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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Arnold Strassenburg by Roderick M. Grant on 2006 February 22, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/30666
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Family background and early education; Illinois Institute of Technology; California Institute of Technology, PhD; University of Kansas; Commission on College Physics; State University of New York at Stony Brook; American Institute of Physics, Director of Education and Manpower; American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), Executive Officer (1972-1982); details of his work at AAPT.
Tell us a bit about your family, especially as it influenced your thinking during your teen years.
I grew up in a family that had a total of 5 children. I was the youngest. My older brothers and sisters were, for the most part, very bright, hard working students, and the family was a cohesive family unit. My parents insisted that we adopt values of honesty and diligence.
I noticed that you were born in Victoria, Minnesota. How soon did you move away from there?
I was only a year old when my family moved to South Bend Indiana for a year or two. I don’t have any memory of either place.
Tell me a little bit about your parents’ education.
Both of my parents grew up in Germany. My father had the equivalent of a high school education. My mother didn’t even complete high school. Nevertheless, both were literate, intelligent, and held out high value for education.
Where did you attend secondary school?
I attended high school in Wheaton, Illinois. In fact, from the time that we left Indiana until I joined the service I lived in Chicago suburbs. On the north side during elementary school, and in Wheaton, Illinois, during secondary school.
Tell us about any secondary school teachers, or perhaps other people, who had a particularly strong influence on you in science or in other fields?
Well, interestingly enough, a very major influence on me was my high school physics teacher. Not for the usual reasons, but rather because he became principal early in the semester and therefore had no time to attend class, so I taught the course.
You taught the course?
In other words, you were self-taught in physics? You had some prior interest in the subject so you had been doing some reading?
I liked science, I remember, and physics was my favorite. I wouldn’t say that I was especially knowledgeable about physics during my senior year, but I liked it and studied harder and faster than my colleagues.
What do you feel influenced you the most as you were growing up?
My brothers and sisters influenced me a great deal. They were decent people, ambitious, and they encouraged me to read, to travel, and to take an interest in current affairs.
From Wheaton you went on to college. What influenced your decision to go to college? Had you expected to go from an early age?
Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. All of my brothers and sisters, with one exception, went on to college. There was never any doubt in the minds of any of us that that was expected of us by our parents.
Did you go to college specifically, or did you choose the college because of your interest in physics?
I had been in the service immediately after high school and when I got out I had no desire, at all, to go away to college. The only college with any prominence in the sciences that was within commuting distance was Illinois Tech in Chicago, and that’s where I attended.
And, as you stated earlier, you went there with the idea that physics was what you wanted to pursue.
Yes, I knew that from day one.
Were there any of your undergraduate teachers, or any course, that made a particularly strong impression?
I remember several, and, as I suggested in an earlier remark, the influence was sometimes negative. The chairman of the department, whose name I forget, was a man who didn’t take a great interest in teaching. And, as a result of that, I didn’t get much direction from him in the courses that I took from him, but strangely enough, that made me work even harder. Since he didn’t tell me what to do, I sort of did everything, and I think that I learned more as a result of that.
Did you do any research work or special projects as an undergraduate student?
No, not really. When I was an undergraduate I began to take an interest in teaching. And Illinois Tech, of course, was not known as a place to prepare teachers but they did have an education division and some courses in education and I took all of those that they offered. One of my instructors was actually a graduate student at the University of Chicago but he was enormously stimulating and he taught me a lot about teaching.
That’s very interesting that you would be interested in teaching at that early an age. Do you have an idea how that came about?
Well, I think the experience that I had with the physics course in high school was one aspect of it. In addition to that my sister who was closest to me in age, only a few years older, attended what is now known as Northern Illinois University, but was then DeKalb Teachers College, so she was already preparing to become a teacher and that stimulated me to have a lot of interest in teaching.
From Illinois Tech you went on to graduate school at Cal Tech. How did you choose Cal Tech, particularly now that you tell me that you had an interest in teaching?
