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Interview of David Sokoloff by David Zierler on July 12, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with David Sokoloff, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oregon. Sokoloff discusses his focus on improving physics education at the collegiate level, and the programs and methods he has implemented to ensure that the state of physics education, both domestically and internationally, continues to advance. He discusses the workshops he has organized around the world for the development of Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP). These workshops also involve Interactive Lecture Demonstrations (ILDs), which Sokoloff has utilized throughout his career as a physics educator. He also reflects on creating Home-Adapted ILDs during COVID so that students could continue learning about these concepts during the pandemic. Sokoloff talks about how he has grappled with active throughout the pandemic, when so many aspects of education have been forced online. He discusses the challenges of replicating live learning situations through online platforms. Sokoloff then looks back on his time at MIT and his engagement with local and national politics during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly with the Teacher Corps. He returns to his discussions of Active Learning workshops and his multi-year collaboration with Priscilla Laws and Ron Thornton. Towards the end of the interview, Sokoloff remarks upon his experiences as a rep to the U.S. Liaison Committee for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, a rep to the International Commission on Physics Education, and a recipient of the Oersted Medal. Sokoloff rounds out the conversation discussing the importance of active learning in physics education, as well as how vital it is that students are given the space and opportunity to question ideas, make mistakes, and speak up for themselves.
This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is July 12th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Professor David R. Sokoloff. David, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you, David. It’s great to be here. I'm looking forward to it.
To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
Right now, I am Professor Emeritus of Physics in the Physics Department at the University of Oregon.
When did you go Emeritus?
Actually, in 2004, I took an early retirement, mostly because I could. I was 58 years old when I retired. I had young kids, and I decided that I could continue doing the things that I really enjoyed doing, like outreach and curriculum development, and not have to go to faculty meetings or—although I loved teaching, as I'm sure you're well aware, teaching takes a big chunk out of your time. So, I could teach teachers, but I no longer, except for five years with tenure reduction, I no longer met students. So, I've been retired since roughly May of 2004.
In what ways have you remained connected with the Department, absent the administrative component of things?
Well, that’s an interesting question. In some ways, I was kind of an odd bird in my department, because there never was and still isn’t a physics education research group. I was pretty much it, for all the years that I was there. And my connections, my strong connections as far as the work that I did, were always outside the Department, except for the fact that the innovations that my colleagues and I developed and that I implemented were implemented largely in the large enrollment classes at University of Oregon. And I have to give credit to my department for being tolerant of my doing that. I suppose they could have said, “No, you can’t do it.” And, also, for at times providing some budgetary support to buy equipment and stuff. But overall, my connection was never strong with the Department, because there was no—I mean, except in the normal way that a faculty member, and the normal input that I would have as a faculty member at meetings and things like that. So, when I retired, I don’t think that my relationship changed very much, although right now, I'm still on the email list, so there are conversations that I get involved in. Actually, a very interesting thing is there has been a lot of discussion, very active discussions, during the pandemic, which may have started before the pandemic, about education. And there are a number of interesting things that are going on, for example, mentoring new faculty in our department, which never happened before—that is happening now. And so, there are a number of very good things that have come along in recent years, and I participated in those somewhat, but not that strongly, only by email connection.
I'm curious, as essentially a one-man show in physics education research at University of Oregon, by geographic proximity, how connected were you with the University of Washington and what Lillian McDermott had built up over the years?
Yes, periodically, during the time that I was very active in developing materials and developing assessments, I was reasonably connected with Lillian’s group. I visited them several times with very, very useful visits. She was—actually, I said this in my Oersted address, and I acknowledged her—she was very, very supportive of my career, both in terms of communications during that time that we were developing things, and advice that she gave, but also in terms of supporting my promotion within the Physics Department as I came up for promotion to full professor and so on, coming and giving a colloquium here. So not a very close relationship. I mean, I went up there and visited several times. I gave several talks up there. We never worked closely together, but she was always aware of what we were doing. And I think it was her nature to do that. It wasn’t that I was a special person. She was very, very supportive over the years of a number of younger people. I won’t say “young” because [laughs] I'm younger than she but not that much. But yeah, I consider her a mentor, in a sense. And, also, I have to say that if you go back to the 1980s when I first got involved doing real physics education, it was the research that was coming out of her group that inspired me. I mean, there’s no question about that. And right now—actually I'm involved in a project right now writing a chapter for an international PER handbook, and Paula Heron from that University of Washington group is one of the editors. But in reviewing where the things that I've worked on came from, there’s absolutely no doubt that the inspiration came from the work from her group. She, on several occasions, invited me to take a leave from UO, and spend as long as a year working in her group. I was married and had young children at the time, so it was never convenient for me to do that. I'll also add that, on a personal basis, we became friendly in more recent years, and on several occasions in the last ten years, on visits to Seattle, my partner, Christine, and I had dinner and attended the Seattle Opera with her. It was very sad to hear that she passed away last July! She was a very unique woman who cared very much about her work and also about the people who she worked with.
David, just as a snapshot in time, circa July 2021, what are you currently working on, and what is more broadly interesting to you in the field of physics and pedagogy these days?
I'll say probably two things. One thing is that for the last, I’d say, at least five years, maybe even ten years, my main focus has been dissemination. And the projects that I've worked on, save probably one or two, have been on getting the word out about active learning, and getting people to use more active approaches. And that of course took a huge hit from COVID, from which I, for one, have not recovered. The biggest thing that we had scheduled was a one-week workshop, Active Learning in Optics and Photonics, in Hanoi, Vietnam, for July 2020, running parallel with the third World Conference on Physics Education, which was to take place there. And, of course, that ended up being cancelled, and that conference has actually been rescheduled for this coming December, which right at this moment—I just started this a few days ago—trying to find a way that we can do somewhat of a virtual version of an ALOP workshop that would get the flavor of active learning that we do in those workshops. And I'm sure you'll probably ask me more about that later, so I won’t get into that now. But trying to do maybe a two-hour version of what ALOP is, and what active learning is, for developing countries. Because to me, it would be a terrible shame to have a World Conference and not have any presence there, at least to let people know we're still alive. If not well, we are still alive, and I'm hoping that at some time in the future, our team will be out and doing more workshops.
So, I have to say that during this year, my connections have been of that sort. I've managed to do a couple of virtual AAPT workshops, which involved virtual learning, which I'll also tell you a little bit more about. And Ron Thornton and I did a virtual version of our session at the New Faculty workshop, the APS/AAPT New Faculty Workshop, about two weeks ago, where we presented both regular Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, adapted to be presented on Zoom using breakout rooms and things like that, to illustrate what they would actually look like in a classroom, hoping that many, many people are going back to the classroom. But also including a very small part on virtual Interactive Lecture Demonstrations. And that’s the other thing I'll mention; so, you asked me, what have I been involved in this last year, and the other thing is that in March 2020, when it was very clear that most places were not going to be meeting live, I started to think about, could anything be done to take the pedagogy from Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, which is inherently an in-class strategy, and make it available online, asynchronously. And asynchronously because I made the assumption—and by the way, I based my knowledge of what was going on regarding the pandemic on a flurry of emails on the faculty list from University of Oregon, of faculty members trying to figure out how they were going to lecture. And it’s like [laughs] my reaction to MOOCs, when there was this thing about doing MOOCs. And my reaction to that was, “Oh, great, we're trying to figure out how to do a better lecture.”
I wonder if you could spell out MOOC for us and explain what it is.
