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Credit: Wipro Induction 2015
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Interview of Arthur Eisenkraft by David Zierler on June 15, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Arthur Eisenkraft, Professor of Physics, Distinguished Professor of Science Education, and Director of the Center of Science and Math in Context (COSMIC) at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He explains the origins of COSMIC and its role in his transition from high school to university teaching, and he discusses his current focus on the Wipro Science Education Fellowship Program. Eisenkraft surveys current trends in science pedagogy, and he reflects on the value of UMass Boston’s diverse student population for his research. He recounts his upbringing in Queens, his strong public school education, and his decision to go to Stony Brook for college where he started to think about education in scientific terms. Eisenkraft discusses his experience with the Peace Corps in Nepal before returning to Stony Brook for graduate school to work under Cliff Swartz on Fourier optics. He discusses his PhD research at NYU in science education and he explains his decision to pursue high school teaching. Eisenkraft surveys his advisory work for the National Research Council and how the NAEP Frameworks Project started. He explains his strategic partnership with Toshiba, and he describes the feedback mechanisms that inform his research. At the end of the interview, Eisenkraft frames teaching as a means to learning, and he conveys his interest in watching how higher education plans to combat systemic racism in the future.
OK, this is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is June 15, 2021. I am delighted to be here with Professor Arthur Eisenkraft. Arthur, it's great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you, it's great to be here.
To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Oh, my title goes on and on. I'm at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. And I'm a Professor of Physics, Distinguished Professor of Science Education, and the Director of the Center of Science and Math in Context, COSMIC.
So, we're going to have to unpack all of that right there. Is the science education component sort of wrapped up in your professorship of physics? Or that's its own world with its own responsibilities?
No, I would say my primary role at the University of Massachusetts is the Distinguished Professor of Science Education because that's where most of my work is, my grants, things like that. On the other hand, I received a joint appointmentship in the department of physics, so I can be closer to my physics home and so I can work with physics people on the way we change, the way we teach physics, things like that. And so, I teach courses both in the college of education as well as the college of science and math.
Tell me about the origins of the Center and the way that it contributes to your research agenda.
Oh, well, when I left high school teaching, the University of Massachusetts offered me this position. And it was my first entree into a full-time position at the university level. We talked about what I would do, and they said, "Oh, you can begin a center." I didn't even know what it meant at the time to begin a center. But I looked high and low for an acronym for a center and realized I didn't want to say STEM education. That was in 2005. Everybody was talking about STEM – it was already a cliché. I said, “No.”
So, I was trying to figure out something with science, of course, math, but also something with technology or something. I was trying to come up with something where I could merge all of these. And the Center of Science and Math in Context seemed to make sense because it seemed to have that education side, a technology side, the science technology society side of what I've always done. So COSMIC. And I remember the dean of the college of education was not happy. Because he said, "Where is education in your center's name?" And I said, "In Context." I said that, "If you include education in the name of the center, there are some grants I won't be able to go after because of the way the science community sometimes looks at education schools."
So, that was a political consideration, I guess. So, anyway, we started the Center, and when I got there, we had just received a Math and Science Partnership Grant from the National Science Foundation for about $12 million to improve science teaching in the Boston public schools. So, we were able to kick off the Center with that. And I'd already brought some grants with me when I got to U Mass. I had had a grant to work on some more active physics revisions, active chemistry, and I had some other projects I'd been working on for a long time such as the Toshiba Exploravision Competition. And so, I was able to start up the Center with the kind of work I had been doing before I was at the university and bring those projects in. And then, the Math and Science Partnership was certainly a new undertaking. I'm a New Yorker my whole life. So moving to Massachusetts was a big change; my New York friends were not believing I was giving up my NY driver's license.
But not your accent.
Not my accent. I'd actually been doing work with the Boston public schools because they had adopted active physics as a 9th grade curriculum for the entire city, in spite of knowing they only had five certified teachers in physics in all of Boston. And so, I was coming up and working with teachers to teach them how to teach physics. So, when I came to Boston, I knew a lot of people in the Boston public schools. So, I felt that was one of the reasons this position appealed to me because I wouldn't be knocking on the doors of a major city and saying, "Oh, I'm here to help you. Can I get involved?" I was already involved, so that was good.
Just a snapshot in time circa June 2021, what are you personally working on these days, and more broadly, what's interesting in the field of science education for you?
Well, my largest project is the Wipro Science Education Fellowship Program. Wipro is an IT company that has been supporting me in this effort for the past seven or eight years. It's a district transformation program, where we try to create a critical mass of teacher leaders within the district who can then provide change in the way science education is done. So, we'll take a university, and they will have five local districts they work with. And those districts will each have fellows which are identified, and they'll go through a two-year program of professional development to become teacher leaders. Some of them are already teacher leaders, but the program makes it more formal. So, you have five districts, and you have a cohort of 20 people.
You have four people from each district, and this provides the cross-district fertilization right there. The teachers are kindergarten through 12th grade and they work in teams. The 20 are broken up into five teams by discipline - physics, chemistry, biology, environmental science. In high school the teachers are assigned a team based on their certification. In elementary school, they teach all of the sciences and can be assigned to any discipline. But we form these four cohorts within the 20, and for the fall semester, they identify a course of study, which involves a research article as well as some kind of disciplinary content idea, and they all teach the same lesson.
This is a vertical team. You have two elementary teachers, a middle school, and a high school teacher on this team. They each teach the same lesson over the course of the semester, and they learn how to observe the lesson, bring the course of study, the research article to the fore, learn how to give warm and cold feedback, to trust each other, to talk about the lessons and look at student artifacts. And they do that for the fall semester and then report to the larger group about what they did. They have monthly meetings as well at the university. In the spring, they repeat that, but it's now horizontal teams, where elementary teachers, middle school teachers, or high school teachers group together.
And they look at, as a course of study, another research article, including one of eight Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS), science and engineering practices. They focus on one practice for the semester, whether it's taking data, asking questions, claims and evidence, communication, whatever. And they go through the same process, and then we have a larger conference across universities now in the spring. So, in January, when they report back to their cohort of 20, it may be one of the first times some of these teachers have ever presented to peers. In June, they're presenting to peers at another university, so it's people they don't even know now. The second year is really where the leadership flourishes. Each individual identifies a professional development plan with two components, which they're going to do for 100 hours.
One component has to do with improving science education in the district, and the other has to do with something they've always wanted to do, but they keep postponing or don't get to do because life gets in the way. And here, it's like, "No, we're going to commit you to doing this." And they spend these 100 hours working on this. One component has to involve some other teachers in their district. And then, at the end, they make a research poster presentation to others sharing what they did, and to their district, and things like that. So that's a two-year program, but it goes on for four years. So, the first year, you have cohort one. The second year, you bring on another 20 teachers. In the third year, you bring on another 20 teachers.
The Fellows are cycling through this process. At the end, you have 12 science teachers, elementary through high school, who now have the same vocabulary, they understand the same things, they've gone through this process in each of five districts. The hope is that this is a critical mass to transform the district into better science education. We've done this program at U Mass Boston with five districts around here in Boston, in New York in Westchester County with five districts. Usually, districts are chosen because they're high needs districts as well.
And then, New Jersey. That was three universities. Then, we expanded to Texas, University of North Texas in Dallas. And then, we recently expanded to Stanford University, University of Missouri, and the University of South Florida. So, we now have seven universities involved in this program. And I work with the seven universities, and we all talk about this, and try to make it a better program, and better understand how some of the rural districts in Missouri are different than Boston and San Francisco. The Wipro Science Education Fellowship is one of my largest projects right now.
And in terms of sort of broader trends in pedagogy in the field, what are people talking about? What's interesting? What are the innovations at play right now?
I think that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and the NRC framework for K-12 science education, which talks about three dimensions of teaching is the main theme right now. These documents say, "No, in your lessons, you should have science and engineering practice. You should also have, of course, the science content. And then, you should have a cross-cutting concept." The merging of those threads, those three dimensions, into curriculum is something which I think people are trying to still do. They understand it's more than using that vocabulary. There's a lot of work to do on that. I see a lot of people emphasizing claims, evidence, and reasoning. Teachers are building on the trends which preceded the NRC Framework. These included pedagogical models, which speak to activity before concept, and other things that go back all the way to the 1960s with Karplus, where it was one simple model, and now it's a little more complex.
People are presently talking about phenomena-based instruction. "Don't forget, you have to have phenomena." Yes, we had phenomena, but they say, "Start with the phenomena. Don't just teach the science, and then at the end, say, 'Here's how it's useful.' But start with the phenomena in order to engage the children and get them excited about that." I don't think there are any radical shifts in what we're trying to do, but kind of adhering to a type of vocabulary, and then really, trying very hard to make sure that it's not corrupted, that people don't say, "Oh, I have the three dimensions" When they don’t. "No. You followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law." Which can happen with NGSS, can happen with anything. As soon as you say, "Here's the perfect way to teach a science lesson. If you have these ingredients, you'll have a perfect science lesson," I'm very skeptical. Even though I support certain instructional models, I'm very suspicious of anybody who thinks that there's a template which produces good lessons. I think that all of these ways of teaching are checks on what you produce.
So, the way I create lessons or help people create lessons is, you come up with the best lesson you can. You want to teach something. Of course, you have to know the content, you have to have some background, you can search on the internet, you can ask friends. But what's the best lesson you can come up with? And then, you can say, "Now, is the lesson inquiry?" "Well, what does inquiry mean?" "We have these lists of things. Does it have those? Or can that inquiry list help you improve the lesson?" Or the 7E instructional model, which I've written about. "Do you have an engage? Are you eliciting the prior understandings?" "Oh, I didn't elicit the prior understandings. Let me now put that into my near-perfect lesson." And so, there are checks on what you've done. So NGSS, or the framework, is like, "Am I emphasizing the cross-cutting concepts? Oh, I certainly mentioned that momentum is a conservation law, but I forgot to say that conservation laws are an overriding attribute that we value in physics. And I can emphasize that and put it into the context that every science you do is going to have to do with energy."
So, keep telling the students that. But I always see all of these factors as input and checks to make your perfect lesson better. So, I don't know what the exact trends are. Good instruction is the trend. People talk about STEM, and it's, "What do you mean by STEM?" It used to be science, then technology–no, now every lesson has to have everything. And it's, "Really? You're going to do that?" And then, "What about the history or humanities? And put the arts in there." Let’s call it STEAM or SHTEAM. It's just good learning. Wanting people to want to learn. Wanting people to want to be skeptical. So, the 7E model is an instructional model of things you should include in a lesson, as are the four essential questions, which are, what does it mean? How do we know? Why do we believe? And why should I care? They speak to a different way of looking at or assessing a lesson, which I think is important.
