C14. Commission on Physics Education

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Report to the 2002 General Assembly for 1999-2002
Berlin, Germany
October 7-12, 2002

The Commission's main aim is to promote the exchange of information and views among members of the international community of physicists in the general field of physics education. To pursue this aim, it tries to assist the communication of information concerning education in physics at all levels. This information includes in its scope the assessment of the standards of the physics teaching and learning, ways in which the facilities for the study of physics might be improved, and ways to help physics teachers incorporate current knowledge about physics, physics pedagogy, and results of research in physics education into their courses and curricula.

Physics Education is a cross-sectional discipline connected with almost all subjects in physics. It is a research field on its own investigating the process of teaching and learning physics with the aim to improve them. There are two characteristic views in this field using different scientific resources and methods but interconnected with each other in manifold ways: one directed to the physics subject to be taught, the other focussed on the student and his ability to learn and understand physics. For this purpose researchers in this field have to cooperate with scientists from other disciplines like educational theorists and psychologists and with teachers, as well. But the main partners are physicists from the different areas of physics. Therefore it is essential for the development of physics education that these scientists remain willingly to make appropriate contributions to this field and to cooperate with the science educators.

One of the main ways to meet the mandate of the commission is the promotion of conferences on physics education. There are several forms to do that:

  • Initiating conferences on special topics in physics education and/or in regions where there has been a lack of information distributed so far.
  • Acting of commission members in advisory and programme committees and as speakers, as well, at such conferences, in this was influencing the shape of the conference and the quality of contributions.
  • Supporting conferences on physics education which meet the issues of ICPE/IUPAP. ICPE tries to hold its annual meeting always in connection with one of those conferences. Here is the list of those conferences ICPE helped to sponsor during the last term (1999-2002).
      a. International Conference of Physics Teachers and Educators, Aug 19-23, 1999, in Gulin, P.R. China. The '99 meeting of ICPE went along with this conference (Aug 17-18).
      b. Interamerican Conference on Physics Education (IACPE 7): July 3-7, 2000, in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
      c. Physics Teachers Education Beyond 2000 (PHYTED 2000), a GIREP conference: Aug 27 - Sept 1, 2000, in Barcelona, Spain. The 2000 meeting of ICPE went along with this GIREP conference (Aug 25-26).
      d. International Conference on Physics Education in Cultural Contexts (ICPEC 2001): Aug 13-17, 2001, in Cheonju, South Korea. The 2001 meeting of ICPE in Seoul went along with this conference (Aug 11-12).
      e. International Conference on Computer and Information Technology in Physics Education: Dec 4-6, 2001, in Quezon City, Philippines.
      f. International Conference "Physics in New Fields and Modern Applications," a GIREP conference: Aug 5-9, 2002, in Lund, Sweden. The 2002 meeting of ICPE went along with this conference (Aug 10-11).

The commission continued with its policy of distributing information in the field of physics education as widely as possible.

  • The ICPE Newsletter is published twice a year. It is distributed for free to more than 2000 individuals and institutions world wide, more and more as an e-mail attachment. At the moment it is edited by Professor Vivien Talisayon (Philippines). See also home page of ICPE: <>, click on "commissions", go to C14.
  • The book "Connecting Research in Physics Education with Teacher Education", with contributions of more than twenty authors who are authorities in their various fields was first published in 1998. The book has been translated into French, and like the English edition is available on the web for free downloading:>.
    In the first seven months of this year 2002 there have been more than 30.000 hits to this web site from individuals out of more than 70 countries world wide. The Spanish translation is in preparation yet. The commission thinks it necessary to update parts of the articles and to add new ones. So the initial authors and new authors, as well, will be asked to contribute to this goal.
  • The book "Physics 2000: Physics as it Enters the New Millennium" is a compendium of reviews by 21 leading physicists representing all the commissions of IUPAP, each of whom has written a 2000-word account of the recent and predicted progress in his or her field of physics. It was edited by Paul Black, Gordon Drake and Leonard Jossem and was published early in 2000. It is available for free downloading from the IUPAP website. In the first seven months of this year 2002, there have been almost 1,500 downloads from individuals from more than 60 countries.
  • The commission decided to set up a network of links between groups worldwide dedicated to physics or science education. ICPE would like to serve as an information clearing house collecting and redistributing information between those groups in order to increase the co-operation between them. In this role ICPE could also give support to capacity building in physics education, especially in developing countries.