Well, there was never any doubt that I wanted to be a teacher. By the time I got my degree from Illinois Tech the only possibility for becoming a teacher without more education was to become a high school teacher. I was not opposed to that, but all of the people who advised me urged me to go on and get an advanced degree so that I could have some options. So then I began to apply to schools that were known to be good in physics and Cal Tech, of course, was on the list, and when I was admitted there everyone thought that was so wonderful that I decided to go there.
You ended up doing some work in the area of high-energy physics was that in your mind at all when you went to Cal Tech?
No. Cal Tech offered lots of opportunities. Those that were of most interest to me had to do either with nuclear physics or high-energy physics. There was a synchrotron at Cal Tech. Many of my colleagues chose to do research there, and I came very close to doing research there also. I knew a couple of my colleagues from my course work who already were working in the particle physics lab under Carl Anderson and they stimulated me to come down and look it over and it looked pretty good to me, so I joined that group.
When you completed your degree, I see that your next position was at the University of Kansas. How did you learn of the position and did you also apply for positions elsewhere?
I applied to many positions. This was a time when people with a PhD in physics were in demand, especially from Cal Tech. I had numerous interviews with industrial organizations in California and elsewhere in the country and I had offers at salaries which were two and three times what I ultimately accepted at Kansas. But I also applied to all the places that I knew about that were offering professorial positions in physics. Kansas was only one of maybe eight or ten that I applied to. And I actually conducted interviews at about four or five different places in the United States. I accepted Kansas because it was clear from the beginning that I would be evaluated in terms of my success as a teacher and as a director of undergraduate curriculum, and that appealed to me. So I took that even though that was far from the highest salary that was offered to me. And I’m not sorry. I liked what I did at Kansas and I felt successful there.
So you are telling me that the department was supportive of your teaching activities, and that was part of their reason for looking at you.
Oh, absolutely. I became immediately, from day one, what was called the director of the introductory courses. And that was a very big responsibility. Kansas had, for those times, a large undergraduate enrollment; there was a large engineering school so physics was very well populated. There were many, many introductory courses, many sections of every course, and I was in some sense responsible for all of that.
How and when did you get involved with the Commission on College Physics? Were you still at Kansas at that time?
Yes. After a few years at Kansas I made an application to the National Science Foundation for having a summer institute for college physics teachers. It was my concept that there were many people who taught physics at small colleges who weren’t able to keep up with modern physics. So I held a summer institute. In those days the National Science Foundation assembled the Directors of such programs at an event and each of us had an opportunity to give a little talk about our program. I did that and it attracted the attention of other people to me and I began to get offers for various things including working on the staff of the Commission on College Physics.
I noticed that you were Staff Physicist for the Commission on College Physics for a two-year period. Was that the only involvement that you had with them?
No, not at all. When I first joined them there was only one staff physicist. I became the second. By the time that I left them, four years later, there were four people on the staff, so the organization was growing in the amount of money available and the amount of activity that it supervised. Once I became knowledgeable about those things, even though I went back to my position as a professor at the University of Kansas, I continued to be involved in many of their conferences and promotional activities.
When did you leave Kansas, and where did you go then?
I left Kansas in 1966. As I said, my work with the Commission on College Physics, since it was a national organization, allowed me to become acquainted with a lot of people throughout the country who were engaged in interesting educational projects. And people began to offer me opportunities to be involved, sometimes on a part-time basis, and some for full-time jobs. By coincidence, I believe, I was offered two different positions in the New York area. One was with the American Institute of Physics as Director of their Education and Manpower Division, and the other was as a Professor of Physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Now, I had a difficult time deciding between those two, or even if I should take either one, and ultimately I took both. Which seems a little bit crazy, but nevertheless I attempted to do both jobs simultaneously and did that for six years.
So, was your arrangement then that you were essentially part-time at Stony Brook and part-time at AIP, or were you full-time at both?
The work seemed to me full-time at both, but the official arrangement was complicated. I’ll try to explain it to you. I was paid full-time by the State University of New York at Stony Brook. And, from their point of view, I was a full-time employee. As an arrangement between my two employers, Stony Brook allowed AIP to give me assignments up to half of my time in exchange for a contribution to the educational activities going on at Stony Brook. So, in effect, AIP paid Stony Brook and Stony Brook paid me.