A few broad questions before we go back and develop your personal narrative. First, on the administrative side, in what ways do you draw value from the fact that U Mass Boston has a diverse student body, both in terms of where the students are coming from socioeconomically, generationally with first-generation students, and also the range of aptitude that you'll find at a place like U Mass Boston an asset for your research?
Bertrand Russell, in his autobiography, talks about three parts to his life. And one of them is just the absolute beauty of knowledge, of the Pythagorean theorem, that we know things. And then, another aspect is the pain that goes on in the world, which yanks you back from this wonderful ability for you and I to discuss pedagogy and intellectual ideas, which is great fun, intellectually challenging, and a luxury because there are people who are worried about food. They're in a totally different place on the Maslow scale of being able to function in life. And so, when you're surrounded by students, that's there. You realize how privileged we are, and in a way, how privileged they are because they're at the university.
At U Mass Boston, the one moment I think every professor will say is the high point of the year is at graduation, when the chancellor says, "If you're the first person in your family to graduate college, please stand up." And 60% of the kids stand up. And you say, "We are making a difference in the world." Because at my core, I believe that education is the solution to all the world's problems. That's the way out, good education. So, when you see 60% being the first ones in their family to go to college, you say, "Yes, that's good." It's going to be interesting, as we enter the post-COVID world, and I've been thinking about this recently, for at least the next five years, every conversation is going to require us to specify whether we're talking about pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID. And there are realizations that COVID brought to the table across the world, where schools closed down, everything closed down. And you are reminded that school was not just about learning. It was a food distribution program.
The first thing we faced was, "How do we make sure the kids in Boston get their meals? Because this is the major meal of the day for some of them." So, you get their meals done. Fine. Then, you say, "Well, how are we going to teach?" Well, we have internet. We have Zoom. We can do these things now. "Oh, hold on. Kids don't have computers. Kids don't have internet access. How do we provide that?" Parents could watch their children in class now, which could be very powerful. But one parent was watching her second-grade boy in class, and the teacher said, "It's too noisy. You have to go to a quiet room, or I won't be able to give you credit for your class participation." And the mother, after class, speaks to the teacher and says, "There are five of us in one room. There is no other room to go to. There is no quiet place. Can my child just write in the chat box and get credit that way?"
And the teacher says, "Oh, yeah, that would be a good idea." Now, this was not a malicious teacher. But that whole idea of, "Go to another room. Go where you have better internet access." "What are you talking about? Do you have any idea of how I live?" And so, through this past year, the students are not all coming to the university to sit in one room where you can forget for a moment, for an hour, about everything else that goes on in the world. It's one of the things I think I've always loved about teaching. No matter what my personal issues were, what world issues were going on, for one hour, you close that door, and since teaching takes 100% of my attention when I'm teaching, everything else falls away. For one hour, I forget about everything except me, the students, and learning. And you could do that. You couldn't do that during remote learning required by COVID. On the one hand, there are kids who won’t show themselves on screen because they tell me, “I don’t want you to see what my house looks like. My grandfather will be walking back and forth. I don’t want you to see what my life is.”
So, you lose that sterility of coming to the university. There are interruptions. Some of them are adorable, I guess. Like a cat walking across the keyboard or screen. But you also began to see, "Oh, how are kids living? How do I get this to you? In class, I’m asking students to respond in the chat box or to answer this poll or to draw a picture. I’m asking them to go to a website, to a discussion board or to go into breakout rooms." And you realize that I'm doing it at home with a desktop computer and a nice, large screen, and there are some students doing it all on their iPhone. And students explain, "Oh, no, I can't share my picture because I don't have the bandwidth to do that." Remote learning also reminded me that one reason I love teaching is because there are other people. With remote learning, I miss seeing the students. I miss finding out about them. I miss the casual, three-minute conversations before class or after class that you can't do in the Zoom world that we've had this past year.
Because most of the people I interview who are interested in pedagogy limit their research to physics specifically, a question I've been looking forward to asking you is, with your scholarly background in physics, but your purview in science education more broadly, what value do you draw on the idea that physics is the so-called foundational discipline, and that learning things like first principles is a very useful way to go about learning the other scientific disciplines? Do you grab onto that? Or is that not necessarily relevant to the kinds of approaches that you have?
That's an interesting question in that you're talking about another meta level of teaching. Physics people can jump up and down and tell you it's foundational science. It's not the way other people think. So, for example, one of the things I've been doing at U Mass, I said, "I'd like to teach the first-year course Physics for Bio Majors." And one of the reasons I wanted to do that was because we said, "We know physics is a requirement to get your bachelor's in biology. You have to take a physics course. But it's not a prerequisite." And most of the students were taking it in their senior year, postponing it as much as they could. And so, you start trying to unpack that. Why are they taking it their senior year?
Obviously, they don't think it's particularly valuable for them. It's a requirement. And so, you poll the biology faculty, and you say, "Well, to be a biologist, which of these disciplines is important? Math, chemistry, physics, environmental, all of these things." "Oh, no, physics is not at the top. It's way at the bottom." So, their biology professors aren't telling them, "Oh, you have to take physics. It's really going to help you in your biology." They're saying, "Yeah, it's a requirement. Postpone it as long as you can. Postpone calculus as long as you can. Don't let it get in the way of learning biology." So, it's not the way we look at physics, the way we look at math. And yet, it's the way other people look at it, that it's not foundational science, just some other way of looking at the world that doesn't particularly help them.
So, that causes me, then, to try to figure out, when I teach Physics for Biology Majors, which is a new undertaking for me, "What do you want to teach them?" So, I have three parts to constructing that course. One is, what are the goals I have for the course? And then, teach it with a pedagogy I think is valuable, which is project-based learning, less is more, those kinds of things. But then, the third constraint I have on that is, “I’d better get through the 15 chapters.” And this is part of the problem we have in physics education and in science education. We know we should not be teaching with the density we do. 15 chapters in 15 weeks is absurd.
Let’s say students remembered 50% of what they learned in a physics course, which is much higher than they often do. With a different way of teaching, they could remember 80%, but only if you cut the curriculum to 80%. So, which is better, 50% of 100% or 80% of 80%? Well, mathematically, 64% is bigger than 50%, so that should win. But no, it doesn't win. Because right now, we have a system set up so that when the students go on to their second year of physics, and they only remember some things, the teacher turns to the professor from the year before, and they say, "I taught 12 out of the 15 chapters." "Oh, that's the problem. You didn't teach them 15 chapters." When you say, "Yeah, I taught all 15 chapters," they say, "Oh, it's the kids' fault." So, all of a sudden, I have this constraint, "You'd better get through the 15 chapters." Even though all the physics professors don't go through 15 chapters, I'm going to do this because I want to try to have better pedagogy and figure out what biology students need from physics that they've waited for so long to take.
And I guess, in the short version of the goals of the course, I realized, "No, they're not going to do physics. But they should know when to call a physicist for help." That's the purpose of the course, to know when to go to the physics department and say, "I'm doing some research. I think you might be able to help me." And I don't think they get that from the typical 15 chapters in the way it's taught. So, the idea is that, if you start a lesson with a biology problem–there must be biologists who worry about what happens when there's pressure on a cell. Do the organelles behave the same way? Does the osmosis change when there's pressure on a cell? I don't know. But I'm sure some biologists are worried about this. Well, it turns out that if they come to a physicist and say, "I'm trying to worry about this thing with pressure on a cell. How do you look at it?" and they say, "Oh, we look at it with Hooke's law and a simple harmonic oscillator. And here's a very simple, sterile system, which allows us to make sense of certain things in mathematical principles. And here's how we look at pressure, and forces, and restoring forces, and things like this to a first approximation."
So now, you had a biology problem. Here's how physicists look at it. So now, how does it help you look at that original biology problem, and why is it not the answer because the biology is so much more complex than the physics? What did we leave out? And so, it's just when to go to a physicist. "We have a model for this." There's something called the yellow light problem. When you're driving down the road, and the light turns yellow, you have a choice. "Do I go, do I speed up, or do I stop?" And it depends on a lot of factors. The speed you're going, how far you are from the intersection, your braking and how much you can decelerate, reaction time, things like that. So, you give this problem, and it's a wonderful way to teach kinematics because you have all these motion equations, and you can teach about reaction time. And you build a model for when you should go and when you should stop.
And it's not guesswork. There's a mathematical model. So, then, I turned to my students, and I said, "OK, show me a biology model which is like the yellow light model, where there are certain factors which all lead to this." And when they did that, the students who chose to do this for extra credit, I was overwhelmed by the richness of what they had to share, but I realized, which I didn't know before I taught the course, "I don't have to bring the biology to the class. They know the biology. I just have to give them a way of showing me the biology." So, it's a way to say, "Why do you go to a physicist?" "Physicists have models, mathematics, equations, things like that." But as far as being, "Oh, you should always go to physics because it's a foundational science. You must come to us." No.
Useful perspective. I appreciate that. I marinate too much in the physics world, so this is what happens.
Well, there's a wonderful story of a physicist running a lab in Europe. When you're running a lab like CERN or whatever, a reporter was talking to him and said, "To run the lab, you're really more of an engineer than you are a physicist. So, was it difficult for you to step down from physics to engineering?" And he said, "I started out as a mathematician. I already made one step down."
[laugh] That's great.
So, this foundational science, this hierarchy of the sciences, I think that's an occupational hazard we have thinking that what we do is the most important.
Well, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's go back to New York. First, let's start with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
Wow, that's way back. From the autobiography of Hyman Kaplan. "First, I was born." So, my parents are both New Yorkers. They both were born in New York. I was born in Manhattan, and when I was 4 or 5, we moved to Queens. And my father was a poor New Yorker. His father had died when he was 12 years old. He was the oldest of three children. His mother was an invalid. And starting at 13, 14, he was kind of supporting the family. They were on welfare, and welfare was different then. If the house wasn't clean, they wouldn't get their money. And so, there were possible abuses of the system there you learned from. So, he went to school and was working. And then, he went to NYU and became an accountant. And then, he was an accountant his whole life, ran his own business mostly doing the books for different gas stations all over the New York City area.
