Jill A Marshall, President, American Association of Physics Teachers


AAPT works tirelessly to support physics teachers and reach out to students and the public through various educational programmes. Jill A Marshall, President, describes the Association’s latest initiatives to engage the next generation and promote physics, and other science disciplines to all


The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has celebrated more than 80 years of dedicated dissemination of physics knowledge. What inspired its establishment?

AAPT was formed by a group of physicists who recognised that other professional organisations for physicists, for example the American Physical Society, were not constituted with the primary goal of promoting physics teaching and serving physics teachers. A major impetus was a 1928 article in School Science and Mathematics by John Frayne entitled ‘The Plight of College Physics’. This article described challenges faced by physics teaching, particularly at the university level, and called for an organisation to be formed specifically to address physics teaching. Leaders, including Paul Klopsteg and Homer Dodge, met in response and began laying out the groundwork for what would become AAPT.

How do you engage with the public and involve them in informal science education?

Some of AAPT’s most important and best loved initiatives are aimed directly at high school students: High School Physics Photo Contest; Physics Bowl; and selection of the US Physics Team for participation in the International Physics Olympiad. For younger students, we host the Students Exploring Engineering and Science Program, founded by Betty Preece, a leader in AAPT and a wonderful mentor for women in science. This Program provides 100 minority, low-income students with the opportunity to engage in three hours of hands-on science activities during the AAPT Winter Meeting each year. AAPT provides lunch, transportation, career information, and science materials. We also co-host an exhibit each year at the US Science and Engineering Festival in Washington DC. AAPT members across the US host hands-on exhibits for the public, such as the ‘Haunted Physics Labs’ and ‘The Little Shop of Physics’, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. The public is also invited to demo shows and special lectures at our summer meetings. For example, in summer 2011, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Jim Hansen gave an inspiring presentation on global climate change to a standing-room only crowd with many guests from his native Iowa in attendance.

Could you outline some of the programmes and activities you have implemented to improve teacher preparation and comprehension? Are these transferable to other disciplines?

In addition to its annual meetings, which include workshops and sessions disseminating the latest findings in research and evaluation on physics education, AAPT has two signature programmes for high school teachers, the Physics Teaching Resource Agents (PTRA), who provide professional development for in-service teachers and in partnership with the American Physical Society, the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) for pre-service teachers. PTRA has been supported with six major US National Science Foundation grants (including two extensions of the original grant), as well as multiple state and NSF Math Science Partnership grants. PhysTEC is in its second round of NSF funding and 259 institutions have become members and endorsed its recommendations. The PhysTEC programme has been recognised for its value as a model in other disciplines; the American Chemical Society recently submitted a proposal to create ‘CTEC’ – the Chemistry Teacher Education Coalition – modelled after PhysTEC.

The adoption of physics in higher education is crucial if we are to sustain innovation and improve the popularity of science disciplines. In what ways does AAPT deliver these outcomes?

AAPT is a strong promoter of physics education for all students, beginning in high school and earlier. Its ‘Physics for All’ initiative actively promotes and advises states and school districts on providing all students with access to physics.

At the university level, AAPT has been a leader in developing active engagement, student-centred curriculum and teaching methods, which allow a wider range of students to develop a truly solid understanding of physics and be successful as physicists in training. Leaders such as Arnold Arons, Lillian C McDermott, Priscilla Laws, and many others have worked through AAPT to engage in physics education research and disseminate their findings, as well as provide professional development for instructors at all levels. Every year we co-sponsor the New Faculty Workshop, which provides a crash course in effective physics teaching strategies and a life-long connection to a support community, as well as the Physics Chairs Conference, which provides professional development for department chairs in supporting faculty in effective teaching. We also have a professional development programme specifically aimed at physics faculty teaching at two-year colleges.

AAPT is recognised globally and now has members in 30 different countries. What has afforded the Association this accolade?

AAPT’s success rests on three strong pillars: its publications (which have a wide international readership and authorship), its meetings, and its programmes:

The American Journal of Physics and The Physics Teacher are recognised resources for physics instructors around the world

• Our meetings are the premier opportunity to engage with other physicists around the issue of teaching, engage in professional development, and enhance opportunities to promote understanding of physics through teaching

• AAPT’s many programmes, including PTRA, PhysTEC, new faculty and chair workshops, as well as its various initiatives for students, have changed the lives of countless physics teachers and students

How do you ensure that these countries’ contributions are represented in AAPT’s work? What efforts do you take to facilitate cooperation and foster effective communication?

The AAPT Committee on International Physics Education is charged with providing a channel of communication between the membership of AAPT and physics teachers and students in other countries, as well as facilitating active cooperation between AAPT, the International Commission on Physics Education, and other international groups with a physics education focus. Last year AAPT established two new grant opportunities – the E Leonard Jossem Fund and the Hashim Yamani Fund – in support of international programmes dealing with the teaching and learning of physics and professional development opportunities for international members, respectively. AAPT is also a member of the US Liaison Committee to the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics which promotes international cooperation in physics.

In 2011, you set upon an agenda to improve the representation of women in science. Have you fulfilled your goals?

Improving representation and enhancing participation of women in physics is an ongoing concern of AAPT. We have a standing area committee on Women in Physics that offers workshops on career enhancement and teaching strategies to facilitate the success of women in physics. These workshops have been credited with significantly increasing the earning potential of attendees. In addition, this committee regularly sponsors sessions on the work of, and issues relevant to, women in physics. AAPT’s Physics Education Research Topical Group sponsors research on ways to make physics instruction more equitable.

AAPT is currently developing a proposal to be submitted to the NSF Advance programme for an exciting ‘mutual mentoring’ project to catalyse mentoring networks for women and other underrepresented groups in physics.

As a result of AAPT, what has been the greatest impact on the students and lecturers of physics? Has this influenced educational policy?

The work of AAPT members in physics education research has resulted in a sea change in the way physics is being taught in the US. Without AAPT, physics teaching would very likely still be predominantly in the lecture and prescriptive lab mode, requiring (and creating) very little conceptual understanding in many students.

By what means will physics meet the challenges faced by society now and in the future? How is it helping to deliver a more sustainable future?

It is best stated in the AAPT Statement on Education for a Sustainable Future: ‘A sustainable future depends on a workforce of professionals knowledgeable about creating practices, processes, and infrastructure to optimise resource management, and on a community informed about the ethics and influence of human activity on the integrated environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability. For these reasons our disciplinary societies believe that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, both formal and informal, is key to developing the knowledge, the technology, the skills, the motivation, and the policies needed for a sustainable future. STEM educators have a unique responsibility to contribute to a more sustainable future by including information about our shared sustainability challenges and how STEM-knowledgeable people can contribute to solutions’.

The AAPT together with 10 other disciplinary societies in STEM, recognises that human activities and use of natural, human and economic resources are adversely affecting individuals and societies and will continue to have an effect in the future. Both professionals and members of the general public have the ability and ethical obligation to develop and implement innovative strategies and technologies that will mitigate our negative impact. Recognising the quintessential importance of education, AAPT supports the inclusion of educational themes in our STEM classrooms that will lead to a greater understanding of natural systems, sustainable resource utilisation and development, and improved human health and wellbeing.