What exactly was your role at AIP during that time?
Well, I was responsible for the various activities in the Education and Manpower Division. There were a lot of things going on and the staff was sizeable and in each area of activity there was a supervisor who was knowledgeable and competent to carry out their activities with a modest amount of supervision. The Manpower Division, for example, was not really an area of expertise for me, but there were people there who were expert in conducting those surveys. And I did oversee them in some sense. There was an active program of generating booklets that would be of interest to physics teachers and to department chairmen around the country, and I was very active in that activity. There was the Society of Physics Students, which ultimately merged with Sigma Pi Sigma and became the major undergraduate physics student activity. And I was certainly a supervisor of that, though it also had its own director.
What were you doing at Stony Brook during that time?
I taught full-time at Stony Brook a large, introductory course. It was characteristic of Stony Brook then, in large courses, to assign two professors to each specifically so that one of them could be free to do research or go to conferences while the other one took care of the course work. So, it was not difficult for me to arrange a schedule where I did my full share of teaching but was still available to work in New York City for several days a week.
When did you become a member of AAPT?
Well, I was always a member of AAPT. Oh, I don’t mean always, but from the first time I went to the University of Kansas I became a member of AAPT. I attended a few meetings. I don’t believe I attended all of them in those days. I couldn’t afford to, as a matter of fact. But I was active in the program, and I read the journals, and things of that sort. Obviously, after I began to work with AIP, I interacted more closely with the officers of AAPT because it was a Member Society of AIP. And so I became known to them, and when they were searching for someone who could serve as Executive Officer, I was under consideration.
What particularly attracted you to the position of Executive Officer of AAPT?
I think I saw it as an enormous challenge. But, as I indicated earlier, I was so much committed to my classroom teaching, that I was never willing to consider an assignment that would take me out of the classroom. So, when I was approached about the possibility of being the Executive Officer of AAPT, I said I would consider it if they would put my AAPT office on the campus so that I could perform both duties simultaneously. And, to my surprise, they agreed to do that.
You used the phrase “when I was approached”, so you did not apply independently — someone came to you and said, “would you consider this”?
Yes, that’s correct, I did not apply for the position. I was not even aware, as a matter of fact, that they were searching for a new Executive Officer. There was a person on the AAPT Board at that time who was once a student of mine, a very close friend, and we were mutually appreciative of the other person’s capabilities and energy. And I know that that man recommended me and ultimately persuaded other Board members to approach me.
Can you tell me who that was?
That was Bill Aldridge.
What challenges did you find yourself facing when you took the position of Executive Officer?
Well, the first challenge was that there were so many different activities that it took me quite a while just to understand all of them and to grasp what difficulties and opportunities there were. But, it didn’t take me very long to realize that the organization was in serious financial difficulty at the time that I became the Executive Officer. And so for a good year or two the majority of my attention was paid to trying to improve that situation.
You talk about the “difficult financial condition” — can you expand on that a little bit? I think that there is some history there that may be important.
Yes, I think there is. Obviously the financial health of the association is absolutely critical to everything else it does and is able to do. I think that the lesson that one can draw from my own experience is that the Executive Board has to pay special attention to the state of the financial health of the organization. And to be sure that anyone that they assign to take responsibility for that knows something about how to handle money. It’s clear that that wasn’t always true otherwise the association wouldn’t have gotten into that difficult situation. And I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that by the time I left AAPT after ten years the financial condition was very stable and healthy. And I’m very proud of that, though I want to acknowledge that Robert Beck Clark, who was Treasurer during a number of those years, deserves a lot of the credit. The way we divided up our roles was that, when there were requests for spending money that I thought we couldn’t afford, I was the one that said no. But Robert Beck Clark was the one who was wise in investing money in such a way that we ultimately became not wealthy but quite stable.
I think I’d like to follow-up even more. What particular elements of the financial challenge did you particularly have to face?