M-O-O-C-S. Which is essentially the idea of creating the perfect lecture that is open for attendance by thousands if not millions of people, and some subset of that group—and, I'm sorry, lecture course—and some subset of the people who are watching these lectures will actually sign up for credit and take exams and actually get college credit for them. But the thing that I was reacting to is that a MOOC, as I've seen them, is basically create the perfect lecture, and put it on video, and have it available online. And to me, sure, that’s a wonderful exercise for the people who are making it, I'm sure, but I don’t see it as a learning exercise for most students. Because we know from research that has been done now for at least 20, 30 years, that students sitting and watching a lecture and not being engaged by it do not learn physics concepts. And we know that quite well.
So, the same thing here, that I'm seeing my colleagues scurrying—how are they going to find a document camera, so they can—and are they going to be able to get into the university building, the physics department building, and lecture and use a document camera, so that the students can see them online lecturing? And my reaction was, “Oh, great. I understand—What would I be doing if I were faced with the same thing?” And I say, well, thank God I was not faced with it. I didn't have to deal with the pandemic at all. I could have ignored it. But I thought, could I put ILDs online in a form that they could be used? And what I did, over three or four stages, is I found and produced videos, photos, data graphs collected using computer-based tools, various things, and simulations—physlets, PhETs—that I could use as the experimental observation that students made, and therefore, I could put online a prediction sheet and have students on their own make their own predictions, then bring down some observation and make it, and led on by a number of probing questions, compare the observations they made to the predictions. So, it was similar to Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, where they do the same thing, only they see a demonstration live, they discuss things with their neighbors, and they make their own live prediction on a prediction sheet, and so on, and there’s a classroom discussion. So, although it depended on students actually going through the procedure, it was a possibility that students might actually do these.
So, over a period of six months, I took the Interactive Lecture Demonstrations that are in a book that Wiley published—there’s 28 sets of these, on all different topics of physics—and I turned them into 26 online virtual what I call Home-Adapted ILDs. And those are out there. They're on the web. They're on a server at the University of Oregon, for anybody to use. There have been 6,000 hits to that web page. I have no idea who’s hitting the web page and who’s using them. And, I have been unable, although I've asked people to do it if they could, to do any research on how effective they are. But what I started to say was, because I saw that faculty reacting to the pandemic were largely going back to “How am I going to do a good lecture given that I can’t meet students live.” I decided I would not complicate things by saying you should put students into breakout rooms. But instead, leave it—envision a single student working by him or herself, on these things.
So, from a pedagogical point of view, from the point of view of curriculum development, that was the one project that I worked on this last year. And I unfortunately have no sense of whether it was successful. I've done maybe five or six workshops or talks related to that. I got the medal of GIREP. GIREP is the European physics education research society. They gave me their medal last November. I guess just this past November. And my talk was on those Interactive Lecture Demonstrations. But yeah, so those are the things I—I mean, basically that’s what I've worked on this last year. And as I said, there’s two chapters in two books. One is an international physics education research handbook, which I'm working on with a co-author from Turkey, a young physics educator, on writing a chapter on active learning, and basically how did various strategies in active learning develop. And then a chapter on multimedia in physics education in a book from International Commission on Physics Education. It’ll be a Springer book. It’s more on active learning strategies than on the physics education research about them.
David, another topical question—with the embrace of remote learning over the pandemic, for better or worse, what should we throw out as we move beyond the pandemic, and what aspects of remote learning do you think are worth keeping or even trying to improve upon, as it relates to physics education research?
It’s a hard question for me to answer, because as I've said, I have not had the direct experience, because I haven't had to teach under those circumstances. So, I hate to speculate. But from the experiences I've had, I tend to think that if we can return mostly to live situations, that from my experience, for active learning, you can’t duplicate it very well. There are things you can do. I mean, when we did this session for New Faculty Workshop, we used breakout rooms. It was actually the first time I've used breakout rooms. And so, therefore, I don’t—it was not the most positive experience. I didn't try to explore what was actually going on in the breakout rooms, because I was happy to have them actually work, and have people go off and come back, and not lose them. And so, I don’t have the full experience of that, but the presence is not there, unless you go—and maybe if you go through all the effort you do, you know what the students are doing, and you're more cognizant of what they're doing, and you can be more active in guiding them. It’s very hard to guide students and to know what’s going on for them when you're doing things virtually. It’s much harder. So, I don’t know. I really don’t know yet, what things should be kept. And I’d say, from my point of view, yeah, sure, we've been moving towards online learning before the pandemic came along. And, so, the only thing I say is we have to be sure that we're simulating, as best we can, the interactive parts of it. Because we know those are important. We know, at least, with students interacting with each other. And so, if you're doing something virtually, if you're doing something online, it’s really important that those things are maintained. I guess that’s all I can say. And you're right; there clearly will be more online learning now, since so many more people have gone through that experience and are able to do it now.
David, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
Sure, yeah. My parents were born in the U.S. around—it turns out—I just realized during this business that my mother was either born during or towards the end of the Spanish Flu epidemic, in Brooklyn in 1918. And my father was a little bit older than that; he was born about 1912, I think. I grew up in a middle-class family. My mother had a couple years of college but didn't have a college degree. My father had more years of college and was a chemistry major, so maybe that’s where my science inclination came from a little bit. But the only thing—the thing that was very clear—I don’t recall that I got guidance in what I should do, from them, but I clearly got guidance that I was going to go to college, and that I was going to be a serious student, which I certainly was. I was the consummate student. I grew up mostly in Jamaica, Queens. I went to Queens College. Jamaica High School and Queens College. I'll throw in the side remark that if our previous president had gone to a public high school, he would have gone to the same high school as I did and would have been about one year behind me.
But of course, he didn't; he went to some military academy. Anyway, so I went to Queens College. And the big thing I suppose, the maybe interesting thing, is not that I followed in the footsteps of my parents, who were very good parents. I mean, my father died when I was 16, so I didn't have him around—he died right before I went to Queens College. I was precocious because in New York, at that time, many, many students skipped the eighth grade, which I did. And I think [laughs]—I like to say that the only two things I—the only thing I know that I missed from the eighth grade was a social life, because whatever math they taught in the eighth grade was something that I obviously never needed. But anyway, so I think I started Queens College when I was 16. Anyway, I followed in the footsteps of my brother, Jeffrey, who’s four years older than me. He’s a theoretical physicist. I think he must be retired now. I'm not close to him at this point, but he’s a physicist at Northeastern University. But I definitely followed in his footsteps. If you looked at our paths, he went to Queens College; I followed him. We overlapped by one year because of the year I skipped. He went to MIT; I went to MIT. He got his PhD from MIT; I got my PhD from MIT. He’s a theoretician; I was definitely an experimentalist. We overlapped by one year at MIT.
And in many ways, I have to say that he was very supportive of me, and he clearly gave an excellent model for me. I can’t imagine I would be where I am, if not for him. But we've never been super close. And again, even though in those senses, those superficial senses, our lives parallel each other, he has always been a theoretical physicist, a very serious, well published, solid-state physicist. And I have never been, except for my time in graduate school, a physics researcher. Immediately out of graduate school—and even before I finished graduate school—I knew that I wanted to focus on education. Although I may not have known what it was that I should do for a while after that, I knew that that's what I was going to do. Even to the extent that my last year at MIT—I actually had an NSF fellowship for five years at MIT, the whole time I was there. So, I like to say that Ali Javan, who was my thesis advisor, he never had [laughs] a big decision to make about whether he should keep me or not, because he didn't have to pay me anything. So, there I was. I was two hands in the laboratory. I must have been doing an okay job. But, after all, I had a free ride for five years.