So, I used to always see him working with lots of numbers and things like that. I never knew my father's parents. They had come from Europe, probably Austria. And my mother's mother was Ukrainian, she escaped from there in the bottom of some cart covered in straw. And my mother’s father was from England, and had come here, and was a furniture refinisher. My mother went to school and was not good in math at all. So much so that she'd tell me, she got her grade, and they said, "Don't ever take another math class," which was what they did. But she was a homemaker and got very involved in politics.
So, in the early 1960s, she was very involved in the SANE nuclear policy, which was trying to prevent atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. So, I was learning about strontium-90, how it's similar to calcium and can get into your bones. So, I was hearing all these things, politicians would be over to the house, and I would have to go to mailboxes and distribute circulars. My mother would say, "Go out and hand out these circulars," and stuff like that. So, she was very political, had a high school education, but when I was in college, she decided she would go to college. And she went to Queens College and graduated very close to the top of the class. Then, she became a teacher. So those are my parents.
Was your upbringing more secular, or was your family religiously affiliated at all?
Oh, that's interesting. So being Jewish, I certainly got bar mitzvahed, I would go to temple a few times a year with my father. My parents were both secular, but my father had been more religious. But when I was probably 4 years old or so, I had a sister who was two or three years older than me who died of some kind of bone cancer. It was a long, painful thing. And that ended religion for my mother. That just ended it. And I think my father handled it differently. But it was like, "This doesn't make sense." Certainly, a strong Jewish cultural background, though not religious background.
Did you go to public schools throughout?
What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Queens. Whitestone, Bayside. I went to PS 184 and PS 194. If you're not from New York, it's, "You name your elementary schools with numbers?" Yes, we do. And then, I went to Bayside High School. When I was graduating Bayside High School, again, I didn't know anything about college. My father had gone to college. He never even mentioned NYU as a choice. Most of my friends went to Queens College. But I was interested in science and math. And this new university had just opened, Stony Brook. It was close and I went to Stony Brook.
For high school, given you were interested in math and science, did you consider one of the technical schools? Stuyvesant, Bronx, or Brooklyn Tech?
Yeah, it's interesting because living in Queens, the commute to Stuyvesant or to Bronx Science was quite onerous. I don't know if I thought about that as much. But Bayside High School was so strong at the time. In terms of national merit winners, I think we were equivalent to Stuyvesant or Bronx Science in the number of winners we got. My whole life is just kind of going from one thing to another, not really making decisions so much. In New York, we had this two-year SP program, where when you got to 7th grade, you had an option of doing 7th, 8th, and 9th grade in two years instead of three years. And so, all my friends that were eligible took the two-year SP. When I got to Bayside High School, I was in 10th grade already. It just seemed to be the way to do it.
Was it science specifically that you knew you wanted to focus on when you got to Stony Brook?
No, math. I always enjoyed math. I loved it. And I remember in elementary school, where there was another student, and the two of us liked math a lot. And so, we were in 2nd or 3rd grade. Kids are worried about division or whatever people worry about. And we're figuring out how you take square roots of numbers. But all of a sudden, somewhere in 3rd grade, I realized that the teachers weren't interested that Richard and I liked math. I thought, "I guess that's not as important." So, you start doing something else. But I loved math. And so, when I was in high school, when I took physics, what fascinated me about physics was, I had never taken a physics course, and I remember the very first problem. I got on the phone with a friend, Mark, and we were trying to go over this problem early in the semester. “OK, you get a quadratic equation.
So, there are going to be two solutions. Oh, one of the solutions has physical significance, one doesn't. But math kind of–" this blew me away. This was my first glimmer of what physics could do. I just could not believe it. And so, I liked physics. Then, I go to Stony Brook, and again, math, calculus, whatever the courses were, I always found them easier. But physics captured and challenged me, and I was never good at it. It was, "I just don't understand this well enough." And it's always interesting to try to figure out the pivotal moments where you make these changes. I remember there was a lecture in freshman physics at Stony Brook, and it's a very simple problem, and Arnie Strassenberg was my teacher. And he taught this lesson about bowling balls, when they stop sliding and start rotating.
Now, being in New York, I used to go bowling a lot. When I was in junior high school, we hung out at the bowling alley, we'd gamble, we'd bet, we would bowl until our thumb would have a blister, and you'd have to put cement on it so you could keep bowling. My life, for two years, was just bowling and everything associated with it all the time. And I'm looking at this, "I don't understand the lecture." But it was also, "You can figure this out? I have to learn this." That was the moment. The ironic part is, of course, Arnie Strassenberg, who became executive director of AAPT, certainly noteworthy in many respects, became a colleague and friend, as happens when you get older. And when I was going through my notebooks, throwing things away, I said, "Oh, here's my freshman notebook. I have to look up this lecture that I think changed my life."
And I took good notes. I go to that lecture, and I read it, and I realized, "He didn't teach it well." And when I saw Arnie, I said, "I have to tell you this story. I don't think you taught it well pedagogically. But you turned me into a physics major. So, you were successful or not." [laugh] How do we measure Strassenberg's success with that lecture? It captured me, it engaged me, it made me want to be a physics major, but he didn't teach it well. Then, the other thing is, I'm looking at this book, it's 1967, and Jocelyn Bell had just discovered the pulsar. I'm a freshman in physics, I don't know anything. And there in the notebook, we had a special lecture. Max Dresden, whom I didn't know, whom later became another mentor of mine and I got to know very well, had come in to give us a lecture about the pulsar and why nobody knows how to explain it. Now, we just say, "Oh, yeah, neutron star."
Nobody knew this. This was little green men time. It was, "How can anything emit such short periodic spurts?" So there, again, is something I didn't even know we had been given that enrichment. Because you're just oblivious to all of these things. You just go to class and stuff. But in retrospect, it's, "Oh, that was a good enrichment." Dresden also has a way to capture your imagination in physics, and show you the beauty of physics, and live and breathe the beauty of physics.
Did you cross paths with Jim Simons at all during your Stony Brook years?
I think he was my calculus professor. I should've asked him for money at the time. This was before he realized he had a different calling. [laugh]
Do you remember how he was as a professor?
No, not at all, not at all. But he was there when I was there and I did have to go to his office when he was chair to discuss my differential calculus course grade.
On the social and political side of things, what was going on around campus during the Vietnam War, campus protests, that kind of thing?
There are different ways to look at that. There's the political, the personal, the academic side of it. It's so complex. First of all, on the one hand, I was very fortunate that when I was a sophomore, in January, I said, "Maybe they have jobs here at the university. I could have a summer job." And so, somebody said, "Go to the head of the Van de Graaff Lab." And Linwood Lee was the head of the lab. I said, "Do you have any summer jobs? I'm a physics major, I'm a sophomore." And he said, "Yeah, we're going to hire a few people this summer. You can have the job." I said, "Wow. That's great." So, it was interesting because many years later, when I was invited back to Stony Brook for something, Lee wanted to see me.
He said, "Arthur, there were no such thing as undergraduate research grants at the time. But of course, running the Van de Graaff lab, you have a lot of money. So, I just decided, 'Let's do this. Let's hire undergraduates and see what happens.'" So, I got this job with four other people. But nobody knew what undergraduate research fellowships were. We had this job, and he said, "The money was looser then. You had this pile of money. And I could just say, 'Yeah, I'm going to hire some students with this money.' Now, you can't do that with the grants. I can't do that. But then, there was more flexibility to do that." I didn't know I was one of the first to have an undergraduate research fellowship. I just needed a job.
But then, you work in the Van de Graaff. And so, all of a sudden, somebody spray paints the door to the Van de Graaff because we're doing military research. It was, "I don't know, I'm just changing these targets, looking at the excited state of this element. No, you're misunderstanding what we do." But maybe, I was misunderstanding what we did. Why did they care about the excited state of this element? Why is it the Department of Energy giving us money?" That was a little complicated because all of a sudden, it's, "I'm in the Van de Graaff, but people think we're the enemy. And I don't feel like the enemy." And my mother, of course, is marching on Washington against the war at the same time. I'm marching on Washington. Again, my mother was very politically active. And so, there was that. There was the threat.
So, you’re bothered by what’s going on in the world, you’re personally bothered or worried because, “Oh, I’m going to go to Vietnam.” And so, Nixon, in December of 1969 said, “We’re going to have a lottery. People are going to get lottery numbers to see if they’re drafted or not.” I’m a junior at the time and thinking, “This is a big part of everybody’s life.” We’re sitting around the dorm and listening to the radio because there was one television in the whole dormitory, and nobody ever watched it except for an occasional Star Trek. But nobody watched any television. College wasn’t like that. And we’re all sitting by the radio, and you hear people saying, “Oh, and the great state of Iowa, number 47, is May 13.” And it was like, “The great state? You’re making it like a big fanfare? This is my life you’re talking about.”
So, we all sat around, and some people had some tough numbers. My number turned out to be 360, which was, "I'm not going into the Army. I'm not going to be drafted. I don't have to think about going to Canada. I don't have to think about all of these things that everybody is talking and thinking about, like how to get out of going to Vietnam. I can't believe this." And so, that changed the way I looked at it. But there were demonstrations on campus as well as going to Washington for marches and things like that. But then, you had professors who were very sensitive to what was going on and to the conflicts that we as individuals, as students had. And so, some professors would give everybody an A.
Harvard, in fact, made an incredibly powerful statement at the time. When every university had to give to the president or whatever, "We want to know who's in the bottom half of your class." It was, "We know what that's about." And Harvard just said, "We don't have a bottom half." So, professors would say, “I give all As because I’m not going to give somebody a C and send them to Vietnam.” Some professors would be at a rally and have a political view. And others, you didn’t even know if they knew any of this was going on. I remember one physics professor actually standing up there with a kind of irony because there was one year, 1970, a small building on campus got burned down. Basically, this professor got up there and said, “Burn a building, take a pass.” Pass/fail thing.
So, was he being cynical about this? "Is this why you burned down a building, so you get out of studying for your finals? What's going on?" But I remember the finals being canceled that year. I think there is a different way of looking at it, many years later. I was asked to give the commencement address at Stony Brook. First of all, I'm just overwhelmed by being asked because they're saying, "Come home, we're proud of you," when in fact, I did not become a physicist, I became a science educator, a physics teacher. And it's, "Really? Come back?" And I'm all nervous. "What's going to happen? Are they going to ask me questions? Is Janos Kurz going to ask me how a pulse-height analyzer works? Can I explain that?" [laugh] I'm nervous about being on the spot here, giving an address. But Max Dresden introduced me. And he was wonderful. He said, "Arthur went to school here, and he, like so many others, was caught between political awareness and what's right for society and trying to learn physics. And you had to somehow juggle the two." "That's what I was doing? I didn't know that was what I was doing."
