| The LIGO
LIGO Caltech NewsThe Heart of the Matter
Student's Gravity Wave Paper Wins Top Honor!
If you were to glance over the staff roster of LIGO, you would find it consists primarily of physicists, engineers, and scientists--highly trained women and men who are well-respected in their fields. You would find also a great number of doctoral and post-doctoral students. They have been drawn to the research and innovative opportunities represented by the unprecedented scope of LIGO's ambitions.
Yet for all these team-players and the seasoned experience they bring to LIGO, the journey of scientific exploration began most likely in the classroom--as elementary students, as middle schoolers, perhaps as seniors in high school. Teachers nurtured their curiosity and instilled the love of discovery that impelled each to pursue a career in science or engineering. Big science projects like LIGO depend on physics educators to fuel our professional base. Yet, regrettably, only about one third of high school physics teachers have a physics degree themselves.
The American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) is an organization that recognizes the vital importance of these teachers and their efforts for our nation's continued scientific achievement. Using various programs, the AAPT reaches out to the teaching community to mentor, support, and promote quality physics teaching.
AAPT's roots began with Paul E. Klopsteg, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota from 1913 to 1916. While there, Klopsteg became interested in the challenges of teaching physics and this interest flourished over the next decade. In 1928, he attended a summer assembly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education (SPEE) where he had opportunities to interact with those who taught physics to engineers. He discovered a growing sentiment in favor of an organization whose purpose would be "the dissemination of the knowledge of physics, particularly by way of teaching." In December 1929, Klopsteg and two other colleagues--S.L. Redmond and M.N. States--met together and determined to launch such an organization. A year later, the idea drew closer to reality. At a luncheon meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, discussions continued between Klopsteg, Homer Dodge from the University of Oklahoma, and F.K. Richtmyer of Cornell University, who all vigorously supported forming the organization. A provisional constitution was adopted, and first officers named: H.L. Dodge, President; William S. Webb, Secretary-Treasurer; and Paul E. Klopsteg, Vice President.
Following the birth of the AAPT in 1931, a journal called The American Physics Teacher was launched a year later, and in February 1933 its first issue appeared. Richtmyer authored the lead article in which he noted that there were several aspects of physics research and teaching, either at the high school level or college level, but they are still physics. In his opinion, "teaching is an art and not a science." [F.K. Richtmyer, The Amer. Phys. Teach. 2, 2 (1933)] This endorsement for physics teaching became the focus and direction for the AAPT's existence.
These early meetings evolved over time into two annual meetings one in the winter and the other in summer. Two days before the formal gatherings, workshops are held and these have steadily grown in number and attendance. In fact, in 1990 it became necessary to limit the number of workshops offered because of the increasing difficulty in finding colleges and universities with adequate facilities to accommodate them.
During the past 60 years, the AAPT has formed chapters all across the world and continues its mission to "support the advancement of the physics education profession and the quality and effectiveness of physics education in the U.S. and throughout the World." Many programs exist through the AAPT to encourage and enhance the high school and college experience for students. Additionally, mentoring and support of new teachers is integral to the organization, striving to match seasoned professionals with those just beginning in the field. In a policy statement adopted a year ago by the AAPT Board, one portion reads:
Improving teacher training involves building cooperative working relationships between physicists in universities and colleges and the individuals and groups involved in teaching physics to K-12 students. Strengthening the science education of future teachers addresses the pressing national need for improving K-12 physics education and recognizes that these teachers play a critical education role as the first and often-times last physics teacher for most students.
Recognition of these dedicated physics teachers and professionals has grown through several annual awards presented by the AAPT. The first AAPT award established was the Oersted Medal, given in recognition for notable contributions to the teaching of physics. Its first recipient, William S. Franklin, received the medal posthumously in 1936. A man bristling with energy in his lifetime, Franklin had boasted that "the teaching of physics was the greatest fun in the world."
Being chosen to give the annual Richtmyer Memorial Lecture is an honor that began in 1940. This lectureship is in memory of Floyd Richtmyer, who had broadly influenced the development of physics in America. Topics for the lecture are selected in which Richtmyer would have found interest were he still alive. Given at the winter meeting, it is presented to a large audience of members of the American Physical Society as well as the AAPT.
In 1952, the Distinguished Service Citations were initiated in recognition of physics teachers or other contributors to physics education. By 1963, the Millikan Lecture Award was added at the yearly summer meetings. "Recognizing an individual for notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics," the first lecture awardee was Paul Klopsteg. By 1966, a medal was designed to be awarded to each winning lecturer.