But in any case, the last year that I was at MIT, even though I had the fellowship, and I didn't have to teach, I decided to take a small assistantship, and taught recitation sections in the 8.01 course, which is the freshman and sophomore introductory physics course at MIT, which of course is like the junior [laughs] physics course at any other place. And the thing was taught from the Berkeley series at that time, very sophisticated courses. And the thing that amazed me at that time was that even MIT students, MIT undergraduates, many of them were kind of slackers. It wasn’t clear that they were so much into what they were doing, or that they so well understood the physics. Many of them could do physics problems that freshman students at any other place couldn't even touch. They could do the problems. But when you talked to them about physics, they either didn't care very much, or they didn't really have much insight into it. And it’s a lesson that I got, and it came back to me probably even ten years later, when I first started doing some serious stuff in the area. And you think even that’s what Eric Mazur says. Even Harvard students couldn't answer questions on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). And I always think, to Eric Mazur’s credit, instead of saying that either the students were stupid, which he couldn't because they were Harvard students, or the test was bad, which he couldn't, because it had been verified at many places, he said, “Oh, there’s something wrong here. There’s something wrong about the way that I'm teaching. Maybe I need to change that.” And I suppose over the years, that happened to me as well.
So, anyway, I went to MIT. To be perfectly honest with you, I hated my first year at MIT. I was the absolute star physics major at Queens College. Even though my brother got straight As in physics and math, I was such a good student, such a hardworking student, that I got straight As in everything. I graduated like second in my class, the class of 1,200 students from Queens College. The people in the Physics Department of course compared me to my brother, and they thought I was God’s gift to physics. Which I wasn’t. I mean, to be honest, I really wasn’t. I was smart, but I wasn’t a devoted physicist like he was.
Was there anything in your undergraduate education where you can look at it as foreshadowing to your subsequent interest in education? Were you thinking at all along those lines?
I don’t think I was. And I say that because it really took me until a sabbatical that I took in the mid-1980s to get really serious thinking about education and how students learn. So, it was really into the 1980s when, as I said, Lillian McDermott’s group was doing all kinds of stuff—there were a lot of publications out there by then for me to read—that I started to really see what was wrong about what I was doing and what many other people were doing. So, yeah, my education at Queens College was completely traditional. I studied introductory physics from Sears and Zemansky. Not even Sears, Zemansky, and Young. I mean, it was the original Sears and Zemansky. Very traditional textbook. Everything was very traditional. I never had an undergraduate research project. So, yeah…but I didn't necessarily see anything wrong with that. I only knew that my inclination was much more towards educating people than towards being a researcher in a laboratory. And by the way, I went to MIT…the first year I went there, and I hated Boston. I don’t know if you've ever lived in Boston, but even having grown up in New York, the weather in Boston is so awful in the winter that I said to myself, “I'm going to get—” So I said, “I'm going to get away from here, as far away as I can.” I took an internship at Livermore Labs in Livermore, California, the summer after my first year in graduate school. I worked in a chemical laser lab under a chemical physicist. I got interested in what I was doing. I thought about transferring out to UC San Diego, at the time. I had a long discussion with my mentor—Dave Gregg was his name—and we agreed I should go back to MIT and work in lasers, because I didn't have a research group yet. And I went back, and I got into Ali Javan’s group. And that along with the fact that I met my future wife, and my best friend from Queens College came up to MIT and started graduate school in organic chemistry—those things were the three things that kept me at MIT. And the rest is history. I did some projects on spectroscopy in Javan’s lab, and I got my PhD. I ended up having this later connection with optics through Active Learning in Optics and Photonics.
Which is strange, that that came back to me as well. And then I went off and I said, “Look, what I'm going to do when I get my first job is I'm going to find a place where they take teaching seriously.” And I want to make sure I answered your question.
No, that does. What was Ali Javan working on at the time you connected?
There were a number of things going on in his group, but the big thing, or one of the big things in that group at the time, was optical frequency mixing. And there was this whole deal, which ended up resulting in the precise definition for the value of the speed of light in vacuum, the definition of the second in terms of a precise number of oscillations of a transition of a cesium atomic clock, and the length standard being redefined in terms of the distance traveled by light in vacuum in exactly 1/c second. I'm going to fumble this, because I haven't looked at this in ages, and so pardon me if I get—I won’t get it exactly right, so I won’t try to go into too much detail. And the only way you could do this is that you have to be able to measure the frequency and the wavelength of this cesium transition very precisely, and that means you have to measure a visible frequency, which is an incredibly high frequency. And I wasn’t involved in the invention or development of these things, but they discovered that there were these strange diodes that consisted of a very, very fine tungsten wire that was put in touch with usually a metal surface. And there was something about probably the oxide layer that formed on the metal that this thing had nonlinear properties that actually responded at a visible frequency, and generated harmonics of that frequency. So, you could actually shine a laser on this wire, on this junction, and generate the frequency of that visible light. And at the same time, you could mix other frequencies in the same diode at the same time, and ultimately set up a chain of lasers until you brought the visible frequency down to microwave frequency. And ultimately, then, if you measured the microwave frequency, you were by this chain measuring a real frequency of visible light. And if you can measure the frequency, there were very good methods of measuring wavelength using interferometers. Measure both, and the product of those two things is the speed of light. And if you assign a precise value to the speed of light—maybe I'm out of date and it’s not true anymore—then the distance standard can be defined in terms of the time standard.
And there was this kind of race going on between our lab. And I wasn’t the one working on that particular project; I was using those diodes for something else. But between our lab and a guy named Evenson at what is now NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, I think. And at that time, he was in Boulder. There was actually this competition: who was going to do this first? And they won, in the end, I believe. It doesn't really matter. But in my case, not by actually having in my laboratory a chain of lasers, because that’s what you'd need. To have an absolute standard, you'd actually have to have all these lasers running at the same time, so a carbon dioxide laser, maybe a carbon monoxide laser, and so on. You'd have to have all these running at the same time and all interfering with each other to have a chain of lasers. But in my lab, with what I had, I was measuring the rotational spectrum of various gases.
And so, I worked with a carbon monoxide laser, with a nitrous oxide laser, and I would shine those on a diode, and these were much lower than visible frequencies. And then you would put microwaves into this thing, and mix a very, very high harmonic of the microwaves with the frequency from the laser, and you could measure very accurately the frequencies of the rotational lines in the spectrum of that laser. So that’s what I was doing, and my thesis was on the spectroscopy of carbon monoxide, as I remember. And my claim to fame, if I want a claim to fame for the work that I did in Javan’s group—probably in about 1970, I had officially measured the highest frequency ever [laughs] directly. Because I had measured the frequency of the carbon monoxide laser. And later on was when they actually extended to the visible. I don’t think that claim to fame was ever made, but there’s some publication out there in Physical Review Letters about the rotational spectrum of carbon monoxide.
On the social side of things, being in Cambridge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were you politically involved at all? Were you involved in any of the campus protests?