Well, there were constant requests of various sorts for spending money. And one of the most common ways of spending money was to have meetings of committees. AAPT has, of course, numerous committees, and many of them do extremely good work. But, they like to meet: that is an effective way for them to plan future activities. Because we deliberately organize our committees so that they have representation from all over the country to bring them together in one place is an expensive venture. Often I was approached with requests to have such meetings and I said no. While that was painful for me, and certainly for the committee members, I’m absolutely convinced that it was essential to preventing a financial collapse.
Of course a principle source of income to the association is the journals. Did you have issues you bad to face up to there in maintaining their level of income?
Well there were some difficulties there. Journal editors have a very big responsibility, but for the most part they execute that at their own institutions and without the immediate supervision of anyone — certainly not the Executive Officer. I mean, I did not feel that I was a supervisor of the editorial offices of either of the major journals. Yet, when they incurred expenses, those bills came to me. So yes, I did have to negotiate with both editors at various times to try to restructure their budgets so that it was, from my point of view, reasonable, enabled them to do their job, but did not break the bank.
What challenges did you face later on in your tenure as Executive Officer?
One of the things that I spent a lot of time working on was the Announcer. When I became Executive Officer in 1972 the Announcer was a relatively new publication. It obviously served an important need. It was, at that time, a relatively slim document. Just a few pages four times a year. It primarily provided the programs for up and coming meetings. It didn’t serve much other function. During the early years that I was Executive Officer we expanded the scope of the Announcer dramatically. Instead of a few pages it became a hundred pages. And it became the main vehicle for communicating with AAPT members about all AAPT activities. We had several pages devoted to the activities of each committee. And all of the special events got lots of attention in the Announcer. We began to use it to advertise educational products and things of that sort. So that was a big challenge to me. And, ultimately, we had to hire a person who was the editor of that journal and that person was on my staff and I worked closely with the person to be sure that the Announcer served its purpose. That I would say was one of the major challenges. Another that I enjoyed a lot was arranging for meetings. As everyone knows, in those days there was a summer meeting and a winter meeting. The winter meeting was joint with APS at that time, and it’s no secret that APS dominated. So cooperating with them and making sure that we got our time in the sun at those winter meetings was a challenge. The summer meeting was of course always ours, but some interesting things happened during my early years. It has always been our pattern to move it around, and people liked that. I know it provided them a new campus to look at and a summer venue for their family vacations. I paid especial attention to that, and always made sure that I visited the campus that we had selected ahead of time so as to make sure that we would get the appropriate facilities that we needed. And one other thing that I am particularly pleased about is that I got the meeting moved off the 48 continental United States a couple times. We had a meeting in Puerto Rico and we had a meeting in London, Ontario, both of which were very successful.
Were there other educational projects that were initiated during your term as Executive Officer that you were especially involved in?
There were so many things that came and went. Nothing right now pops in my head that I personally spent a lot of time on.
What major projects were started either by the Board or by Committees?
The committees were constantly generating activity, and to be perfectly honest with you it seemed to me that not all of it was important. I won’t say those weren’t good ideas, but when they cost money, and seemed to benefit relatively few people; I didn’t always cooperate with the committees in the way that they would have liked. But there were a number of things that happened that were quite important. For example, the role of the community colleges increased rapidly during my early years as Executive Officer. And of course we had a Committee on Physics in the Two Year Colleges. They began to hold special sessions at meetings and to hold meetings at times other than AAPT summer meetings. I was always very interested in the two-year colleges as a place to begin college and to learn physics and so I did quite a bit of work with that group.
Can you say anything about what you feel accounts for any success or failure of programs or projects, which were taken on by AAPT during your tenure?
I was always a little bit skeptical of the value of spending a lot of time and money collaborating with physics organizations comparable to AAPT in other countries. I was just commenting that we had several opportunities to invest time and money in joint meetings with physics associations in other countries. I was never really convinced that that was a good investment for us. It would have benefited a relatively small number of our own members and the cost would have been disproportionate, so I discouraged that. On the other hand, we did have some interactions with physicists in other countries that led to important and valuable connections. We hosted a visit of some Chinese physicists fairly soon after the reconciliation with China. And they, in turn, invited us to attend a meeting of theirs in China. Several of us, including me, did go to China for a major physics education meeting.
Tell us about some of the conflicts within AAPT that you experienced during your tenure as Executive Officer?
