ICPE Logo International Newsletter on Physics Education

International Commission on Physics Education

International Union of Pure and Applied Physics

Number 31, September 1995

Table of Contents

The World Around Us

E. Leonard Jossem
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, USA

Prof Jossem served as a member and chair of the ICPE for over a decade. Last year, he received the Oersted Medal; the highest award given by the American Association of Physics Teachers. The article below is excerpted from his acceptance speech. The full text can be found in The American Journal of Physics vol 62, no. 7 (July 1994). With permission.

"The World Around Us." It is a big world and our limited personal vision enables us to see only a small part of it at a time. Moreover, it is well known that "What you see depends on where you stand." That is, your perceptions depend on your viewpoint. So I would like to start with a short prologue on viewpoints. For example, Fig. 1 is an unretouched photograph of a real object. It seems impossible that it should exist.


Now, if we change the viewpoint from which the camera looks at the object to that of Fig. 2, certain things become clearer.


We see that what seemed impossible was an artifact of the point of view from which we--and the camera--were looking at things. We are reminded that it is important to look at the world from more than one point of view.

What I would like to do today is to chat with you briefly about various viewpoints on three subjects in which I believe we have a common interest, viz.: Physics, Physics Teaching, and Physics Teachers.

Let me start with Physics. Niels Bohr once remarked that "Physics concerns what we can say about nature." The word "we" in that sentence reminds us that physics is a human enterprise. Moreover, since what we can say is at any time a function of our knowledge, our understanding, and our imagination, physics is a dynamic enterprise, an enterprise in constant process of change. In the past few decades these changes have been extraordinarily rapid and significant.

As a measure of research activity in physics we might use the number of abstracts per year appearing in Physics Abstracts, as shown in Fig. 3. Who is it that does all the research that produces all these abstracts? Let's look at the growth in the number of physicists in this country; using as a surrogate index the membership in the American Physical Society (Fig. 4).

FIGURE 3                                                             FIGURE 4

It's interesting also to look at these two sets of data on the same graph and normalize them to their 1993 values, as shown in Fig. 5. One can read some of the history of physics and its relations with society in the abrupt changes in slopes, and in the signs of leveling off of support which are showing up in the most recent data.


Physics teaching is an integral part of the physics community and it has not escaped the effects o the explosive increases in our detailed knowledge of the physical world, and the changes in the ways we interact with each other and with society. These changes have been both a challenge and an opportunity. As Jerome Bruner put it in 1966:

"I shall take it as self-evident that each generation must define afresh the nature, direction, and aims of education to assure such freedom and rationality as can be attained for a future generation. For there are changes both in circumstances and in knowledge that impose constraints on and give opportunities to the teachers in each succeeding generation. It is this sense that education is in constant process of invention."

However, recognizing the need for change is easier than deciding what to change and how to put the changes into practice. For example, consider the text book. In Fig. 6, Weinhold's 1875 text with its 850 pages reflects the categories common in his day. Mechanics, E&M, Light, Heat, and Sound.

A well known 1988 textbook divides its 1021 pages in much the same way. To be fair, one needs to say that although the relative number of pages for each topic has remained substantially the same over 113 years, the content of those pages has changes appreciatively, becoming more encyclopedic and mathematically sophisticated.


There has been much discussion and many attempts made to provide text books and curricula which incorporate contemporary viewpoints and materials. However, experience has shown that agreement about what to put in and what to leave out is not all that easy to achieve.

Perhaps the source of some of the lack of agreement is to be found in Keynes' remark that: "The difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones." This difficulty seems to be fairly general. It colors not only what we teach, but also how we teach and our relations with our students. To me, one hopeful sign has been the return to a concern with students and the various ways in which they learn. I say return because a look at the history of physics teaching shows that these things tend to go in cycles. After all, when we talk about Socratic dialogs, are we not referring to an example that is about 2400 years old?

Let me take you back a mere 124 years to Liverpool, England to a meeting of the British Association for some comments about the diversity of our students.

"There are, as I have said, some minds which can go on contemplating with satisfaction pure quantities presented to the eye by symbols, and to the mind in a form which none but mathematicians can conceive.

There are others who feel more enjoyment in following geometrical forms, which they draw on paper, or build up in the empty space before them.

Others again are not content unless they can project their whole physical energies into the scene which they conjure up. They learn at what rate the planets rush through space and the experience a delightful feeling of exhilaration. They calculate the forces with which the heavenly bodies pull at one another, and they feel their own muscles straining with the effort. To such men momentum, energy, mass are not mere abstract expressions of the results of scientific inquiry. They are words of power, which stir their souls like the memories of childhood.

For the sake of persons such as these different types, scientific truth should be presented in different forms, and should be regarded as equally scientific, whether it appears in the robust form and the vivid coloring of a physical illustration, or in the tenuity and paleness of a symbolic expression."

We tend to think of the author of these words, James Clerk Maxwell, in terms of Theoretical Physics: Maxwell's equations in Electromagnetism, the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, etc. We tend to forget that he was, also, the first Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge University, and a very thoughtful teacher.