[laughs] Yeah. It’s interesting you bring that up. I just went for a walk before talking to you, and I was talking to this friend about that. And yes, very much so. In fact, that was my second time of almost quitting MIT, because probably in my second or third year in graduate school, I applied to the Teacher Corps. Because I had gotten very much involved in politics. My future wife and I—my future and ex-wife [laughs]—she was a student at Simmons College, across the river, and we got very much involved in politics. And when Eugene McCarthy was running for president, I was very much involved in his campaign. And I used to go on weekends down to Connecticut and go canvassing for McCarthy. I think it was still McCarthy; I think he was still running. I can’t remember for sure. But I would go down on a bus and go campaigning door to door in a town in Connecticut. I would go to rallies in Boston. I went to one of the marches on Washington, even actually with a member of the Javan research group, Michael Feld. And we went on a bus and went down there. So as involved as I've ever really been in politics, that was the time. I don’t think you could avoid it. But I was very much into that. And I decided, like many graduate students at the time, “Why am I sitting in a lab doing this strange research?” And I applied for the Teacher Corps, and I was ready to quit. And I listed—of all the strange things, at this point my thesis advisor was not, at this moment, Javan. It was actually another person in the group, Abraham Szöke, who was an Israeli who was visiting the group. I actually listed him as a reference, and there was this strange conversation that we had at some point, where he said, “Are you leaving?” [laughs]. Because I didn't tell him. I listed him as a reference, and he confronted me, and I said, “No, I think I'm going to stay and finish up.” And at that point, I thought, “Yeah, I've worked for three years on this. I should finish my degree from MIT. This is a rare opportunity.” And I did. And it’s not like I didn't value what I was doing, totally. But it was kind of like, “There’s all this other stuff going on. How can you be doing this?” And that’s probably also when I decided, “Look, you need to serve society in some way. You weren’t cut out to be a lab researcher. You could serve society better being a teacher, and you should do that.” And so, all in all, all that stuff put together led me to that point, that when I got my degree in 1972, I said, “Look, I'm going to go and find a job where undergraduate teaching is important.” Did I answer your question?
Yeah, absolutely. Besides Ali, who else was on your thesis committee?
Oh, that’s—[laughs]—it’s funny; I don’t know if you—I think I sent you my article from American Journal of Physics. Did you read that?
I mean, it was so much fun to write that, because—especially—well, sorry, it was before the pandemic. It was so much fun to write that because it brought back all these very strange experiences that I've had. So, I got back with Ali Javan. I'm not sure, I think it was because the project that I was working on, by the time I got into a serious project, was his project and not Abraham’s project. So, I think somehow in the mix I got switched back where Ali Javan was my thesis advisor again. In the end, I left MIT before I turned in my thesis, or right at the same moment I turned in my thesis. I was writing my thesis in the summer of 1971. I had already applied for a job and had a job starting in the fall. The whole group, the whole Javan research group, went to Tehran, Iran, for a conference that he had organized, and I didn't go. I think I wasn’t invited to go, but there was good reason; I was working on my thesis. So, I didn't get to go to Iran. I turned in my thesis. I had to come back at Christmas time, that year, to defend my thesis. And I came back. And of course, I had been away from this for a whole term, teaching undergraduate physics courses. And I came back, and here suddenly I had to get back into this mode of my thesis and defending my thesis. And there was a committee set up, and we had a date. And also, by the way, my birthday was in there somewhere. I came up to this, and I went to him, and I said, “You know, I can’t do this. We have to delay this.” And so, we delayed my thesis defense for a week or so. So, on my committee, I know Javan of course was on the committee. Abraham was on the committee. Dan Kleppner was on the committee. And there was a fourth person, and I can’t remember who that was, because when it was rescheduled, he couldn't do it. And so, this other guy from our group—he was a junior member of our research group—got on the committee. So, it was those four people. And I don’t remember much about the thesis defense. It went okay. But Dan Kleppner—there were some good questions. I'm sure I didn't do a great job, but I did okay. I passed. Kleppner, at the very end of my thesis defense, he hands me ten pages of paper, and he says, “You might want to make these corrections in your thesis.” And then he smiles, and he says, “That’s what separates the men from the boys.” [laughs]
[laughs] So, at that point, of course, all I cared about was that I was done, and I had my degree. And that was—[laughs] anyway.
Were you looking specifically for faculty positions, or were you considering postdocs at this point?
No, I was looking for a faculty position at a university that paid attention to undergraduate students. And this was 1971, 1972. There were no jobs. At least for that time, that was the bottom of the job market for physicists. That was really bad. And I have to say that one thing that has gotten me great mileage and that—of course, I did work hard to earn it. I'm joking about it, but I did work hard at MIT, and I probably did some reasonable work, and my thesis was probably okay. But having a PhD from MIT buys you into a lot of things. So, at that point, there were no jobs. I applied only to places that had advertised positions and that I knew had undergraduate physics programs that they took seriously. And as I recall, I had two or three interviews. I know I had an interview at Colorado College, which was at that point a very, very forward-looking place. And, I had an interview at Western Illinois University. And I think that was it. I didn't get offered the job at Colorado College. I did get offered the job at Western Illinois University. And they had just moved into a brand-new building, and they had very nice facilities, and everybody seemed to care about physics teaching. And really if that’s what I wanted to do, it’s not like I had a choice. That was the job I had offered to me. And having lived in New York and Boston, did I want to move to a town of—? I'll get it wrong, but I think Macomb was really, really small. I think Macomb without the university was in the order of under 5,000 people.
Given the job market, did you ever consider the Arthur Eisenkraft model, and teach in high school?
I did not. I don’t know exactly what his path was, but for one thing, there was all the certification stuff. And I know they were experimenting with other ways of doing it, so I'm sure he probably went through some alternative way of getting licensed so he could do it. And I probably could have done it. But I never thought I had the patience to deal with high school students. And that’s probably true that I didn't. But I decided that if I could find a college teaching job that looked reasonable, I would do it. I was married. I had a wife who had just graduated from college and who wanted to do public health, and who essentially took a year out of her life to live in Macomb, Illinois. Turned out not to be a bad place to live. It was actually a very interesting place to live. I won’t tell you the story—I was just telling a friend this story—the story about us moving, raising chickens in our studio apartment in MIT married student housing, and moving them to Illinois. It was probably the only couple ever in the history of Illinois to move two chickens there from Cambridge, Massachusetts. But in any case, we actually enjoyed living there. It turned out to be an awful experience, because this department had 16 faculty members and they were split eight to eight [laughs] between [laughs] two factions, let's just say the importance of teaching vs. research, and when I went there, I was the only person who was able to talk to both sides, until I very clearly aligned more with one side, and then I couldn't talk to the other side.
I won’t bore you with the details, but it was very strange. But I was teaching undergraduates. I did try some innovative things. As I recall, I taught a course on the Keller Plan, which was the thing back then for people who were experimenting. And I did a few things, but by and large, I was teaching very traditional courses in a very, very traditional way, and I hadn’t really a clue about how to do things otherwise. And miraculously, after one year—oh, by the way, I have to say one other thing, which was really funny, and I think it’s probably in my article—that Richard Peterson who also became president of AAPT before I did, and who also went on and won the Melba Phillips Award from AAPT at the same time, a year ago January, that I won the Oersted Award—that both of us started our careers at Western Illinois University in that department, at the same time. Had offices right next to each other. It was our first year teaching, for both of us. And when we saw each other at—we've seen each other since, of course—but when we saw each other at the Orlando meeting, we joked that Doug Wylie, who was the department chair, who hired both of us, was probably rolling over happily in his grave. Because he had passed away within the year. And was quite an amazing thing, quite interesting, that—both of us left after a while. I left after one year because it wasn’t clear I would have a job, because the State of Illinois cut the budget way back. And, also, because my wife at the time got into public health school at University of Michigan, and I managed to get this interesting job at [laughs] University of Michigan-Dearborn, which was just starting up a physics program.
