

The success of the Hart group was significant despite the inconsistency of effort outside class periods, so we looked for a practical way to implement the small group situation for the entire class during the second semester of the sequence in spring 1994. We decided to use recitation periods for this purpose. During the first semester of the course in fall 1993, the recitations had been conducted in the traditional manner; that is, professors spent the time presenting solutions to homework problems on the blackboard and answering questions posed by a few of the more outgoing students. During the recitations for the second semester course in spring 1994, the classes broke up into groups of four to six students, and each small group worked together on three or four problems during the 50 minute recitation period. The students received a small amount of credit (5% of the total course grade) for this work. During the recitations, the supervising professor circulated around the classroom answering questions.

About 120 students took both the first semester of the course in fall 1993 with the traditional recitation format and the second semester in spring 1994 with the small group exercise format. We had these students complete a survey in which they were asked to compare their classroom experiences and out-of-class study habits during the two semesters. Student reaction to the new recitation format was generally positive [2]. The faculty members working on this new recitation format had hoped that students' out- of-class study habits would improve for two reasons. First, it was thought that students would become comfortable working with groups on problem-solving, and it seemed possible that more students would work on homework problems with groups outside class. Second, many students had been in the habit of attempting the homework problems for the first time the night before the weekly quiz (which was held on Monday). With the new format, it was hoped that students would attempt their homework problems before the recitation (held on Friday) so that they would be better prepared for both the group exercises in recitation and the quiz.

However, the new recitation format during the second semester had no significant impact on students' out-of-class study habits. When students were asked on the survey whether they "regularly" studied with a group outside class during the first semester, 35% said yes. When asked the same question about the second semester, only 28% responded yes. The fraction of students who said they attempted "most or all of the homework problems" before the recitation on Friday was about the same for the first semester (33%) and the second semester (36%). This implied that most students were taking their first serious look at the week's material during the recitation period, no matter which recitation format was used. We found these results deeply disappointing, since they seemed to place limits on what we could accomplish with practical course reforms.

It seems likely that the small group exercises in the new recitations provided the most productive hour of studying physics most students had in a week. From conversations with many students, I have concluded that most students devote less than three hours per week to physics outside class, and that much of this time is spent unproductively in rote memorization of equations and examples.

We can respond to this situation in several ways. First, we can shrink our expectations of student achievement to fit the disappointing study habits of our students. I am afraid this happens all to often. Second, we can concern ourselves only with the 35% of students who are demonstrating commitment to the subject by beginning their work early and organizing group study sessions outside class. This is certainly a distasteful alternative, but I believe it is preferable to the first.

There may be a third alternative that addresses students' reluctance to work on physics outside class periods: We could expand the small group recitation periods to four scheduled hours per week, and award substantial credit (perhaps 20% of the final grade) for the work done in these sessions. If the high attendance rates we experienced for the 50 minute group work sessions (about 85%) carried over to the longer periods, nearly all the students in the class would be studying in the optimal way four hours per week, a huge improvement over the present situation.

There are several significant obstacles to this latter approach. First, some faculty members believe that part of a college student's training is to learn to study in a disciplined way outside class, and that by "replacing" the need for out-of-class study time we would be hindering a student's broader intellectual growth. This is an important question that deserves serious consideration. Second, it might be expensive to staff the increased class periods properly, although discontinuing lectures (which seem to me to be of little use) and formal requirements for out-of-class faculty "office hours" would free up some faculty time. The third obstacle would perhaps be the most serious for the algebra-based class, which is generally populated by students in the life sciences. These students often have several lab-based courses each semester and spend ten or more hours per week in labs alone. Scheduling two additional two hour blocks per week for physics problem-solving sessions might be difficult.

There are certainly other constructive ways to address the out-of-class study problem. But denying that it is important, as Stan Jones seems to do, does not help. We need to seriously debate the role of physics in the curricula of non-physics majors, as well as the interaction of teaching methods with students' personal responsibility and initiative. If we ignore these issues, we will be abdicating our responsibilities to our students and the entire higher education community.

Paul D. Cottle 
Tallahassee, Florida

[1] G.E. Hart, M.S. thesis, Florida State University, 1995. 
[2] P.D. Cottle and S.E. Lunsford, Phys. Teach. 33, 23 (1995).

Stan Jones responds

Must We Dilute the College Experience?
Dear Stan Jones,

Re your Spring '95 editorial:

It is obvious that one must take students as one finds them. Otherwise they will learn little or nothing. However this leaves unexplored the (in my opinion) usually buried question concerning the need to not dilute the college experience from what it was in the "good old days". I do not believe that students are more or less capable now than before, nor that the important factors concerning learning such as sinking in time in each subject at each level of sophistication have been reduced by modern educational technology.

One may then ask: At what time do we start the four years of traditional college? When I entered City College of New York in 1941 I lacked background in algebra and was required to take "College Algebra" without credit, with the implication that I might need more than four years to get a Bachelor's Degree. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that something similar should be done today. What seems to be lacking is the realization of the problem, and the will and money to face up to it.

It would probably take a conference to amplify the above and to define the problem and possible solutions more carefully. Not taking that trouble makes us resemble some well-known large birds.


Harvey Kaplan 
Syracuse University

Stan Jones responds

Stan Jones Responds
I am pleased that my editorial prompted letters from the membership.

To specifically reply to Drs. Cottle and Kaplan, let me first observe that they are doing -- or suggesting -- exactly what I urged: explore the reasons why students don't learn, and then develop strategies to overcome these barriers. That is teaching.

It is not solely our job to make the students learn, but it is not entirely their job, either. It is a shared responsibility, and the more we know about how students learn, the better we can succeed at our part of the job. I would include as part of "our share" of this responsibility the work that Paul Cottle is doing, namely to consider strategies to encourage students to work more outside class.

To address his work more specifically, it occurs to me that the primary motivation behind my own studying in freshman physics was the homework assignment that was collected and graded each week. I have started to do this in my calculus-based physics class, allowing groups to hand in a single set. I wonder how many universities still collect and grade homework. Remedial (non- credit) work as proposed by Kaplan for under-prepared students is also an option, one that is already used on many campuses, including my own.

Stan Jones 
The University of Alabama