He saw it in a context, and I said, "Oh, that's interesting." But to tell one other Dresden story, we had a student when I was teaching high school who died in a car accident. Wonderful student, wonderful young man. And the parents wanted to do something for him. One idea was a lecture series. Max is a superb lecturer. I invited him to come give a lecture, the first in the series. I had to introduce him. "Head of this, teacher of theoretical physics, worked with Kramers." He was quite impressive. And he gets up there, and I'm a little worried because he has a heavy Dutch accent. And high school kids are not as tolerant. You get to college, you're more tolerant of accents. Maybe it's different now. And so, Dresden gets up there, and he's so charming. And I don't know how he's going to do this. He said, "Thank you, Arthur. I was not sure how good Arthur would be in giving an introduction. He was not much of a student when I knew him." [laugh] And the whole school just loved the guy immediately. It was just wonderful. He got them all in the palm of his hand from 15 seconds into his talk.
By the time you graduated, what were your prospects? What did you want to do next?
Oh, well, knowing I didn’t have to go to Vietnam certainly opened up the world to me. Right after the lottery came out, I told my parents I was going to finish the next semester and then travel through Europe. “I’m going to quit school. I’ve had enough.” And my father, in his wisdom, at the time, said, “You know what? Why don’t you sign up for courses in the fall. And in June, go to Europe, do what you want to do, and when September comes, if you want to stay in Europe, you’ll do that. But if you decide to come back, you’re all set.” And so, three months running around Europe on $3 or $4 a day, $500 lasts a whole summer. So, I did that, and I finished my senior year. I had gotten a physics degree, of course, but I'd also had a teaching license. I could be a teacher.
So that was part of it. And I remember going to Les Paldy in the physics department, who was another mentor there, and I was just talking about what I could be doing and things like that. And he had this great idea of, "Why don't you buy a van and do physics shows around the country?" So now, you'd say, "Oh, yeah, I know there are people who do that." But Les had a novel idea, "You could try this." I decided to join the Peace Corps. Partly, out of not knowing what I wanted to do, partly out of my interest in other cultures. I had been, like so many other people, reading a lot about eastern mysticism, yoga, those kinds of practices, doing all of that stuff. And my friends had gone over land from Holland to India by VW bus. So, there was kind of a curiosity there.
And I said, "Let me find out a little about the Peace Corps, be a teacher in the Peace Corps." So, they said, "Where do you want to go?" They gave me a list of three countries: Fiji, Uganda, Ghana. And I said, "I have no idea. I don't know any of these places. Send me anywhere. Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship. I don't care." And then, I was at an ashram in Canada, a yoga meditation place, for a week, and I got this note saying, "We'd like you to go to Nepal." "Whoa." Because India and Nepal had not been a choice. So then, I'm at this yoga meditation camp, and I want to tell people, "I think I'm going to go to Nepal." And everybody says, "Be here now." "I can't be here now. [laugh] I'm too excited." So, I joined the Peace Corps, and that was certainly an incredibly powerful, meaningful experience to me that has guided my whole life since.
Was education on your radar at that point? Did you think about being an educator as part of being in the Peace Corps?
Well, I was a physics major and a math minor, but I also had gotten a degree in science teaching. I was licensed. I could become a teacher. So, it was certainly always there as something I valued. And then, going to teach in Nepal taught me a lot. There were about 22 of us going to Nepal to become science teachers. And I knew much more about teaching than any of them because I'd studied it. But I learned so much more teaching in Nepal, teaching in a small village, when your entire blackboard is a piece of wood a half-meter by 30 centimeters, and you have chalk. And you're teaching in a different language that you don't know very well, a culture you don't know very well. And all of those things helped, I think, sensitize me toward what we now know about education, that no, you don't know the kids in your class, you don't know the culture, you don't know this. What do you do? Just this sensitivity. So, I remember that.
How long were you in the Peace Corps for?
A couple of years. Very lonely, very difficult time. But I think there are certain times in my life where I've looked and said, "Oh, it all comes together." So, when we were hosting the International Physics Olympiad, when I first helped create the US involvement in the Physics Olympiad, all of a sudden, I said, "All these countries, Peace Corps, it all comes together." And now, Wipro, which funds this Wipro Science Education Fellowship Program, is an Indian IT company with about 15,000 employees in America. That's why they want to give back to education in America.
But I've been going to India for the past ten years every year to work with some of their education initiatives in India, which are much bigger than their initiatives anywhere else in the world. The owner of Wipro, Azim Premji, is one of the wealthiest people in the world, and he's donated $25 billion, almost all his money, to a foundation to improve education in India. So, I get to go there and, in a tiny way, work with their teacher leaders, things they're trying to do across 14 states in India. And it's just great because it's India. Nepal is very close to India. I feel very comfortable in the culture. I see it differently because I do know something about the culture. But not really.
When did you commit to graduate school as the next career opportunity?
Oh, so when I came back from the Peace Corps, I went to the January meeting. The New York APS meeting was always in January at the Hilton Hotel every year. So, there I was, I had just gotten back, and, "I'm going to go to the meeting. I don't have to sign up to the meeting." I'm just a kid. "I'm just going to go to this meeting." And I think it was a joint meeting of the AAPT and APS. I went there, and I met, I think, Les Paldy, or Cliff Swartz from Stony Brook, I met them there. And I'm at the point where it's reverse culture shock. I'm looking around, and I can't focus on anything, really. There's just so much happening. I'd only been back a few weeks. And one of them said, "Why don't you come back to Stony Brook? We'll support you." I said, "Oh. OK, wow."
So, I went back to Stony Brook. And it was wonderful because this is January, so school doesn't start til September. So, I could do whatever I wanted. In the three weeks before that, the few weeks you're back. I remember, I was back two days, and my family took me to some kind of family thing. And my cousin, who's a little older than I am, asked me a question. Something like, "Were the students motivated?" And again, this is reverse culture shock. So, things are very slow in a village. There was no electricity in my village, no plumbing. It was a pretty small village. You sit, and you drink tea, and everything is very slow. And so, he asked me this question. I'm back three days. "Were the students motivated?" And I thought, "Such a strange question. I never thought about that. How do I answer that question?" And then, I go to answer, and he's talking to somebody else. And my mother was saying, "You're a dinosaur, Arthur. How long does it take a thought to get to your brain? You're so slow." [laugh]
And so, there was that. The idea that I could go back to Stony Brook–I was getting interested in photography at the time, and so I could read every book there was in the library on photography, I could go to every exhibit I could find on photography, I could learn how to use the dark room because my friend had been a student at the Pratt Institute in New York and said, "They have dark rooms there. You could just go there. They'll think you're a student." And I just went to Pratt, and I started developing pictures, learning how to do photography. And people, when they would say, "What are you doing with your life?" I could say, "Oh, I'm going back to school in September." And they said, "OK." [laugh] And now, everybody's fine because you have an exit strategy. So that was wonderful.
What were your long-term career ambitions in settling on graduate programs?
I didn't know. I didn't know what graduate school was like, I didn't know what you did. I took a course on holography and Fourier optics. George Stroke was at Stony Brook at the time in the engineering department. And I said, "Oh, I'm going to take that because it's optics, and that's interesting." And then, I said, "They're teaching this engineering course on photography." And my advisor said, "Yeah, you can take that." And I took that, so I was learning about photography in a different way. And then, I'm learning about Fourier optics in a different way. So, I was just having a good time with it. But I knew that research was not for me. I kind of suspected that, working in the Van de Graaff, that I didn't want to be a research physicist. I could pretend that being the first in the world to know this number is an exciting thing. "Nobody's ever known this number before. We now know this number. We haven't published it yet. We're the only ones to know the number." But it was a false excitement. I really didn't care.
Who ended up being your graduate advisor?
Well, Cliff Swartz.
What was the process of developing your thesis topic?
Well, this was only a master's degree at Stony Brook. I got a master's at Stony Brook. My thesis was how to teach Fourier optics to freshman or high school students phenomenologically. And I had learned from my course in the engineering department, "This is amazing." I'd never heard these things before. That, "Somehow, the diffraction plane is the Fourier transform of the object you put in the system, that mathematically, they're equivalent? How can this be?" I'd never seen this. And so, there were ways to use this to de-blur photographs, to get unwanted noise out of photographs. Everything was very new. And I said, "Why is this such a secret to the world? We should be able to teach it." "Oh, no, you can't. The mathematics are so complicated."
I said, "No, no, you can do this without the math." And my wife jokes that my thesis was so successful in that it became a book, I ended up getting a patent from it some years later, I ended up writing my first major article for the Physics Teacher magazine. Cliff Swartz was the editor of The Physics Teacher, and he said, "You should write an article about this." I had written maybe something else in there once before. People would say to me, "You should write that up." And I did. And I've told many people since then, "You should write that up," and they don't do it. I didn't know I had a choice when they told me to write it up. [laugh] It was, "Oh, I'd better write it up." So that was it. I was very fortunate in the topic I chose and where it went. The patent came years later, when I decided to go for a PhD in science education at NYU.
I was teaching, I was having a wonderful time. The way your teaching salary schedule goes, they have a two-dimensional matrix in terms of years of experience and how many credits you have, and you want to move diagonally across that to make more money annually. More experience teaching and taking more credits. I had a master's degree. You can take credits here, credits there to work your way up to MA plus 60, or you can get a PhD. And there was one incident, where I wanted to take a course for credit in ethics. Philosophy always puzzles and interests me. And the superintendent said, "No, you can't count that toward your salary." I said, "Why not?" I was pretty upset about this. And he said, "It has nothing to do with science." So, I said, "It does." [laugh]
So, I explained that to him, and he said, “Oh, I see you have a much broader view of science than I do.” But by the time he said yes, the course was closed out. So now, I’m a little angry and frustrated. I’m trying to figure out what to do. And nobody ever told me there was such a thing as research in science education. I didn’t know this. I was in the physics community. And so, I said, “There are programs like this?” So I look around because I’m in New York, so there’s Columbia and NYU. So, I go to NYU and Columbia, and I go to find out what these programs are like. And I remember speaking to the chair of science education at Columbia, and he was asking me what I was interested in. I told him all these different interests. And it was a wonderful interview.