At this point, what is the larger world of physics pedagogy? How developed is the AAPT? Are you connecting at all with likeminded scholars in the field? Or are you essentially off on your own?
You're talking back then?
Right as you started your teaching career at Illinois and then at Michigan.
Yeah. I have to say—again, this is me personally, and I know better now what was going on back then because I'm working on these two-chapter projects—but at the time, in 1972, when I moved from Western Illinois University to University of Michigan-Dearborn, I still was largely clueless. Because I still somehow felt that this was my thing to develop. I was not aware, at that point, that this community existed. I started to go to AAPT meetings. So as my recollection, probably the first AAPT meeting I went to was in the mid-1970s. So, I was starting to be exposed to this stuff, but I still was a total novice. But I had some very interesting experiences that were fairly unique. Because U of M—Dearborn was this place where the physics program was starting, and they had developed—they started as a two-year college, but interestingly, it was the last two years, not the first two years. So, here’s this campus of University of Michigan that started up because Ford Motor Company said, “Look, we’d like to train some engineers here in Dearborn, so they don’t have to go to Ann Arbor. How about starting up an engineering program in Dearborn? So, all you need is juniors and seniors. And the freshmen and sophomores, they'll go to community college.” And “We'll give you the land, and we'll build the buildings for you.” And that’s the origin of U of M—Dearborn. The campus originated as a Ford Motor Company thing. And after a number of years, they decided, “We'll make it a four-year college.” And that’s when they hired a physicist, and then they hired a second physicist, and I was the second one. And I hired two or three more people after I came there.
But the unique thing was that I was in a natural science department, so I got an experience there, first of all, of a department that, as we would say today, was not “woke” as far as what active learning was. But they were very, very unique in that they were a group of physicists, biologists, chemists who all talked to each other. They met on a daily basis. They had faculty meetings together. And the most amazing thing was they were teaching a course that was team taught and completely interdisciplinary. They were teaching a course for every non-science major who went to U of M—Dearborn. The science majors took introductory chemistry, probably a very traditional course. But the non-science majors took Matter, Energy, and Life (MEL). And it was a course invented by these two very, very gifted biologists. And I was fortunate to get first invited to teach in the course, and then to actually become the director of the course for several years. And this was an earth-shattering experience for me, because not only—who was I? I was this very, very traditional physicist, strait-laced physicist who had never taken a biology course. Of course, it was required to take chemistry, but I knew nothing about biology. And, all of a sudden, I'm in charge of a course where I'm teaching with this interdisciplinary team. And I took it upon myself that if there was a topic we were teaching that nobody knew anything about, I would do it. So, I would have to develop lectures—I remember teaching lectures on birth control [laughs], on the geology of SE Michigan. There was no geologist in the course. And things like that.
And in doing that, I had to start to think about even though they were still lectures, how do you make these lectures interesting? What can you do to make them more interesting? There were labs. As a member of the team in that course, I was going out with a group of 24 students on a bus to Eastern Market in downtown Detroit and sitting there, cutting apart vegetables to examine what part of the plant those were. Like, what part of the plant is an onion? And going to the Ford Rouge plant on a bus and walking through the steel plant. Because they used to actually make steel in that plant, the Ford Rouge plant, in 1975. They used to bring in iron ore and coal and all the resources, make steel in that plant, and out of the other side of the plant came cars. So, it was this miraculous student experience. And we would actually go on a bus, and the students would walk on gangplanks through the steel plant and have this experience, this urban experience, of a system within—which brought in these natural resources and belched out [laughs] pollution and greenhouse gases and so on and dirtied the water in the Rouge River. And those are things I didn't develop. I developed some labs on energy, and actually published in The Physics Teacher and in American Journal of Physics on those things.
But I'll tell you an anecdote which I think is funny. I think it’s probably also in that article I wrote last year for AJP. So, here I was, director of Matter, Energy, and Life, this glorified position, and developing some new labs and things to probe the students’ interests. And I went to an AAPT meeting, and I presented. I think it was probably the first paper I ever gave at an AAPT meeting. And it was a paper on Matter, Energy, and Life. And it’s probably called “Physics in an Interdisciplinary Team-Taught Science Course for Non-Science Majors,” something like that. The article in AJP has that title. And it was my first talk. I get up, and I give my talk. It was a contributed talk, so at that time, it might have been 15 minutes. And in my talk, in the audience, was Arnold Arons. And I didn't know Arnold Arons at all at the time. There’s Arnold Arons. And at the end of my talk, this guy, this old guy, raises his hand. I look at him. His face is all red. He raises his hand, he stands up, and he turns to the audience, and he says, “This is another example of one of these dumb classes where people who know nothing at all about pedagogy try to throw all these topics at students who will learn absolutely nothing from them!” [laughs]
So, that may have been my first introduction—you asked me my first introduction to the physics education community. Most people in the community were not like Arnold Arons. He always spoke his mind. And I found out over the years that he had a tendency to do that. You could see him at an AAPT meeting—if you looked at him, and you're sitting in the audience and looked at him—he would be sitting there, and he’d literally be boiling over, because he was hearing something that he didn't like. And he would explode at the end. And if you'll indulge me, I'll tell you, very quickly, that many years later, probably 20 years after that, I was on a review committee with Arnold, for a project at a university in Texas. And Arnold came to give a colloquium at University of Oregon. And I still remembered this experience from AAPT. And quite frankly, I was nervous to have him come and meet with me. I already had done many things and published a number of things in physics ed, but I was nervous to meet with him and afraid to sit down with him. But I said, “Look, how can I have Arnold Arons come to my university and not sit down with him?” So, finally, I said, “Okay, I'm going to set up—I'll arrange a meeting with him.” And besides that, we were on this committee together. So, he comes to my office, and I'm sitting there, and Arnold looks at me and he says, “David, I have to apologize. I'm really sorry for being so lax in my service on this committee. I've really done absolutely nothing.” Completely self-effacing and being apologetic to me. [laughs] And, of course, either he didn't let on or he didn't remember that experience [laughs] of the AAPT meeting where he had basically told me I was an idiot. So [laughs] everything was fine. But in any case—sorry, to really answer your question, it was really not while I was at U of M—Dearborn. I was doing some interesting things, but I wouldn't characterize them as characteristic of what was going on in the physics education community, even though in the mid-1970s, and early 1980s, they were starting. I moved to University of Oregon in 1978. I won’t bore you with those details unless you want to know them.
Specifically, what was the opportunity that allowed you to make the transfer to Oregon?
This is another one of these strange stories, where there were multiple reasons for this. But I was the odd man at University of Michigan-Dearborn, as well, in that even at a university like that, where in some sense the people claimed to be devoting themselves to undergraduate education, they had no clue. And as time moved on, they grew further and further away from that. There were people who stuck with it. My friend Orin Gelderloos, biologist, who was one of the designers of MEL, continued that. And he just retired very recently, actually. I've still been in touch with him. But, by and large, the department itself was not a hotbed of physics education. And they weren’t nice to me, because I was too—they wanted me to do physics research, and I was publishing in physics education journals. I had several publications by that point. So, I was always suspect because they were moving in a different direction. And there seemed to be this question in my sixth year about whether I was going to get tenure there or not, which was absurd, because I was really doing a whole bunch of stuff, but it wasn’t clear to them that it was very important. And I remember saying to somebody [laughs], “You know what? I'm going to get tenure here, and I'm going to leave. And the day that I get tenure, I'm going to tell the department head that I'm leaving.”