In 1990, another significant source of recognition in the field of physics was established by the AAPT. The Paul Klopsteg Lectureship honors Klopsteg as a founder, former AAPT President, and long-time active member of the organization. The lecture is featured at the summer meeting and is given on a topic of current significance of general interest to a non-specialist audience.
At the Summer 2002 AAPT meeting, LIGO Director Barry Barish received the Paul Klopsteg Lectureship award and delivered the keynote speech, entitled "Catching the Waves with LIGO." As a LIGO employee, I heard about the event during a casual lunch-break conversation. Interested, I sought an interview with Barish with the idea of reporting the story in the LIGO Newsletter. Extremely reluctant to be spotlighted for the honor itself, Barish finally conceded to the interview when tempted with the possibility of discussing physics education, a subject about which he becomes avid and radiant. During our talk, Barish chatted animatedly about physics as a foundational science, the challenge of introducing students to the subject in an appealing way that will seize their interest and imagination, and about organizations like the AAPT, which has done so much to promote the importance of physics instruction. Asked to describe the honor of receiving the Klopsteg Lectureship, Barish downplayed any personal merit for the award. More important, he said, was the opportunity "to speak before such a fantastic audience of interested teachers."
It was this attitude of deep appreciation for science and physics teachers that showcased Barry Barish's true passion--inspiring students with the excitement of scientific research and discovery. And while there are challenges facing today's beginning science teachers, such as how to bring students into physics research, and how to change the assumption that physics is only for high school seniors, these obstacles can in large part be vaulted simply by introducing students to physics early on, in a stimulating environment, and letting the natural vibrancy of the subject take its hold. Throughout my interview with Barry, I witnessed his love for teaching and for captivating the minds and imaginations of students with the excitement that is inherent in physics. This passion, I felt, was the real nucleus of the man. It was in fact the very heart of the matter.
I arrived at work one day and punched the various lines on my office phone to check voice mail. As I did, I fired up the computer and began to review my email. I was still a bit new to my position here at LIGO, and I eagerly awaited any request that would challenge me. "What's this?" I wondered, as my eye scanned the incoming messages. "An email from someone named Nancy Erickson...?" I grew curious because the name wasn't one I recognized as part of Team LIGO. I quickly opened the email and guess what? It wasn't a message on how to lose 10 pounds in 10 days, nor an opportunity to make millions of $$$ from home. Instead it was a serious inquiry from an interested student.
Nancy Erickson, a high-school student now in her final year at Mariengymnasium in Papenburg, Germany, was requesting information on gravitational waves. This was before we created the handy Media Information website. I searched through the articles and material I had used to familiarize myself with the wonderful world of LIGO, and with some guidance from my boss, Deputy Director Gary Sanders, forwarded along what I hoped would be some useful info. February came and went, and I didn't give Nancy's request much more thought. Some follow-up research had revealed, however, that Dr. Peter Aufmuth, Director of the GEO600 project in Hannover, Germany, had also sent literature to Nancy. Information on both LIGO and GEO600, I thought, would add to her paper's scope and quality.
Then, in October, I received my second mystery Erickson email--this one from "John Erickson." Reading it, I soon realized it was a correspondence from "Dad"--Nancy's father. Apparently the month before, September, a call for papers had been sent out by Carl von Ossietzky University at Oldenburg Germany, to physics teachers for submission of the best student papers. Nancy's paper, Gravitationswellen: Suche nach einem neuen Fenster ins Weltall (Gravitational Waves: The Search for a New Window to the Universe) was sent in with the recommendation of her instructor, Gerhard Johannsen. "Six papers were judged 'good,' six 'very good,' and Nancy's 'SUPERIOR.'" reported the email from Nancy's proud father. "How cool!" was my initial Californian thought. But wait, the story gets even better!
Unknowingly, Nancy's parents worked in conjunction with her instructor to send her to Oldenburg for the awards ceremony. In a classic instance of a picture being worth a thousand words, see the photo below to witness Nancy's reaction to the event. Positively glowing with delight, Nancy's face shines with the happiness of an outstanding achievement. What's more, Nancy's mother and uncle had been present at the ceremony as well, although Nancy was unaware of it. "Her eyes bulged out when she got home and they told her they had been there," said her father's email.
It's a great reward for me is to see a student succeed. Not only does Nancy have an unrivaled credit to add to her CV, but her paper helps generate further interest in gravitational waves, and basically rocks physics like a canoe on a waked pond. A wish of Nancy's is to visit Caltech--even if just to tour the campus. Wishes can come true and when she makes her way here, we will be sure to give her the full, friendly, LIGO treatment. Team LIGO is so proud of you, Nancy! Kudos to you on a job superbly done!
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