And then, I went to NYU, and Fletcher Watson had retired from or left Harvard and was now at NYU. And this is Fletcher Watson, Jim Rutherford, Harvard Project Physics, all of these things. Gerald Holton. So he's at NYU. So I go to NYU, and I'm having a conversation with Fletcher Watson. And the same thing. "What are you interested in?" And I told him. And he said, "Wait." And he'd take one of those and say, "What about this, this, this, and this?" Then, I'd say something else, and he'd say, "What about this and this?" And I said, "This guy's remarkable." And then, I was still trying to make the decision, Columbia or NYU, and the advice I was given by Stony Brook mentors was, "No, no, you work with Fletcher Watson. There's no question about it. You go where Watson is." So I went to NYU. And then, of course, in that program, some of my interests, again, optics and stuff like that. So, I wanted to take a course in perception in the psychology department. That's where they teach perception. I had this incredible professor, Schiff, who'd written a textbook.
And oh, did I love this class. Loved it. But I had never taken a psychology course before. And I saw the first exam, and it had multiple choice questions. I had never seen a multiple-choice question. "Multiple choice? Are you kidding?" And the things they cared about, I was so nervous. So, I took that course pass/fail. But then, it was just an incredibly fun and interesting course. So, I get done with the course, and afterwards, I go up to the professor because I still want to talk about certain aspects of this, and he said, "You took the course pass/fail? You have the highest grade in the course." I said, "Yeah, I didn't know that when I chose pass/fail." [laugh] Because they don't know who's pass/fail.
But it was from that course that the Fourier optics thing became the patent. Because I was sitting there saying, "Wait. This is a problem in perception, this is what you can do. This, we know in physics. Oh, you can have a test for this. You can put this together." And it was so obvious. Lock anybody in a room with these two papers on their desk at the same time, and everybody would say, "Oh, yeah, they're related." But I was lucky, so I was able to see that.
Who ended up serving on your thesis committee?
Fletcher Watson, Bob Sherwood, Jim Connors, science educators.
Similar question that I asked you in the contemporary context about broader themes in science pedagogy at the time, what was happening? What was brewing in the air? And how did you see your thesis research being responsive to some of those bigger questions?
We never leave behind our thesis. [laugh] You carry it with you all the time. So, microcomputers were new. We were just having computers for the first time. It's 1983, '84, and everybody has computers. "What are we going to do with the computers?" And so, a question I was wondering about at the time was, "Well, if you have somebody do laboratory experiments on a computer versus with equipment, is there going to be a difference in what they learn?" And so, the experiment that I worked out was that half the students would do a basic experiment on a computer, and the other half of the students would do it with real equipment. And then, the transfer task, the next task they would do, would all be done on real equipment. So, let's see if the ones who do it on the computer are disadvantaged or advantaged to the ones who did it on equipment. And I did that in a mechanics experiment and an optics experiment with about 1,100 students to see what would happen.
So, it was a contrast between traditional lab experiments and computer simulations. But what was probably more important was, the theoretical framework was, do you transfer knowledge from one domain to the next domain? Even if it’s lab to lab, are you going to transfer from lab task A to lab task B? And that provided incredible insights because of 1,100 students, nobody used the information they’d learned one week before in their lab. So basically, I’ll give you one of the experiments. So, it's a simple pendulum. The pendulum bob is going back and forth, and you have to find out the period dependence on the length. And so, they all do that. They all get the data, they make a graph, they interpolate in the graph. I say, "So what should the length of a pendulum be to have a period of .7 seconds?" They all do that, they write it up.
We make sure that if they didn't do it well, we went back. Everybody did it well. They had the lab report, they had their graph. Boom, they now sit down one week later, and we say to them, "OK, here, we have five rods. A short rod, long, long, and then you have the little eye hook." And we showed them how they could put it on the eye hook, and it'd swing back and forth. So, the question was, what should be the length of a rod to give you a period of .4 seconds? And out of the 1,100 students, somewhere in the neighborhood of, like, 75 made a graph and interpolated, while everybody else did it by trial and error. And they just said, “Oh, it’s between these two lengths. I’ll guess a number.” This is one week after doing it with the lab in front of them. It’s like, “Here’s the answer.” No, nobody does it.
So, the transfer of learning was something I was interested in then, and I'm still interested in now. And much of my research and work has to do in some way with the transfer of learning. That's why I think I enjoy project-based learning. That's why active physics and active chemistry are all about project-based learning. Because at least I'm going to make them transfer it once to a project. One forced transfer. But I also looked at something which we call mechanical comprehension. There are tests that the Army gives out to see if you have good mechanical comprehension or not. So, if you see these gears, if this one's going clockwise, do you know which way that one’s going, looking at a paper and pencil? So, there are a whole series of mechanical comprehension tests. So, it's not just, "Did you work on a computer?" What's your mechanical comprehension?
So, for some students, if they had good mechanical comprehension, it didn't matter whether they did it on a computer or in the real world. They'd be able to do just as well on the next task. But if they can't figure out, "If this goes down, that goes up," give them real equipment. Because their intuitions are horrible, and the computer simulation is not going to help them with that. So that's what my world of science education was at the time.
What were the opportunities in terms of field work, both as a graduate student and post-graduate? What could you do in terms of actually putting these concepts to the test in real teaching environments?
Well, 1,100 students, it was asking my friends, "Do you want to do this with your students? Are you interested in this?" I teach every day of my life. I'm a high school teacher, and I'm at a university. But I teach all the time. And so, I'm always trying to figure out, "Really? They think this works? I don't believe this." I remember, Jim Minstrell, who's a friend from way back, two high school teachers trying to figure out how to navigate the world of physics education. And we have very different personalities, Jim and I. And he was telling me about some student misconception. And I said, "Yeah, maybe in Seattle, they have this misconception. Not in New York." And then, when you do it in New York, you say, "Oh, man, it's the same thing. This is amazing."
So, I'm always trying things out. It goes back to that story with Strassenberg. "Wait, is this a misconception, or are you teaching it poorly? And what does that mean? Are you listening to students?" Physics people are so worried that somebody's going to say centrifugal when they mean centripetal. This is a physicist's nightmare. Mass and weight. "Oh my God, they're so different." No, they're not. They're very much the same, mass and weight. But physicists, "Oh, no, it's so different." And so, kids confuse this. Or Newton's third law. "If the big truck hits the little car, which is going to get damaged more? Which has the bigger force?" "The force on the little car is bigger." "No, no, no, you don't understand physics. Newton's third law. Every force has an equal and opposite force."
"Are you kidding? You don't think people know this? They don't know your way of looking at the world, but if you ask them, 'The big truck's going to hit the little car. Do you want to be in the big truck or the little car?'" Everybody knows they want to be in the big truck, except some special A physics students who say, "It doesn't matter. The forces are equal." [laugh] "No, it matters." "How are you asking the question, and what do you mean by a misconception? Are you listening to the students?" Part of physics instruction is forcing students to adopt our way of describing the world and not even listening to their way of describing the world, which is part of the problem. Because they have a way of describing the world. And we have to listen to that, and then say, "Oh, why do I like to describe it this way, and you like to describe it that way?"
And sometimes, it's quite trivial. So if you're teaching physics, and you have a problem, and you're trying to go over this problem with the students, and you have to divide a fraction by a fraction, well, they know how to divide a fraction by a fraction, many of them. And the question is, how do they do it? So, you turn to your students, and you say, "How do you do this?" And they say, "Invert and multiply," or, "Flip it and multiply." They have some terminology they learned to do that. And if they learned flip it and multiply, and I say, "Invert and multiply," it confuses them. I want to hear the way they say it, and I can make that adjustment and use their language for that. Because if they think it's, "Flip it," and I say, "Invert," now, they think it's a new process. "Oh, this is a different way of doing it we have to learn."
And so, in physics, again, weight and mass? When is it important? What kind of problems do we want to make this big distinction for? There's a scene in The Odd Couple, the Neil Simon play, where one guy is very proper, and the other one is much more loose. And the loose guy, Oscar Madison, is distraught, upset, and just having a nervous breakdown. And Felix Ungar's sitting there, eating his dinner. And Oscar says, "I'm having a breakdown. You're sitting there eating your spaghetti, and I'm having a breakdown." And Felix Ungar just starts a little undercurrent of a laugh. And Oscar Madison says, "What are you doing?" "No, no, nothing." "No, no, what are you doing?" "You called it spaghetti. It's linguini." And then, Oscar Madison just throws it against the wall and says, "Now, it's garbage."
And it's just a brilliant little thing. And then, when I was at a meeting one time, the person from Caltech was a consultant for The Big Bang Theory, which had just come out. I had never seen this program. But he was giving a lecture on being the physics consultant for The Big Bang Theory. But he showed some clips. And one of the clips, the main character, Leonard, is going on a first date with Penny. And he shows her how you can invert a glass and get the olive to spin in the glass, then you turn it upright, and the olive's in the glass without ever touching the olive. And then, she says, "Oh, centrifugal force." He says, "No, it's centripetal force." And it's like, it's the spaghetti and linguini. With spaghetti and linguini, even physics people say, "Nobody cares." Well, centrifugal and centripetal, nobody cares. We're the only ones who care.
Did you see your career teaching high school as a means to a university professorship? Or was that something that you could have spent the rest of your career doing?
It's teaching. My career is teaching. And I loved teaching high school. And I could've done that forever. What happened was, there were some politics in my school that made me uncomfortable, in my department. Because I was a department coordinator as well. So, I was kind of not happy where I was. But also, my life had gotten more complicated. So, throughout my career, I was able to be a high school teacher and work on all sorts of national projects, whether it was with the National Academy of Sciences, the Olympiad, creating the Duracell Competition, creating the Toshiba Exploravision, active physics, all these things I'm doing while I'm teaching. I got my PhD while teaching. Raised a family while teaching. And all of the sudden in 2004, 2005, I just couldn't do it all. There were too many opportunities being given to me, active physics and whatever.