And strangely enough, it actually turned out that that’s exactly what happened. That I continued to do what I was doing. I did more physics stuff than MEL. I think I quit MEL. I applied for the job at Oregon because it was this strange job that seemed to combine the things that I liked and gave me an opportunity to do what I liked. It was completely education. It was a completely wide-open job, which was a good thing. And it was clear they wanted somebody who was going to redefine the labs. It also had a huge administrative component to it. But on the other hand, I was the effective Physics Department head at U of M-Dearborn, because the other guy, the other original guy, didn't really want to do that stuff. And they had gotten to the point where we had five or six faculty members. There needed to be somebody who was department head. And I was doing that on top of everything else. I still had a full teaching load. And so here was an opportunity to actually be recognized for doing administrative stuff. So, there were some upsides. The downsides were that it was a huge administrative load, and it was ill-defined, which meant that I was going to have many, many jobs on my shoulders. So, I thought, “Okay, I should apply for this job.” I had never been in the Pacific Northwest. People told me it was wonderful. And the woman who I was dating at the time said to me, “David, if you take that job, I'll marry you.” [laughs] So, to make a long story short, we moved to Oregon. I got the job. It was one of these—I don’t know if you've ever had a job interview like this, where you go to the job interview and it’s like they created the job for you?
It’s like you created the job and said, “Yeah, sure, why don’t you put that in there, and put that in there?” So yeah, I took the job. She left me. We never got married. [laughs] I took the job, and in the long run, it is everything I said about it. It was true that it was too much, because they had taken a whole bunch of jobs and put them together. But on the other hand, it really gave me—I had complete control over the labs, and that meant that when the time came that I was doing computer-based labs, I just said, “Okay, we're going to do computer-based labs.” And we did. We made the transition in one summer, and we just did it. The money was there because I was associate department head. I said, “We're going to buy this equipment,” and we did. And so, in the end, I have to say, it was the absolute perfect—not to say there couldn't have been other opportunities that would have put me in the same place, but in the end, it was the perfect place where I had not only—I had the control. I had the money. I had the students. And the faculty, they didn't really care! So, I could do what I wanted. It’s an accurate picture of the way things were back then.
So, to lead up—here, this is around…so this is 43 years ago. For a couple years, I took a traditional lab, I turned it into a different traditional lab, wrote a lab book. I still was not “woke,” and it was really then that I started to read the literature. It came to my sabbatical in 1986. And I said, “Look, I'm going on sabbatical. I'm going to go to—I'm going to do one of three things.” By the way, let me throw in, in the midst of that, that I was director of the Science Center in Eugene during part of that. I literally was a crazy human being in that I had been on the board of directors of this brand-new hands-on science center in Eugene that opened in 1979. And in 1980 or so, as a member of the board of directors, we fired our director. And we had no director, and we had no money. And I said, “I will be the acting science director until we get a new director.” For a year and a half, I served as science director of this hands-on science center on top of everything else I was doing. It nearly drove me crazy, but it meant that at the moment—because I liked doing that, because it was doing science for the public. And one of the things that I developed were a bunch of optics magic tricks, which I did public shows on Saturday mornings, of these magic tricks, every one of which illustrated some physics principle. Which dates back to the fact that I got my PhD doing stuff in optics, and I always loved optics, and dates forward to, or points forward to Active Learning in Optics and Photonics. Because those very same magic tricks, at least some of them, are part of that. We do those as part of our workshops. So, all of this, it gets tied together.
In any case, 1986, I said, “I'm going on sabbatical. I'm doing one of three things. I'm going to become director of a science center for a year, or the equivalent of that. I'm going to go somewhere and do—oh! I'm going to be a congressional intern.” I don’t know if they still have those programs, but this was either the AAAS or the APS program; I applied for that. “I'm going to be a congressional intern, science advisor to a congressman, congressperson. Or I'm going to go and be a faculty member at a place where I can develop computer approaches to teaching physics." Those are the three choices.” And I applied to all of them, and I was equally happy to do any one of those. So, I actually had an interview at the Exploratorium. They were hiring somebody. And I had an interview—I was a finalist for the Congressional fellowship. I went to Washington, participated in their very unique interview process, where during the interview process, you are the science advisor. So, I went through that. And I applied for a job at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Because I knew that they had a really good reputation for being an undergraduate institution that was really devoted to undergraduate students.
That seems like a rather small school for you to be aware of that kind of reputation. What explains that?
I mean, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is not small. It’s actually a sizeable part of the Cal State system. I think now they have about—at that time, they had about 12,000 students. And, yeah, it’s a relatively small place. You know, I don’t remember why. That’s a very interesting question. Maybe I should think back.
Was there a dean or a professor who was driving this, that you were aware of?
Well, so, the person who I made contact with, and it was at the AAPT meeting in Atlanta, in that year—it must have been the winter meeting. In fact, I remember it was the meeting when the Challenger space shuttle blew up—January, 1986. Ken Ozawa was a well-known educator who was a faculty member there. He was well known in the AAPT community, so I'm thinking I was already somewhat involved in AAPT. He was not a very forward-thinking person. He was a very traditional physics teacher. But he was very, very devoted to physics education. And he’s the one who interviewed me and who wanted me to come there. And he interviewed me at that meeting. But there were other people. There were people who had written textbooks. And then there was a guy named David Hafemeister—he was a faculty member at Cal Poly but was on sabbatical leave the year that I was there, to do a Congressional fellowship in Washington, on nuclear policy. By the way, that was what my interest was at the time. (I even taught his course on nuclear energy and weapons policy the year I was there.) And so, I had that connection somehow, that I knew of this guy.
So, no, it’s a good question. I think it was those things, though. I think that Cal Poly at the time must have been known for certain things. That they were devoted to undergraduate education. They weren’t particularly known for computer education. It was more that I liked the vibe that I got from Ken Ozawa. And at the same time, I met Ron Thornton from Tufts University, and I was very impressed with what he was doing with microcomputer-based labs. And I had this idea that wherever I went, as long as they were willing to support me in what I wanted to do, I could implement computer-based stuff, whatever it was going to be, there. And Cal Poly I knew from my interview that they were willing to do that. It would take a little bit of money and letting me control some sections of a course, but I knew they would do that, and I knew that was their interest, and I knew they would welcome me there. And [laughs] I also knew that San Luis Obispo somehow was an incredible place to live, and that it was going to be sunny and beautiful. Which as you are well aware, the winters in Oregon are something to be experienced, at least back then. So, somehow, I must have also had this idea of living in a sunny place, which, who knows. It had nothing to do with a partner [laughs] who wanted to move there.