He also said: "A few experiments performed by himself will give the student a more intelligent interest in the subject, and will give him a lively faith in the exactness and uniformity of our observations, than any reading of books, or even witnessing elaborate experiments performed by professed men of science.

We are re-learning that we have to talk with students, not only to give, but to get, necessary feedback, and to explore with them the meanings of what we talk about with them.

I recently heard a story which illustrates the point. Students were asked on an examination question to calculate the density of a neutron star, given that the mass was so many kilograms and the radius so many kilometers. One student came up after the examination and explained that, while he knew that the density was obtained by taking the ratio of the mass to the volume, he was unable to do the problem because he could not figure out which radius to use in the calculation. When the instructor expressed surprise, the student said "Well, you said it was a star, didn't you?" and proceeded to draw one (*) to make his point.

We have been re-learning also that learning demands the active participation of the student. What then about Lectures? There is substantial evidence that lectures of the sort where the Word is brought down from Mount Sinai to a passive audience, contribute little to student learning.

In some new and successful curricula the Lecturer has been abandoned entirely in favor of a hands-on approach. But, as you know, there are also efforts to reduce student passivity in lectures, to get students actively involved.

Physics teaching is done by Physics Teachers. Physics teachers tend to teach the way they were taught.

Fortunately, there are signs that more attention is being paid to the training of physics teachers, including graduate TAs. Also, the results of research in physics education are helping to inform that process. In all of this we have much to learn from each other and from our counterparts in other parts of the world.

For the past dozen years I have been associated with the International Commission on Physics Education (ICPE) of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. That association has provided me with the opportunity to meet and work with physics teachers in many of the countries of the world. The ICPE has 13 members and among us we speak 13 different languages: and two common languages, "broken English" and the language of physics.

The world around, those of us who teach physics share concerns and problems. The contexts in which they appear are different from country to country, but the basic concerns and the basic problems in trying to help students to learn physics, and in trying to help them to become their own best teachers, are the same for all of us.

In talks that I have given on physics education in other countries one question that is usually asked concerns the education of teachers. I have often been asked "How shall we train our teachers?" "What makes a good teacher?"

When you are talking with people in a different culture and a different context than your own, that is not such an easy question. The response I developed was to point out to them that they all have had lots of teachers themselves, some that they would classify as good and some that they would classify as bad. I asked them to list for me the important characteristics of those they considered good teachers, and to give me a similar list for those who they considered bad teachers.

The common elements of the lists that appear in country after country is in one sense remarkable, but in a deeper sense, only reflects the fact that we are all human beings, and that as teachers, we do, indeed, have the same basic concerns and problems in trying to help our students to learn and to become their own best teachers.

As I have just remarked, the qualities that are seen as characterizing a good teacher have a great deal in common around the world. There was one occasion in China, however, in which a physics teacher at Fudan University suggested a characteristic of a good teacher which I have not heard anyone else refer to quite so explicitly before or since. He said simply,

"A good teacher loves all his students."


Guest Editorial

Apply New Insights to Physics Teaching

K. Luchner,
University of Muenchen, Germany

Physics education? Everyone agrees that there is the need to develop physics instruction from one generation to the next. New subjects, new teaching materials, and new insights concerning the learning process are continuously being gained. Physics teachers and the universities take care to implement new subjects and materials. However, the situation is not the same as far as the new insights in the learning processes are concerned. Many teachers at any level of school just rely upon their "personal feeling" or upon established methods. On a broad basis, hardly any new results of the research on physics learning are realized by the teachers concerned; many of them don't even know there is research in this field.

How big are the efforts to really reform an old established style of teaching? Of course there are conferences and workshops where a few specialists report for other specialists on their results in educational research. For the distribution of this knowledge there are journals and meetings for teachers and there is teacher education at the universities and the training of young teachers at their schools. Although big, are these efforts sufficient to induce reasonable innovation on a large scale?

The most important channels for the development of teaching and the training of teachers are hardly used enough to realize and spread new insights for physics teaching. Traditional teacher education naturally is focused to first produce a well founded knowledge and abilities in physics. This, of course, is a necessary requirement, although not always sufficient to be a good teacher. Aside from studying physics as a subject, there is very little time for the student to become acquainted with typical considerations concerning the teaching and learning processes, such as reasoning for the selection of topics, methods, practical needs and possibilities. No wonder, for not only is there no time, but also no safe basis for comparing understanding of new with old methods. Later in the training for young teachers, the supervisor is the dominant person and it is natural that in most cases he is in favor of well established traditional roads.

Additional efforts with a kind of idealistic touch are necessary to cause innovations to penetrate traditional fields. We believe there is a latent potential for such individual efforts which needs to be awakened. We must act on all groups cooperating in the education of physics teachers: professors of physics, instructors, authors of textbooks, designers of curricula, administrators, etc. in order to make clear that there is educational research, that it is producing results, and that such results have to be introduced into the procedure of teacher education. Not only physics research news, but also educational research news deserves attention. The physics teacher is the person to realize them both.