The ICPE medal is awarded for contributions to physics education which are major in scope and impact and which have extended over a considerable time. In 2000 the medal was awarded to Professor Paul Black (London, UK). In 2002 the commission had two excellent nominees and decided that as an extraordinary exception this year the medal is awarded to both of them: Professor Tae Ryu (Tokyo, Japan) and Professor Lillian McDermott (Seattle, USA).

At its last meeting ICPE discussed possible contributions from the commission to the World Year of Physics 2005. It was suggested that every IUPAP conference in 2005 should include one session or at least one contribution focussing on problems of physics education connected with the special subject of the conference. ICPE offer its help to set up an appropriate program and to look for qualified speakers.

The Commission feels that it would be helpful to form a long term view of activities that it particularly wishes to encourage. Having discussed the problems and issues that the Commission feels are likely to be central to Physics Education over the next five or so years, the Commission would be particularly pleased to support activities that address these problems and issues. The Commission has identified a number of changes to which physics educators need to respond, and hopes that activities will be developed which address these needs and possible responses to them.

  • Change in Physics as a subject
    Physics is increasingly developing interdisciplinary fields in which physics plays an essential role in relation to other sciences. Various developments in Biophysics are one obvious example amongst many. Physics is also deeply involved in fundamental work related to various technologies. Opto-electronics is just one example, as is quantum computing. Techniques have also changed, notably in the wide use of computer power in designing and running experiments, and the growth in the use of visualization and image processing in presenting data.
    Yet these developments are barely reflected in high school and introductory physics courses, so that students do not see the richness and diversity of possible careers and interests that could develop out of choosing to study physics. Evidently such courses have to cover a range of topics that are fundamental in the sense that they are needed for almost any later work in physics or physics-related topics. But students also need to get a reasonably faithful picture of the variety that physics can offer, and a chance to become interested in one or more possibility. Physics education thus needs to respond to these changes in the subject itself, and in how it is done. There is important scope for sharing ideas about how to bring these new aspects of physics into physics classrooms.
  • Change in interest in studying physics
    Worldwide, with few exceptions, there has been a decline in the number or proportion of students wanting to study physics. For many of the general public, it seems that Biology occupies 'center stage' in the sciences, dealing with exciting new possibilities and raising new moral and social challenges. This shift of interest also affects funding. Actions to attract more students to physics must be a high priority for the immediate future. Actions to attract more high quality teachers to Physics are essential to this goal. Meetings reporting on possible strategies and identifying crucial factors needing to be addressed would be particularly valuable.
  • Change in the goals of Physics Education
    World wide, with the rapid increase in secondary and tertiary education, Physics needs to be taught to larger and larger proportions of the school and college or university level population. Physics has to be 'for everyone', not just for the minority who will become physicists. An urgent matter for discussion is the extent to which these two goals are or are not compatible, and whether and if so at what stage Physics courses need to offer more diverse provision for different kinds of people.
    In particular the possible conflicts between the need to teach future physicists something of the mathematical and experimental rigor involved in the subject, and the need to interest a much wider population in the ideas of physics, need extensive and careful consideration.
  • Change in the research base for Science Education
    Research in Physics Education has developed and is developing. We now as a result have a much better understanding of students' thinking and have a range of research-based resources for improving the effectiveness of courses. Discussion is needed to identify where there is a good consensus on results, and to identify further issues for research.

    However, it remains the case that the majority of physics courses are designed and taught without reference to the findings of previous research, or to the tools which that research has provided for improving and measuring their effectiveness. This points to the need for efforts to establish much better communication between physicists and those involved in physics education research. In doing so it has to be recognized that the interests and concerns of these two groups are often very different, making fruitful dialogue difficult. At the same time, such efforts are timely, in that the decline in popularity of physics presents an opportunity, as physicists become concerned for the future of their subject.
  • The pace of change
    That the world is changing is nothing new. But the nature and intensity of current change, particularly as information technology transforms economies, means that the future is more than usually unpredictable. It is against this background that the ICPE has chosen to group its concerns under the broad heading of 'Responding to change'. Thinking ahead about the shape of Physics Education to come should be an important focus of international activity in Physics Education.

Berlin, August 2002 Juergen Sahm Chair of C14

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