But anyway, so yeah, I think that’s the reason. So that’s what happened. I moved there. And during the summer before I went to Cal Poly, I spent the summer at Tufts with Ron Thornton. And then the story at Cal Poly was—so I worked with Ron that summer. We actually ran a workshop on computer-based labs for high school teachers. And I got introduced to those tools. And when I went back—so that was summer of 1986. When I went to Cal Poly, fall of 1986, I implemented those labs in two sections of the introductory physics lab there. And here’s the thing—at that time, there was this curriculum that had been written for middle school kids, at TERC—Technical Education Research Centers, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And Bob Tinker—I don’t know if you know of Bob Tinker—Bob Tinker was the prime mover at this non-profit, and he, under an NSF grant, had developed computer-based tools for collecting data for students using Apple II computers. So that was in the early to mid-1980s. Ron Thornton had worked on that project. And here I come along. Strangely enough, Bob Tinker was at MIT the same time that I was, got his PhD almost exactly the same time I did. As you know, Joe Redish was at MIT—we overlapped there. I didn't know either one of them at MIT. They both got their PhDs—Joe I think is a little bit older than me, so maybe a little bit before. All three of us got our PhDs at MIT. We didn't know each other. And all three of us have actually in some ways interacted in physics education, after that time.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I implemented those labs, upgraded to the college level, at Cal Poly. We had to borrow Apple II computers from math and biology, and wheel them into the lab each week. I wrote the labs, I shipped them back to Ron, by FedEx, because there was no internet at that time, to speak of. He FedExed them back to me. I received them and went to the print shop the day before the lab each week. And we had two groups of students doing these labs, and we developed the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), got some research results, and they seemed to agree very much with what Lillian McDermott was getting out of her group, and paralleled that. And that was the beginning. And then everything kind of developed from there. So, it turned out to be a more or less good decision. And by the way, Cal Poly is—sorry, San Luis Obispo was a beautiful place to live, for a year.
It’s a pretty town. It’s a really nice place.
You've been there?
I've been there. It’s gorgeous. Now, to foreshadow to an earlier comment you made about your time at Oregon essentially being a one-man show, when you accepted the position, did you think that you were going to be building up a larger pedagogy group, and did that not play out like you expected? Or you knew from the beginning this would be essentially your thing, in the department?
Yeah, to be perfectly frank, I probably didn't think very much or enough about that, because I saw it as an opportunity to do what I wanted to do, and to do some things that maybe I didn't necessarily want to do that much but in a place that was going to be clearly supportive of me. Because I was doing something for them that they needed. They sorely needed somebody who was going to organize the educational parts of their department, administratively. And, as a sideshow, their lab was so out of date. I mean, nobody cared at all about the lab. I found out as soon as I got there. Of course, being a very methodical person that I am, faced with the task of reinvigorating the introductory lab, the first thing I did was to go around to the faculty and say, “What do you think about the lab? What do you think should be done there?” And nobody knew anything about the lab. Because to this day, the introductory lab is a separate course from the lecture. And the people who taught the lecture had no idea what went on in the lab. And by the way, because it was a separate course, and it’s still true now, half of the students who take the non-calculus introductory physics lecture at University of Oregon don’t take the lab. They just take a lecture. That, by the way, was why I was so gung-ho about developing Interactive Lecture Demonstrations. Because when I started lecturing that course, I’d come into the lecture, and there’s 200 students. And I could imagine that half of them did the lab this week, and the other half weren’t even enrolled in the lab. So, I could never say, “Oh, you remember in lab you saw this?” I couldn't do that. So Interactive Lecture Demonstrations were the things.
But in any case, I found out very quickly that virtually nobody on the faculty really cared terribly much about that. So, it was my ballgame completely, which had its good points and its bad points. The good point was that I had control. So, the thought of, did I want to take on graduate students, did I want to develop a program—you know, what happened to me was I very quickly got a clientele, probably a bad word—a following—outside my university. And the people who were the following outside, who were AAPT members, who were starting to see what was going on in physics education, the thing about those people is that when Ron and maybe Priscilla and I did a workshop at AAPT, those people wanted to be there. They sincerely wanted to change what they were doing.
Why? What were their motivations? What were the problems that they saw that got them to you?
They were starting to understand the same things that I had seen. And I'll just say to you—so for me, it wasn’t just reading the literature and seeing the results on these conceptual tests. But the thing about that experience was that it rang so true. I would remember sitting in my office, and the best student in my class would come in and ask me a question about a homework problem. And I knew this is a smart kid, so I would never sit there and say, “Here’s how you do it.” I’d say, “Okay, what does Newton’s first law say about that?” And even the best student would kind of fumble around and make it very clear to me they had no idea what Newton’s first law said. They could do a problem, because by and large the problems at the end of a chapter were algorithmic problems. You find the equation—F=ma. You're smart enough to figure out what goes on the F side. And it’s only one object, so there’s only one m. You know how to do algebra. And you find a. Do you think about the fact that a is constant? Do you think about the fact that if F were zero, that a would be zero, and the thing would keep moving with a constant velocity? No! And so that was my experience.
And although I never quite understood what that meant until I started reading the literature, I think that’s the same thing that other people saw. They had this experience, and they thought, “Yeah, there may be some students in my class who aren’t that bright, but it’s also the bright students, it’s the ones who are getting As on my exams, and they still can’t answer these very, very basic questions.” And, so, I think that’s where it came from. And although with McDermott’s group they started to interview students, so that was one of their fundamental contributions to the whole thing, to the whole endeavor, is that right off, they were doing research by interviewing students. They were getting directly what students were saying. And you read their early articles, and there are quotes from student A and student B, remarkable quotes. Whereas I was hearing this stuff and it just had an impact. So, I think whether you got it from reading those articles or you got it directly from experiencing it, that was the thing that awakened us.
And although I think when I first started hearing that I didn't know what to do about it, finally I had an idea of what to do, and I had the tools, these brand-new computer-based tools, to try and do something about it. And the funny thing at the time was that when we started doing workshops, the teachers who we brought in—the first workshops we did were for high school teachers. The teachers who we brought in, they of course were really gung-ho about the computer-based tools. Because those computer-based tools, those were something that nobody had seen. I remember when I first saw them. If you can imagine—and by the way, I will say right up front that I take absolutely no credit for developing those tools. The people who developed those things had very different skills from me. I'll take credit for, at times, testing them in a classroom setting, sometimes for the first time ever. But my forte was not in writing code or developing hardware, even though I was an experimental physicist. There may have been a few small things that I did develop, but those people were great.
And so here are these things—you know, Apple II computers were relatively new at the time. Having a computer sitting on your desk. And here’s a motion sensor that a student can walk in front of this motion detector and see a graph of their body moving. It’s just—the first time you see that is incredible. And then I remember—I can’t tell you exactly when this was, but the first—and by the way, this is the first time I saw these things was hearing a talk by Ron Thornton, either at a AAAS meeting or at an AAPT meeting, where he would take a cart with low-friction wheels on it, and give it a push up an inclined ramp, and have the cart go up and down the ramp, and you see the acceleration and the velocity graphs printing out in real time on the computer screen. And I look at those—and quite frankly, I had to think for a few minutes, “Why do those graphs look the way they do?” Because I had never seen them before. And seeing in real time that the acceleration of that cart going up and down the ramp is essentially a constant negative acceleration. And realizing, and in fact doing sometime later on—tossing a ball above the motion detector and seeing the same graphs—these are amazing things!