Well there were some conflicts, that’s true. One of the things that I became enormously concerned about in the early years was that the membership was gradually decreasing. And certainly that was not because physics itself was less important in the United States. Or that physics education was in any way declining. That meant to me that somehow we were not as attractive as we should have been and perhaps in part that was simply because we didn’t advertise ourselves appropriately. So I spent quite a bit of time generating membership drives. And some of these were enormously ambitious and were things that I could not carry out myself, even with my office staff, and I asked for cooperation on the part of other AAPT officers and members. I have to say that either I was excessively ambitious in what I expected them to do, or they were not as cooperative as they might have been because many of those membership drives did not produce the results that I had anticipated. And I think that that was largely because not enough people were doing enough work on them.
It occurs to me in your stating that that AAPT does and should serve from high school through four-year liberal arts colleges to universities to graduate departments. Was there any one particular segment of that community that you felt it important to reach out to?
Well, from my point of view when I first took the responsibility of Executive Officer the association consisted primarily of physics teachers from four-year colleges. And by that now I exclude high school, two-year colleges, and universities. Our representation in those three groups was very poor at that time. So my main effort was to reach out to those three groups. I think we were enormously successful in rebuilding our membership among the high school physics teachers and among two-year college teachers. We never were terrifically successful in attracting research professors from major universities. Whether that’s even conceivable in the rubric of AAPT I don’t know, but I certainly did not achieve that.
We talked a minute ago about conflicts that you experienced within AAPT. Were there conflicts outside AAPT that you experienced as Executive Officer?
Well, nothing that I regard as very serious. Ongoing, forever, our relationship with APS is kind of problematical. Whether we like to admit it or not, we were a junior partner in whatever things we did along with APS. And I’m not sure that that ever can be changed. They are larger in numbers; they are more prestigious because, as we all know, research counts more than teaching in almost every academic institution’s judgment. So yes, when there were things we needed to do in cooperation with APS, it was difficult for me to maintain some kind of dignity and appropriate representation for AAPT.
Can you say something about the benefits that AAPT provides to its members? Why do/should people join AAPT?
Well, I’ve thought a lot about that, and debated that a lot with many people. It’s clear to me that there are only two major benefits: one the journals, and the other the meetings. When I became Executive Officer I think that the primary selling point was the journals. Fortunately, both journals were very good, and therefore we had quite a bit of membership among people who had no benefit other than to get the journal in the mail. I think one of the things that we did during my years was to build up the importance of the meetings so that more and more people came, and the quality of the meetings was such that they felt rewarded when they did attend. And by word of mouth other physics teachers were persuaded that they should attend some of our meetings. One of the things that I think was a major turning point in making the meetings interesting was the idea of having workshops. In the beginning when I took the job, the meetings were successions of papers. Anyone who has attended these meetings knows what that pattern is. At a typical summer meeting there were three different rooms where people were giving/reading papers. That just changed dramatically during the years that I was in the Executive Officer position. I would say that the idea of workshops and exhibits became the dominant thing, and the giving of papers in a classroom became a minor part of the activity. The workshops were so well received that we would get more and more requests to hold workshops on topics that were of special interest to certain numbers of our members. It got to a place where the workshop program was the biggest thing at the meetings — people came primarily for that.
Did they pay for themselves?
Mostly. We sometimes invested in a workshop that we thought was especially valuable and didn’t anticipate that we would recover our investment. One that I worked on myself was in that category. But, to a large extent, we did make them to be self-supporting.
Was it during your tenure that AAPT added the position of Staff Physicist?
Yes. The amount of activity just got to be bigger and bigger, and while I claim that I devoted a reasonable amount of time to my duties as Executive Officer it’s also true that I had teaching responsibilities. So, the idea occurred to the executive board that we should have a second person in the office to do part of the work. The minute you do that, you want to add somebody with considerable reputation and ability to do that job, but yet you’ve got to persuade them to move to Stony Brook and with their family, and all of that is a really big investment of effort and time and money. But we were successful in that. We had some people who sewed as Staff Physicist who were extremely able and helpful.