Letter From the Editor

Edward F. Redish

With this issue, the ICPE Newsletter begins a new phase of its history with a new editor. I would like to begin my tenure a editor by expressing all of our sincere thanks to George Marx, the previous editor, for his many years of dedicated service and for the excellent issues he produced. In order to help me to maintain the level of excellence created by our previous editors I would like to invite you to contribute items for publication in the newsletter. The kinds of items we are seeking include:

As you can see, there are many possibilities, and I am certain there are many more that I have not thought of. Please feel free to be creative and send me anything that you feel might be useful or interesting. The newsletter's primary goal is to provide a sharing of information -- conference announcements and results, and the availability of useful resources -- among those of us who derive value from our international contacts.

But a strong secondary agenda in producing this newsletter is to document the value of international cooperation in physics education. Education is a highly personal issue for each of us and this tends to make education seem like a particularly local issue. We are all facing similar problems -- the education of human beings in a subject that does not "come naturally" to them, the transformation of our educational systems in a rapidly changing world, changing both technologically and politically, and the expansion of our educational systems to reach a larger fraction of our populations with limited, often declining resources. I feel most strongly that we can only help each other by an increased sharing of our problems and solutions.

Please help by joining me in making the ICPE Newsletter a positive force for helping to improve the links among physics educators in all our nations.

When you submit materials, please include your name, address, phone, and fax or e-mail connections if you have them. Mail them to me at the address below, e-mail them directly to me at


or fax to me at (your country's exit code) + (USA entry code)+(301) 314-9525.

Thank you for your submissions,

Edward F. Redish, Professor of Physics
Department of Physics
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742-4111


I know the tendency of the human mind to do anything rather than think. But mental labor is not thought, and those who have with great labor acquired the habit of application, often find it much easier to get up a formula than to master a principle.

James Clerk Maxwell

The simpler the materials of an illustrative experiment, and the more familiar they are to the student, the more thoroughly is he likely to acquire the idea which it is meant to illustrate. The educational value of such experiments is often inversely prortional to the complexity of the aparatus. The student who uses home-made aparatus which is always going wrong, often learns more than the one who has the use of carefully adjusted instruments, to which he is apt to trust and which he dares not take to pieces.

James Clerk Maxwell
The Demon in the Aether: The Story of James Clerk Maxwell
by Martin Goldman (A. Hilger, 1983) ----

Internet Sites

As the internet grows, more items of information useful to physics teachers are beginning to appear. Below, we list a few of our favorite sites. We hope to make this a regular item in the newsletter, so send the editor the addresses of sites you think many of our readers may find useful. Remember! The web is an anarchic structure that is continually changing. It is NOT refereed. You should yourself determine whether you think a site can be trusted before sharing the information with your students (unless, of course, you are trying to help THEM learn how to evaluate information on their own).

General useful references for physics educators

  1. McGill University This Canadian collection is the grandpa of all physics resource pages! It is an excellent starting point for exploring what is available in physics on the Web around the world.

  2. The Global Electronic libraryLots of links to many physics and astronomy resources

  3. Yahoo This site at Stanford University has become one of the best starting points for and Web search. There are lots of links. Overall, it is a very good general internet directory. This is the link to the physics education part, which is so far rather sparse. Select "Up" to see more general topics.

  4. Alan Cairns' home page Alan Cairns is a high school teacher in the northwest US who has begun to collect useful resources for physics education.

  5. Introductory Physics Library This page contains a few select hypertext links to material useful for teaching introductory physics.

Sites Describing Educational Physics Software and Software Availability
(Some software is available for direct downloading on some of these pages)

  1. Homepage of the CTI at the University of Surrey, England A useful starting point when searching the web for material related to university level physics education. The CTI Centre for Physics is located in the Physics Department of the University of Surrey and promotes the use of computers for teaching in higher education.

  2. The World-Wide Web Virtual Library: Educational Technology TECFA (Technologies de Formation et Apprentissage), is a teaching and research unit within the School of Psychology and Education (Faculte de psychologie et des sciences de l'education), at the University of Geneva. It provides a list of resources and links in educational technology.
  3. European Academic Software Awards This describes the award program, how to apply, and some of the recent winners.

  4. US Department of Education OERI Gopher site This Gopher server is provided under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education's Institutional Communications Network project, managed and operated by the Education Information Resources Division of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement. It provides large collection of educational software for many different platforms and subjects.

  5. Software from the IOP Some shareware educational physics software is available on pages from the Institute of Physics in Britain.

  6. M.U.P.P.E.T. The Maryland University Project in Physics and Educational Technology has developed a set of programming tools for building simple software to solve physics problems using Pascal. Some sample programs and lessons are available for downloading.

Interesting Available Data

  1. he Nobel Prize in Physics: 1901-1994 A list of the Nobel Prizes with their citations. From Patrick Clancey, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

  2. Web Elements A periodic table of the elements with information available about each element constructed and maintained by Mark Winter, University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England.

  3. The Messier Catalog These web pages provide a complete guide to the 110 objects recognized as the standard Messier catalog. In addition to the images, the group at Arizona have also included some data on these objects such as celestial position (right ascension, declination) and visual magnitude.

  4. Chart of the Nuclides A clickable map chart of the nuclides from Korea.


IUPAP ICPE Newsletters
To send a question related to ICPE click here. 

last updated 7/25/96