And I couldn't balance anymore. It was too much. And so, I said, "OK, I know what I'll do. I'll just take a year off from teaching and work on the projects." I had enough money to support me from grants. So, I thought I'd just do that for a year, which was great because I didn't have to work. See, when you're a high school teacher, if you have to go somewhere for two days, it's like a punch in your gut because you're not going to see your students, you're going to have to make lesson plans, and it's not the same. You're robbing your students of that interaction time. And so, it's a horrible feeling to have to miss school. I felt, "I have to miss more school. I can't miss more school." When I was President of the National Science Teachers Association, that year, I didn't teach at all, but I maintained my science coordinator responsibilities in the school district.
I could do the traveling I had to as the president of the association without negatively impacting my students while teaching. I was doing the projects, that was good. But I had nobody to talk to. Professionally, yes, but I'm talking about the corridor conversation with students. Saying, "I wonder if this works." As a high school teacher, I can ask them anything. "Lee, when you wear your pants like that, does this mean something?" Or, "If you have a piercing, does that mean you listen to a certain kind of music, too?" I'm just curious about these things. In high school, you can ask kids this. There's this wealth of knowledge. I can't stop people on the street and ask them this. But in high school, you can ask kids this. So, I was missing that. I was missing the collegiality, trying ideas with the students, all of that. And so, it was like, "What do I do? Do I go back to the school, then I can't do the traveling and the other projects? Or do I do the traveling and projects, and not have these interactions?"
I was unaware of this, and somebody said, "Go to a university. You can do both there. You can travel and have the interactions." I said, "Really? I never thought of that." So, I just chose one or two universities where I was living, and then by happenstance, my kids were both living and going to school in Boston. And I was doing work in Boston public schools. But I figured, “Oh, let me talk to somebody at Harvard. Maybe I could do something at Harvard.” Jack Wilson, another AAPT executive officer, another mentor of mine, we started the International Physics Olympiad together and done a number of big projects together, was now in the UMass system. And he said, “Wait, you would move out of New York?” And I said, “Yeah, I’m thinking about it.” And he said, “Hold on.” So, he calls the provost at U Mass and says, "There's this guy you should meet." And then, Marilyn Decker, who's the head of science in the Boston public schools, we're collaborating on active physics.
She sees the provost, and they're writing the grant for the Math and Science Partnership. And she says, "We should send it to this guy, Arthur Eisenkraft, because he just knows a lot. He'll be able to help us with that." And then, Hannah Sevian, who's a chemistry professor in chemistry education, I had worked with on active chemistry. And inside of three weeks, she mentioned my name to the provost. So, the provost called me up and said, "Can we meet?" And so, I'd gotten offered a job in New York as well, but I went to U Mass Boston for all those reasons. I'm happy teaching anywhere.
What were some of the built-in advantages in having a less traditional career trajectory from graduate school, post-doc, to assistant professorship? What were some of the advantages, and what catchup at all did you have to play relative to your colleagues?
When you spend your whole career as a high school teacher, the expectations are very different than a university professor. When I came to the university, I didn't know what the expectations were as a university professor. Throughout my high school career, the expectation was teach well, make sure all your students learn physics, be part of the school community, all those things. Now, at that time, as I said, I was also doing all these other things. I was the head of the National Science Teachers Association, running active physics, running the Olympiad, running these competition programs, all this stuff. But the school district doesn't care about those. "You got a patent? We don't care. You published a paper? We don't care."
They care about how I'm doing with my 100 students every year, whether they're learning physics, and my reputation in terms of being a teacher. That's what they care about. So, you come to the university, and it's, "I don't know, what are their expectations? And you find out that, "Oh, so they care about grants. They like you if you get grants." Well, that had never been a problem when I was in high school. It was even easier when I got to the university to write grant proposals and bring in millions and millions of dollars. And they liked that. "Oh, that's good." And the teaching component was never a problem for me at the university. And the service, because I've always been involved with all these organizations–so in a way, it was OK, but it was learning, "Oh, they care about grants. Get grants. That seems to be something I didn't know people care about." And they care about publishing, stuff like that.
I was very fortunate in making that transition. The one thing I'd always been bothered by at the university, which is the expectation of the public schools and not the expectation of the university, is, if ever a teacher in a high school is teaching physics, chemistry, or biology, and half their students fail, "What is going on? Half your students failed? What are you doing wrong? What are you going to do to correct this? This cannot happen next year. Figure it out. We cannot have half the students failing." And it's not a matter of changing your grading, it's a matter of making sure they learn. "What are you going to do? You need a pathway, or we can't have you here if half your kids fail." At the university, "Yeah, half the kids couldn't hack it. Too bad." And it's not the expectation.
The professor is not on a watch list because half the kids fail. The kids are somehow responsible. It's almost like the way we treat victims of assault as if they were the problem. "Oh, you shouldn't have worn provocative clothing. It's your fault." It's, "No, we're at the university. We have to figure it out." And I'm not saying we take away the right of a student to fail. But what are we doing when these students aren't getting it? Or are you just saying, "Yeah, they just can't hack it"? "Oh, and they happen to be women and minorities. I guess that's just a coincidence."
What was your game plan? What did you want to accomplish when you joined the faculty? Did you have a mandate that was external? Or it was entirely what you wanted to do?"
As I said, my life has a rather continuous structure, very little discontinuity. I don't think of an end game like that. Somebody just asked me recently what advice I would give this select group, presidential award winners. And just thinking about it off the top of my head, I said, "Just say yes. When somebody comes to you with an opportunity, say yes. Give it a try. Don't self-select out because you feel insecure about it. Just do it. Do it the best you can and say yes." And that's what I do. So, opportunities come, and I say yes if they meet certain criteria I have.
And then, I try to do them as best as I can. And as I said, I've just been very, very lucky, fortunate. I went to Stony Brook, I had incredible physics professors, physics education professors, then I'd meet somebody, and they'd say, "We're trying to create a competition program. Can you help?" Here's a wonderful example of just saying yes and kind of my personality. I remember a consultant called me up and said, "We're doing these educational programs." And I had done one or two or whatever for him. And he said, "Do you know astronomy?" And I said no. And he said, "Oh." And then, I said, "Wait. What do you mean by astronomy?" Because when he says astronomy, I think of Abell, Ostriker, the top astronomers in the country.
"No, I don't know any astronomy." And then, he told me more, and, "Oh, that, I know." And so, it's so easy to realize one's own deficiencies, and focus on those, and say, "Yeah, I can't do that. I'm not capable of that." And realizing not to do that to yourself, to say yes and do the best you can. And I think that's the same thing that we try to impose on our students. I talk to teachers, and I say, "Try this." And they say, "Oh, my students couldn't do that." I say, "Let them try." And then, the teachers often come back and say, "I had no idea they could do that." You learn that in high school teaching because you see a kid who's struggling in physics, and then you extrapolate that, "He or she's struggling through life or struggling with everything." And then, you go to the jazz concert, and you watch the student play the trumpet, and you say, "Oh my God."
Or you watch this girl play field hockey, and you say, "Holy mackerel." And you realize, "Oh, they're just not so good in physics. But they're incredible in other things. So how do we get them to now be incredible in physics also?" As opposed to, "Yeah, they can't do it." I've had experiences where I go to a school, and it's October of the school year. And the teacher tells me, "These kids are going to fail. They can't learn anything." I'm thinking, "It's October. How are you doing this in October? How unfair is that?" And they say, "Yeah, they just don't remember anything." I'd say, "I don't think that's true. Hold on." So, you call over a kid, and you say, "What music are you listening to?" Some rap stuff or whatever. And you say, "Do you know any of the words?" And they tell you all the words. And it's, "They can remember some things." [laugh] If they want to, they can remember. All the kids can do that. "But they don't remember anything I told them." "Yeah, we have a problem here."
Of all your advisory service and committee work for the NRC, what stands out in your mind as being the most impactful? What committees made the most difference?
Actually, it's not the committees or the work, though I'll answer the question. It's really the people and the opportunity to talk with people who are giving full attention to the issues on the table. Nobody's multitasking. We're all sitting there, and we're trying to figure this out. "What do we do about this?" And so, each of the committees has a slightly different chemistry, culture. In fact, I would expand that to all the work I've done. It's all about the people, meeting people. And the work is the context in which we get to meet each other and talk to one another. And that's the excitement, the people. So certainly, working on the National Science Education Standards in the early 1990s, when there were 18 of us sequestered for four weeks or whatever in California, trying to figure out, "How do we write standards for science education K-12? What's it about?"
And the arguments we would keep coming back to. If you ask any of the 18 on that committee, and you say, "What about Arthur?" They'll say, "Oh, Maxwell's equations. He kept talking about Maxwell's equations, 'You have to have this in the thing.'" I kept trying to say, "No, it's not Maxwell's equations. There are things in the equations." [laugh] But we just had these back-and-forths on that. And it expanded my thinking because, "What is really crucial in any science to learn, and to learn from elementary science teachers?" "No, 3rd grade." And I remember the lessons, hearing for the first time in my life, "No, 3rd grade is not a steppingstone to high school knowledge. These are 3rd grade people who are individuals who are learning about themselves and the world in 3rd grade. And you have to respect them as 3rd graders."
And you see that carries for when they're high school students, or adults, or whatever. They're people who are struggling to get by in the world, just like I am. Let's meet them at that level instead of, "You have to learn this to get to there, to get to there, to get to there." So that was certainly a very important committee. And also, it expanded the people I met, different fields, stuff like that. Because I know so many physics people. But people in other fields. How people learn, which became this incredible work that everybody refers to. Not so much how students learn, but how people learn. It's the same. It's the same. Your kids are just like the adults. We all learn the same way, in certain respects. I remember working on America's Lab Report, and Carl Wieman was on the committee. Susan Singer in biology, incredible.
But Carl and I are going back and forth. Carl was an incredible physicist who had only recently given up his lab after winning the Nobel Prize to devote his time to science education. But I know a lot about science education, about teaching, and I'm not intimidated–in physics, of course, I'm intimidated. I've worked with a whole bunch of Nobel Laureates in science education issues. What they know in physics, I can't even come close to it. But we can talk about the science education, and they afford me some respect and force me to better articulate my thoughts and my ideas. And so, I remember Carl and I having many different arguments about this. I remember another NRC report was with engineering technology. And we were trying to figure out the technological literacy of American students.
It turned out, nobody knew anything about the technological literacy of anybody. Then, all of a sudden, I realized, "Wait, I've been running this competition where we ask kids to identify technology and tell us what it's going to be like 20 years from now. Nobody knows anything about the technological literacy of Americans, but I have 5,000 kids a year, for the last 15 or 20 years, telling me what they think about technology. Now, it's a skewed sample, but I can find out something about what they think about technology." So, I knew something about this. To be able to take something I was doing in one domain, where it was, "I can contribute to this in a different way."
