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Where Ideas Meet
by Katie Foote, Providence College [an error occurred while processing this directive]
2010 APS/AAPT Meeting  
The exhibit hall at the APS/AAPT Joint Meeting.
Photo by Luke Heselden

This winter, I had the pleasure of attending the joint APS/ AAPT “April” meeting in Washington DC.  In the week preceding the conference, I watched weather reports showing ceaseless snow storms bury our nation’s capital, paralyzing travel, school attendance and even shutting down the White House.  Fortunately, the conference proceeded as planned.  I was surprised at the hordes of attendees that traveled across the country, and from across the globe, to share their research and listen to their colleagues.

When checking in, I received a 1½” thick book which contained information about the overwhelming number of workshops and sessions scheduled for the next four days.  My next stop was the exhibit hall, bustling with representatives from various textbook companies, professional organizations and various companies.  As I visited each booth, I collected an impressive assortment of trinkets, including flashing laser pins, posters, color-changing pencils, comic books and even physics coloring books!  I exited the hall with my arms laden with things to read and a decision to make.  Where do I go next?

As a senior in the process of deciding between graduate schools for doctoral study in Physics Education Research (PER), I chose sessions where I could meet faculty and learn about the latest research at the institutions that I am interested in.  I was surprised by the approachability and enthusiasm of the presenters.  At the end of each session, graduate students and faculty approached the presenters with questions, recommended reading and recommendations for future investigations.  It was fun to see how peoples’ research interests and insights overlap, and it reinforced to me the importance of having conferences provide an opportunity for collaboration and brainstorming.

The variety of presentations was truly mind-blowing.  Most speakers were professional researchers, professors or graduate students but I also heard high school teachers, behavioral psychologists and biologists share some interdisciplinary findings.  Studies spanned the country and the globe.  I heard talks about educating Tibet, implementing interactive lecture demonstrations in Chile, and attempts to make measurements by extremely sensitive detectors in the South Pole to clarify the process that gave birth to our universe.

I also attended a couple of plenary talks, which are geared toward a larger audience that includes both the public and physicists outside their area of expertise. “From Edible Lasers to the search for Earth-like Planets” was a talk given by the Nobel Laureate Theodor W. Hansch to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the laser.  His humble passion and quiet enthusiasm shone through his presentation as he summarized the major developments of this influential piece of technology.  His collection of entertaining photographs, quotes and acknowledgement of his contributions to groundbreaking papers culminated in a personal portrayal that almost felt like he was sharing a family photo album.

The final plenary talk included the latest findings in cosmology, particle physics and outer space explorations.  I especially enjoyed William Borucki’s talk on the Kepler mission and the search for Earth-sized planets in the habitable zone, an area of study that piques the interest of physicists and Star Trek fans alike.

As a physics-secondary education major, I was impressed by the Symposium on Physics Education, “Educating Physics Teachers: A Call to Action for Physics Departments”.  Mary Ann Rankin shared her strategies for implementing the successful UTeach program for math and science teachers at the University of Texas at Austin.  Sheila Tobias highlighted some of the key findings in her book Science Teaching as a Profession. Why it isn’t.  How it Could be.  For someone who has not studied science or mathematics extensively, she had insightful advice for attracting and keeping teachings in these high need fields. One of the first things I did when I returned to my room was download the electronic copy on www.rescorp.org, where it will be available until mind-March.

Other than attending sessions, networking with faculty and visiting with graduate students, I got the pleasure of interviewing Ronald Thornton of Tufts University who received the 2010 Excellence in Physics Education Award.  I ended up talking to him for over an hour, listening to his adventures overseas and hearing his advice.  Originally a particle physicist, Dr. Thornton emphasized how his physics background fine-tuned his ability to calculate and model.  He attributes many successes, ranging from his world-renowned educational resources to his award-winning solar house designs, to the strong critical thinking and problem solving skills that he developed studying the most broadly based science.  He advises young physicists to combine their interests and pursue multidisciplinary projects as a path to success. 

Karen Williams, a past president of Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honor society, was honored with an AAPT Distinguished Service Citation, but unfortunately could not attend the conference due to weather complications.  However, she was more than happy to answer some of my questions by e-mail.  She elaborated on the importance of attending conferences to hear the latest research and to network because, “you never know who will have ideas that help you.”  She says attending the SPS poster sessions leave her feeling “recharged and invigorated” because “the daily grind of teaching College Physics to the masses that settle for C’s or D’s in the class and put in very little effort begins to wear away my enthusiasm for what students CAN do.  The SPS students do not realize how fantastic their research is in the big vat of all research.”  She predicts that the future of physics education will maximize the potential of online education, extending its capabilities to allow students to manipulate objects and change variables in meaningful ways.

All of the experiences I had at the APS/AAPT meeting were infinitely valuable.  I can’t wait to return to the conference with some of my own research to present.  In the meantime, I highly advise undergraduates to seek out opportunities to attend conferences and experience for themselves these places where ideas meet and where a backbone to support quality research is formed.

Free 1-Year Membership in APS or AAPT
When you join SPS national as an undergraduate, you get free one-year membership in one of ten other physics societies, including the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).  

SPS Reporter Program
SPS national sends student reporters to most major AIP Member Society meetings, where they are treated like other members of the press. Many ambitious student reporters succeed in securing interviews with society leadership and prominent invited speakers on such occasions.

SPS Travel Awards
A limited number of grants, on the order of $200 each, are offered to help fund SPS members' travel to national meetings of AIP Member Societies holding a "SPS Session" co-organized by SPS and the Member Society.

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