Were there situations where you especially affected people’s decision either to become members of AAPT or to continue their work in physics education? Can you name these people?
Well, I don’t know whether I should take responsibility for persuading people to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done, but I can name a few people who were extremely valuable to me as advisors and workers. I’ve already commented on Bill Aldridge. Bill was a personal friend and an effective science educator that I had numerous activities with. Another was a colleague of mine at Stony Brook, Lester Paldy. Lester was, when I first knew him, an Assistant Editor of the Physics Teacher under Cliff Swartz. But, once he committed himself to Stony Brook, he did many other things including teaching some classes and numerous projects with me doing things that were beneficial to AAPT. So I would say those were the two major influences in my activities as Executive Officer.
What influences has AAPT had on AIP, APS, AAS, AAAS, etc. and what influences have these organizations had on AAPT?
Well I’ve already commented on some of our interactions with APS. By the way, I don’t want to leave the impression that all of our interactions with them were difficult and put us in an inferior position. That’s not true. I got along well with most of the APS Officers and I think they learned to respect AAPT as an organization that had high standards and did good deeds. Most of the interaction I had with APS and with other organizations came through AIP. And AIP increasingly took on responsibility for things that were more than just publishing the journals for their member societies. They took on responsibility for monitoring the behavior of the physics community with regard to political and social issues. And committees were formed on which AAPT had membership that had to do with evaluating government activities in the area of physics and science. I think we behaved admirably in those environments and earned the respect of the other organizations. Our interactions with AAAS were not at all strong at the time that I was the Executive Officer. Though I was a member and often attended their meetings, and I respected the fact that they took a very large role in looking at the government responsibilities of scientists, and the converse, the responsibility of government to support science. So I personally participated in some of those activities, but I wouldn’t say that AAPT was a close companion of AAAS. Some of the other societies we did begin to have close relationships with: the Acoustical Society, the Optical Society. Joint meetings and other activities that were done in tandem.
Were there any special circumstances, such as new opportunities, etc., which surrounded your leaving your position as Executive Officer at AAPT?
I probably never would have left if my own personal circumstances hadn’t changed dramatically. My wife of many years died in 1979. I was never quite the same after that. But I remarried in 1982 and I was determined to put a lot of energy into that relationship and I thought doing so was incompatible with the amount of effort I needed to put into AAPT. So I had to leave in order to make it possible to have a successful second marriage.
Are there other records, which might exist that, would help in completing the history of your work at AAPT that we don’t have in hand (or of your work in physics education)?
I think nothing that is so important that it needs to be looked at with great care. As you know, I have written things at time, some of which were published in AJP or the Physics Teacher or Physics Today and some of those certainly comment on things that I thought were important at that time. But, as far as I know, there are no secret records that could be revealed that would indicate anything that you don’t already know.
We’re simply verifying that the published record that we do know is complete.
Well, I think so. It might possibly be of some interest to talk to, or to communicate with, some of the staff physicists because they undertook activities, or got into the details of some of our projects, at a level that I’m not very familiar with. So I think that would be one possibility.
As we moved through this interview, were there things that we left out? Is there something of interest we’ve missed?
We have not talked about the potential benefits from holding retreats. For example, somewhere near the middle of my tenure I began to worry that the growth in electronic communications would make print journals obsolete. Clearly an AAPT without AJP and TPT would have to be a very different organization. So we did hold a retreat to examine this issue. It involved Board members, journal editors, and a few media experts. I do not claim that this particular retreat caused AAPT to strike out in new directions. But I do believe that the retreat mechanism is a potentially valuable way to focus on major problems. Finally, I will repeat one thing that I said earlier. I think that the Executive Board needs to pay especially close attention to certain aspects of AAPT activities and make sure that when they assign responsibility for those activities to someone else, that the someone else is competent to accept those responsibilities. I think that was not always true in the past, and it has occasionally led the association into dangerous situations. I am not only talking about financial matters, although those are absolutely critical. I am also talking about making sure that the activities that AAPT values particularly are maintained at an appropriate level, and not allowed to languish, or that we don’t allow the association to become involved in activities that are not germane to its primary goals.
You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.