And Elsa Garmire, this incredible engineer from Dartmouth, was chairing the committee. And I remember her telling me that when she was younger, she was working on a car, leaning over, and her back hurt. And somebody told her, "Yeah, women can't do engineering." And then, somebody else said, "No, everybody's back hurts." And that becomes a powerful lesson in the way we talk to different people, and what we say, and how people hear it. So, they're all good stories.
Tell me about the origins of the NAEP Frameworks Project and how you got involved.
The NAEP is the nation’s report card. So, it's trying to assess the science understandings. It was 2009 to 2019. So, it was probably 2006 or so. And I thought, "2019, really? That's a long time away." I know I say yes, but I don't know how I'm asked or am on this list. But they bring together the usual suspects and some other people. And we started working on the NAEP framework. Again, great people. But it's a different context. Some of them knew more about it. "How do you frame this? How do you do this?" What I think was most interesting about that was, we were very aware that there are complexities to questions, and in the NAEP, we have questions at levels 1, 2, and 3 complexity. And we don't write the exam.
We were just going to provide guidance to the kinds of questions, the checklists, and what the criteria for these three levels were. And the Educational Testing Service was going to have to get people to write these questions, which maybe we'd get to look at or not. And in some of the back and forth, they were having a hard time getting to the third level. Here's the first level, here's the second level, but getting to the third level, was, "No, that's still second level. No, that's still second level." And then, "That one's close. You're almost there now." And then, "Well, if we're almost there, can we count that as third?" "No."
But they're nervous because we're trying to work from, "This is the way it should be." They're working from, "We have a contract to bill out at $4 per question we generate. And these questions are going to cost us $11 to generate because they're so much harder to generate." "No, we can't compromise what are good assessment questions to do that." That was part of the back and forth there that I found very interesting.
What were the origins of the seemingly unlikely alliance between Toshiba and the NSTA Exploravision award?
Toshiba, as many companies, makes a lot of money, and they wanted to give back to the community. There’s some altruism there, some name recognition. They get some things out of it. But they wanted to do something. They all have community responsibility components of their business, especially large businesses like Toshiba. And so, they had decided they wanted to do something for science education because they’re a science and technology company. And so, they came to the National Science Teachers Association, being that that’s a large organization, and said, “Can you help us? What could we do?” I was a friend of NSTA, and I’d been working on the Duracell competition and doing some other projects with NSTA.
So Marily DeWahl and Bill Aldridge were running NSTA at the time and said, “Arthur, can you come down so we can talk about this?” We were trying to kick around a competition for high school students because that’s what I know. I know high school. We were trying to come up with something that would make sense for Toshiba that would highlight aspects of what they might think is important. And I remember, Marily I’m sure remembers it as well, we went for lunch at this deli on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. And over lunch, “Oh, this is the idea. We have the idea.” And so, we got very excited about that, so we started writing it up. And then, we have to meet with the Toshiba board. Nothing’s approved at this point. And they had put out feelers, I think, to a number of other institutions, other people who might be able to help.
We were going to make our presentation to Toshiba, we get there, and we’re describing this in New York at this board meeting. And all of a sudden, we describe this, and there seems to be some excitement. And then, somebody on the board said, “I have a 7th grade girl. Could she be in the competition?” “Well, it’s really high school.” And then, somebody says, “I have a 3rd grade boy. Could he be in the competition?” And I thought, “Oh, now, this is interesting.” Because they said, “Yeah, can we do this K-12?” Marily and I were thinking, “Yes, but we have to think about it. There’s not a simple solution.” And we then go back to the idea, how do we create a competition, kindergarten through 12th grade, where everybody has to do the same rules and follow the same expectations, but they don’t compete against one another? Because 2nd graders should not be competing against 11th graders. So, this is how Exploravision kind of evolved.
And then, Toshiba said, "Yeah, let's do this." And the first year, when we tried it, we sent it out, we did this, and the person who was doing the administrative work at NSTA was so panicked because the deadline date was February 1, and it was January 5, and there were five or ten entries. And we had promised Toshiba it would be the largest competition in America. Now, Westinghouse, Intel, whatever it's called now, would have about 800 entries a year, Duracell would have about 1,100 entries a year. We figured, "We can beat this," because of the team competition and stuff like that. But this administrative person is freaking out. It's January 10, and we have 30 entries. I said, "It's not due til February 1. Ask the IRS when people send in their taxes. It's April 15. Nobody's sending them in in February." She said, "I do." I said, "I know you do. That's why you think the whole world is like you. It's not like you." [laugh]
And so, a few days before, we started getting hundreds of entries. And then, on February 1, FedEx trucks were pulling up to NSTA, one truck after another, and nobody had waived the signature. "Oh, no, everything has to be signed." And we had 6,000 entries. 18,000 to 20,000 students had finished the thing and sent it all in. We just thought it was fantastic. Then, of course, "Now, how do we judge this? How do we do this?" But it's been a wonderful partnership, and I wrote about this in terms of whether it's Duracell, Toshiba, Intel, or these other competitions, the Olympiad.
But what's so special about that is that Toshiba recognizes they have money, and they want to do something positive with science education, but for the most part, they recognize that they're not experts in science education, and they leave it to us to do the educational component of that. We had a run-in with another competition where, after we had chosen the winners, the corporation said, "No, we need a winner from the Boston area." And I said, "Not at this point." And they said, "No, no, no, for publicity, we need"–I said, if you'd told me this before the judging, we could've had a Boston winner, a New York winner, all this. But it's been judged blind. You can't now change this."
But the parts of the company that do this kind of thing are the public relations people, and they don't quite understand blind reviews and stuff like that. They just understand that they want to get the most hits. That became very awkward because I had to speak to their chief of research in the company and explain that. He understood. And then, it was OK. But you get into a little bit of a dilemma with that.
I’m curious because these are not worlds that I operate in, but does the AAPT have its analogue in chemistry and biology? Do they have a similar kind of pedagogically oriented organization?
Oh, yeah. So, there’s the National Association of Biology Teachers, NABT. The geologists were always under the auspices of AGI, but they have something like that. The chemistry people, it was always under the context of the American Chemical Society. So, it would be like AAPT being a part of APS, not being a part of AIP. Some time ago, 10 or 20 years, I don't know, the educational part of ACS said, "We should have an AACT," so you have the American Association of Chemistry Teachers now trying to parallel what happened in physics. So, you have all of these organizations.
And what's so interesting, when you work with teachers, beginning teachers, is, they think they've graduated college, they've gotten their master's, they have a teaching license, they're done, as opposed to, "No, no, you need professional development, to belong to a professional organization." And I've been so grateful for the knowledge and career path because of NSTA, AAPT and AIP, and all of these organizations because so much of my stuff came from these contacts and relationships. Some teachers think, "Oh, no, I belong to the union." Well, "No, that's not what I mean. You have to get some journals. You need the stimulation to keep growing and growing." It started about 20 years ago with the Bowling Alone book by the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putman.
People now don't think you have to belong to organizations. "Why should I pay $100 to belong to an organization? Everything's free on the internet." And so, organizations are struggling. People don't want to belong, people don't want to pay dues, people don't see the value in what we produce. And it's partly because it's free on the internet. So free is better than quality.
And for you, have you found yourself any more or less involved in any one of these organizations? And what might be the rhyme or reason for that?
No, for different reasons. Again, it's interesting because I grew up with AAPT, my career blossomed with AAPT, all the people I knew were AAPT. But then, of course, through AAPT, there's the American Institute of Physics. And so, then I did a project for the Center of the History of Physics and became more like, "Oh, now I know AIP." But it was always the physics community. But then, somebody I knew at NSTA had asked me to help out with something, and I said, "OK, I'll do NSTA." And NSTA and AAPT are very different. And so, they satisfy different elements. When I started with AAPT, there were very few high school people at the meetings. There was Jim Minstrell, me, Bob Neff, Joe Meyer. Just a few high school people who were at these AAPT meetings with college professors. And we liked it, it was nice. Now, NSTA was almost all teachers. High school, university, but it's focused on teaching.
But then, I'd go to their conferences, and there were certain opportunities to learn at NSTA that you don't have at AAPT, and vice versa. And one of the things I did when I was NSTA president was to say, "Hold on." So NSTA is much larger than AAPT, they have 55,000 members, and it's K-12. And you have 15,000, 16,000 people coming to the annual NSTA meeting. AAPT, you have 800 people going to your meeting. And you have a membership of a few thousand. 5,000, 10,000, I don't know. I would say to AAPT, "Why don't you have a booth at NSTA?" "We can't bother with NSTA." I said, "They have 15,000 people at their conference. They're teaching physics. There are more teachers of physics at NSTA than there are physics teachers in AAPT. You're not going to set up a booth? You're not going to let people know?"
When I became NSTA president, I realized that one of the things missing in NSTA was the heavy content sessions, which focused, really, on physics that I would see at an AAPT meeting that could help teachers. And so, one of the things I did was, I went to AAPT, and I said, "Look, we have a national conference, but we also have three regional conferences, each about 3,000, 4,000 in attendance. Can you take a day and have six sessions in a row on Friday, just get physics people in the area to do six AAPT-type sessions in there so physics people who go to NSTA say, 'Oh, look, this is just for me'?" I had the ACS do another parallel day, AGI do another parallel day so they could all be there at the same day because physics people are not going to the chemistry ones.
That was a way to kind of bridge these two worlds. But I don't know why they don't interact. But the overlap is quite small. Just like the overlap with the people who go to NARST, the National Association of Research and Science Teaching, are not the ones who belong to AAPT. Lillian McDermott and Arnold Arons are doing all this incredible work in physics education, making sure that the American Journal of Physics would publish it, pushing in that direction. Why isn't she making that crossover to NSTA or NARST? "No, no, I'm locked into the American Journal of Physics, that's where the street cred is. Not with that other journal." I can't figure this stuff out.
To bring our conversation closer to the present, because you've been sensitive over the course of your career to the problem of inequity in education, and obviously, the racial ramifications that that might have, this past year-plus with the murder of George Floyd and all of the responses in STEM for the need to become more diverse and inclusive, I wonder if you've seen any opportunities there, as the field attempts in a very serious way, to rectify some of these inequities, at least insofar as it's capable of doing so.
When the murder of George Floyd occurred, it was very interesting being in two different departments, the curriculum and instruction department, and the physics department, and going to both sets of meetings. Because the curriculum and instruction department was all about, "How do we build an anti-racist curriculum? Where's the systemic racism at our university? Where is it nationwide? What are we going to do about this?" In the physics department, it was more or less, "Well, we're not part of the problem. We just teach physics." And a long time ago, I realized, "Oh, no, we don't just teach physics. There's a hidden curriculum when we teach physics. And it could be the hidden curriculum which is disenfranchising certain students. And we should be much more sensitive to that. And I don't think, as a physics community, we really are.
One disappointing moment I had was when we were publishing Quantum Magazine with many Russian articles, and Larry Kirkpatrick and I would do a little contest problem once a month for gifted students in physics, Quantoons. And the problem had to do with trajectories. And a long time ago, again, one of those books you read–I read a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. And I'm reading this book. And it says that everything we teach is meant to oppress certain people in our society. I said, "Oh, whoa, whoa, back up. Not me. I teach physics. I'm not oppressing anyone." But I said, "Wait, this is a great thinker. What could it mean? Let me see if I can figure this out. How am I oppressing people when I teach physics?" And let's take the example of the trajectory. So, in physics, if you go back and look at textbooks in physics, in the 1950s, and you look at the chapter on trajectories, the bulk of the problems are ballistic missiles, bombs, mortar shells.
And sure, World War II is over, we're feeling really good about physics and its role in World War II. When you get to the 1980s, and you look at the same books, now, all of a sudden, they said, "Oh, we'll kick a soccer ball, we'll throw a baseball. We have all these sports analogies for the physics of trajectories." And then, you get to the 1990s, and you read books like, "Oh, we're going to drop an instrument package, or we're going to drop a food package, or we're going to save people on an island." And they're still trajectory problems. And so, I started to think about that, saying, "So which examples do I give my physics class? What is the hidden curriculum? Is the hidden curriculum, 'War is good?' Or, 'Physics is going to save people's lives?' Or, 'Physics is present in sports?' What are the examples I give in my class?"
And when we're writing the Quantoons, and I ask the readers--because we'd give a problem and say, "Can anybody solve this problem?" It was really about physics problems. In this case, I also asked, "Do you think it matters which trajectory problem I choose as an example?" And I've asked my students at U Mass, "Do you think it matters what context I give to the problem? The physics solutions are exactly the same." And most people say, "No, it doesn't." And I feel so strongly that it does. And yet, my students, physics people, and everyone else–I say, "So why do we have such opposing views on this?" I think it's crucially important. The example you're saying is, "This is what physics is good for. This is what physics is about. Do you want to be part of this physics community that sends mortar shells over to kill people, or one that helps you enjoy sports?"
And when you start realizing that everything we teach is meant to oppress people, you start thinking a little more deeply about that. And if you go on the internet now and look up the top television programs people watch in America by race, when I did this some time ago, I took the top ten programs of Black Americans and top ten programs of white Americans, and there were only two programs in common. Monday Night Football and maybe Law and Order. And I'm looking at the white list, and although I don't watch some of those programs, I know about them. I know what Friends is. I don't watch Friends, but I know it. These are popular programs. I look at the Black list, and I say, "I didn't even know these were programs. I didn't even know these were on TV. I've heard of Bernie Mac, but he has a television show?"
And I'm saying, "Hold on." So then, I realized that every time I give an example in class, to make the physics more relevant, more interesting, or to give an example, it's, "Oh, just like on this TV show," or, "Just like in this movie," I realized that the white males are getting my analogy, while all the other kids are disenfranchised. They're wondering, "What's he talking about? I don't even know that TV program." So, I'm supporting certain students and not supporting others by virtue of the examples I give. And it's not just TV. It's the movies we see, the foods we eat, what we do about vacation, our family structures. And being aware that I'm a privileged white male in front of my students changes the way I teach physics. And if you don't change the way you teach physics, then you run into the problem of gender inequities, racial inequities in physics.
And, "Why aren't these people studying this? Why aren't they staying with us? What do you mean, microaggressions? Not me. I don't call on whites more than Blacks. I don't assume a Latinx kid is not going to do well." So what happened with the George Floyd follow-up was that I realized that I don't understand everything that’s going on. I know we're at a pivotal moment in American history. But there's so much going on that I don't understand fully. So, I start reading more books and trying to understand things, get better context. There was a movie last year with Eddie Murphy “Dolemite is My Name” about somebody who made movies in the 1970s. And I watched this, and I didn’t get it. And then, I did a little more reading about the guy. It’s a biopic. And then, I watched the movie again. “Oh, now I see why this was funny. It’s making fun of these blaxploitation movies.” And then, I asked some of my friends who were Black, “Did you used to watch Dolemite’s movies in the 70s?” “Of course. Of course.”
I didn’t even know they existed. And the whole Black community is watching these movies. So, I don't know. I think that the community has really stepped up in having statements about systemic racism, in the way we give grants, the way we give professorships, the way we do this, the way we do that. And the NIH is doing it, AAAS is doing it, all the organizations are doing it. And I hope that the memberships on an individual basis are also doing it. But I'm not sure they are. And I worry about it. I still think that many physics departments think that the reason why kids aren't succeeding is because they don't have the right math skills. And if we just give them more math skills, everything will be OK.
We started our conversation talking about your current interests, and we worked right up to 2020. So, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask a broadly retrospective question about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. What have been, over the course of your career, the most important feedback mechanisms that you've relied on to know that you're on the right track, that you’re pushing the right buttons, that the outcomes that you're looking for are being achieved? How does that look for you?
I get invited to dinner, and then I get invited back.
[laugh] That's great.
That's the feedback mechanism. We work together on a project, and we feel good about the project, and we recognize that we put forth our best effort. We occasionally have disagreements, but they're not disagreements about our value as people, but disagreements about something academic or intellectual. Because physics people have a way of arguing that's very different than most other people. And so, when you start getting out of the physics community, you have to let other people know. I have a quick story about that. When we were working on a new curriculum project called Scope, Sequence, and Coordination with NSTA, the people in the room were Bill Aldridge, Arnold Arons, Gerry Wheeler, maybe Jim Minstrell, and me. Anyway, this was going to be a huge project before the standards in '93. So, we're finding out about this project. Iris Weiss, who ran Horizon Research at the time, is an evaluator of programs, and she was brought in on day one, the first meeting of the project, to try to figure out how we were going to have this curriculum that will go from K-12 and will change the way we teach in America. And I don't know her. She doesn't know any of us. And we're sitting around, and we're all physics people. And it's the first morning. We start talking about something, and Arnold Arons and I start going at it because we have different views about how much time we should spend on Newton's second law. Arnold thinks that the whole year on Newton's second law would be just fine, and maybe they would get it. And I think, "No, they have to learn about rainbows, and tides, and other things. Even if they don't get Newton's law that well." But we were talking about something, and I said, "No, you can teach this." And he'd say, "No, not with understanding." And I said, "Well, we teach this other concept with understanding. This is the same thing."
We're arguing the way physics people argue. And there's an intensity to the argument. And Iris, she told me later, is writing in her notes, "We're in hour two of a four-year project. This will never get off the ground. They hate each other." [laugh] And then, at some point, Bill Aldridge said, "Let's take a coffee break. We need a break." So, Iris sees Arnold and me at the coffee machine, and we're joking. And she's saying, "How could this be? How could they be joking? They were just at each other's throats, ready to kill each other, and now they're joking? How can this be?" So, the argument I was having with Arnold–there's an affection there within our disagreement. And so, I think that's the feedback you get. You keep coming back, and you maintain relations. And hopefully, they're good relationships. And you work together.
Last question, looking to the future, what else do you want to accomplish? What's most important to you for as long as you want to be active in the field?
I wish I was in the Miss America competition because then I could answer in two sentences. "World Peace. End hunger." [laugh] Teaching is a wonderful opportunity to be with people and help them appreciate learning. A way of looking at the world. And I guess I'll continue to try to have teachers feel the respect and get the respect that they deserve for the work they do and how hard and committed they are to that work. I think perhaps COVID may change the way the people look at teachers when they had to be at home with one child, who they love, and found it difficult. “Wait, you have 30 of them in a room?”
I think that helping teachers do the best they can, and the big dream, making education valued in America. When I think about the ways of knowing and what I call the four essential questions–we’re very good at, “What does it mean?” in school. “Learn this, ‘What does it mean?’” How do we know? That’s a question that goes beyond physics instruction. How do we know? That’s the question we have to ask the politicians. That’s the question we have to ask everybody. “Well, how do you know that? You’re saying that, but how do you know that? And what are your assumptions? Why do you believe that?” And then, again, “Why should I care? Why is this important to me as a citizen?” When I’m teaching high school or college, “Why is physics important to a teenager in urban America?” And it can’t be, “Oh, one day, it’ll be useful for them.” Because I consider that the big lie in American education. “One day, it’ll be useful.”
No, there has to be a better reason, a reason for today, why this will help you to understand the world and make the world a better place because you learned this physics today. So, I guess what I would love to do next is elaborate on these four essential questions and what they mean in terms of teaching and learning. And also, I think, with the Wipro program, we've had the support of a large IT company so we could pay these teachers money in order to devote time after school to their own professional development. I'm trying to figure out how to get other incentives, which are not financial incentives that districts can give to their teachers, so that this program can expand in a way that it becomes scalable and not cost as much money.
And there are incentives that are out there that the school districts can give, the universities can give. And so, I'm trying to figure out how to get to the next level of that. And then, of course, just watch and see how the university changes, how other universities change in light of this awareness of the systemic racism that goes on.
Not to mention the recovery from the pandemic and whatever that looks like for higher education.
Yes. And the idea that, "Wait, it's costing this much money, and I did it all online? Hold on." So, as I said, I predict all our conversations will be, "Wait, are you talking pre-COVID, COVID, or post-COVID?" Because I think it is going to be a different world. And you remember a little over a year ago, as COVID started, when you were so grateful for the person at the checkout counter at the supermarket, that they were working, that you could get food, that you could bring it home and scrub it down. They were there at the cashier doing this. "Thank you so much for helping me." Already, people aren't feeling that anymore. Will we still value and respect that cashier at the market? It's going to be interesting to see what happens.
Arthur, this has been a fantastic conversation. I'm so glad we connected to do this. And it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. So, thank you so much.
Thank you, David.