So, my point is that the teachers went ape over this. Here, spending a week playing around with these things, they just thought this was incredible. But—even though every single one of those teachers—we had a group of exemplary teachers from all over the country, really excellent teachers, and we gave them these tools. We gave them a classroom set of tools as part of this project. They went back to their schools, and what do you think they did? They taught their traditional labs, only they used computer-based tools to collect the data. They didn't buy into active learning. They didn't understand what active learning was. And this is one of the more brilliant things that Ron suggested. I'll give him full credit for it. He said, “Let’s bring back the same teachers next summer, rather than a new group.” And so, we did. And we spent the second summer indoctrinating them on active learning. And after that, those teachers, those 20 or so teachers, they went back, they implemented these types of labs. And we would see them at AAPT meetings, and they’d be giving talks on active learning in the introductory physics class, or labs that they developed. Or we’d pass one of them in the hall at an AAPT meeting, and they'd say, “You know, you saved my career. I was ready to retire. If not for attending your workshop, I would have retired. Instead, I'm going to teach for ten more years because this is so much fun and so interesting to do.” Literally, I'm not—so you asked me that question, but that’s also kind of an answer to this question of having a group at University of Oregon. Because we had this group outside of University of Oregon, and it was so much fun to work with these people, because they wanted to do this. We’d do a workshop and the people in that workshop were so interested in what was going on that that’s what we devoted our attention to, and not fighting—not beating heads against the wall [laughs], people who were stuck in place. Why deal with those? So that thought never really entered my mind. I probably had one or two master’s students at Oregon, and that’s it. And I had some postdocs along the way that I hired. But—
David, when did you take the active learning workshop—when did you essentially take that show on the road, not just nationally, but really internationally?
It’s another one of these funny stories. It’s the chutzpah story. I like to take a little bit of credit for this, in that—taking advantage of opportunities. I love that Milton Berle quote: “If opportunity doesn't knock, build a door.” Who knows if he really said that, but—
[laughs] That’s a great line.
But yeah, no, really, it’s that you—and I'll just throw in quickly, because it’s a personal thing, that sometime in those early 1980s, because I was really being crazy—I mean, I alluded to it, but the fact that I had this really very, very taxing job at the university, which literally did combine two or three jobs together and had only limits set by myself, because it wasn’t very well defined, and at the same time, was driving across the Willamette River to go to the Science Center two or three times a day, because I was also director there, it took its toll on me, and psychologically, I was not in very good shape for a short period of time. And to make a long story short, I did some personal growth seminars in there, which are probably something like EST. They were the local version of them. And if there’s one thing that I learned from that, and it may only be one thing that I learned from that, it was that things don’t get put on a platter for you. You only get things by asking for them. And if you ask for something and you don’t get it, what’s the big deal? You ask for something else. I mean, it’s kind of—you create your own reality. And so, you take chances. And I know it does stem from that. And the chances that I took weren’t chances where I was going to lose my life or put my life on the line, but they were things where somebody could have said, “No.” And if you don’t take no very well, that’s not a good thing.
So, we started—somehow, we were doing workshops at AAPT. This was probably the early 1990s, I would imagine. I was a panelist at some NSF panel. The guy leading the panel was Frank Collea. He was also the director of the national Chautauqua program, giving short courses. It was an NSF grant sponsoring short courses at various locations. And I was somehow talking about what Ron and Priscilla and I were doing, and Frank, he looks at me and he says, “You know, David, you guys should do a Chautauqua course.” And I thought, “Okay.” And he’s in charge, and so I got back to Oregon, and I called him up, and I said, “Okay, Frank, when?” [laughs] And so we ended up scheduling a course. Turned out enrollment-wise not to be a very big success. It was at Cal State, Fullerton. But we did it. He came to it. He saw what we did. To make a long story short, those courses caught on.
And it got to the point where we were doing two or three every year, at various places, but mostly by that point at Oregon, or at Dickinson College. And then one day, I'm talking to Frank on the phone, and he says, “You know, we just sent a group to do a course in Hawaii.” And I said, “Frank, when are you going to send us?” [laughs] And he did. He sent us to Hawaii to do a course. And the same thing, we went to Puerto Rico to give a course. And then the big move, he said, “I'm sending some people to do a course in Australia.” And I said, “Okay, well, when are you going to send us to Australia?” And he arranged for us to go to Australia and do two five-day Active Learning in Physics courses, one in Sydney, one in Melbourne. Unfortunately, Frank passed away before we went. It was January 1999, and Ron and Priscilla and I traveled to Australia. I think it may have been my first big international trip. And, to make a long story short, our host in Melbourne was Alex Mazzolini, who was an engineering faculty member at Swinburne University. And he was a very gracious host, and he happened to be involved in something called the Asian Physics Education Network (ASPEN). They were sponsored by UNESCO. They were giving workshops in developing countries in the Far East—Laos, and so on. Vietnam. And after we did our five-day course in Melbourne—oh no, sorry!—for the five-day course in Melbourne, he said to me, “David, look”—and by the way, one thing about this, let me say, is that you can see I'm saying “we” but I was the organizer. If there’s anything that I do well, it’s organizing things. And neither Ron nor Priscilla, I'll say, is that great in that role. I took on that role.
And so, every one of these things—and even now, I'm the one who takes care of the details and makes sure—that may be my biggest talent, is being able to keep track of those things and balance a number of things at the same time. But in any case, Alex asked me, “Look, if you're coming to Melbourne for five days, how about you stay for two more days? I will fly in from Southeast Asia a dozen more faculty, and you spend two more days with them. Is that okay? Can you stay for two more days?” And it was one of these things I’d say “Two more days in Melbourne? Are you kidding me? Of course, I'm going to do that.” And so, we did. And that went very well. And it turns out that one of the people in that group was Minella Alarcon, who at that time was the UNESCO math and science specialist in Jakarta, Indonesia. So, she was in that workshop. And a couple months later, I get this message from Alex, and he says, “We're doing a workshop in Hanoi. Would you like to come?” [laughs] And he says, “Look, this is going to be a two-star hotel, maybe even a one-star hotel. Hanoi is a very undeveloped place. But it will be a good group of people to work with. It’s at the education university.” And I said, “Sure, are you kidding? Of course I'll come.” And I asked him later, “How come you picked me, out of the three of us?” Because he could have invited any one of us. He says, “You know, David, of the three of you, I thought you were the only one who would take me up on it.” [laughs]
“So when I told you there was a one-star hotel”—and so on. Anyway, so that was the beginning of the international thing because we did that. Quite frankly [laughs], I'll tell you an anecdote. You tell me when I'm giving you too many anecdotes.
No, this is great. Please.
Okay, because this is fun. And this is also fun because it kind of goes full circle, because I think I told you that one of the—or maybe I didn't yet—but one of the things that I'm working on right as we speak is doing a virtual Active Learning in Optics and Photonics (ALOP) workshop in Hanoi, for part of the 3rd World Conference on Physics Education, which is in December. And that literally just started two days ago, that I started to inquire about whether we could actually do this. But anyway, so this really kind of all started in Hanoi in 1999. The guy who I'm communicating with right now about doing this virtual one, and the guy who’s the contact for the World Conference, was in my workshop, in Hanoi, in 1999, he was one of the participants. I only found this out 20 years later. So, he was there, for the very first international thing that I did, and now we've been negotiating actually, for two years now, to do a workshop there (in conjunction with WCPE 3), which was not possible because of the pandemic, but hopefully at least it will happen virtually. Anyway, I'll tell you this story, and it has to do really kind of with Alex, because he has been one of my real mentors on how to communicate active learning to teachers in developing countries, who are by and large trained in the totally traditional way of lecturing, and don’t have any resources to do any of this. But let me get back to this 1999 workshop in Hanoi. We agreed that even though it was not conceivable that any of the participants in this workshop would have computers and computer-based tools to work with at any time in the foreseeable future, that it was worth showing them what was possible, and doing some computer-based things with them, at the beginning. So, we set up to do that, and I was the first presenter, and I gave kind of—of course, I was presenting in English, with a translator—I gave probably the canned introduction to active learning that I had given many times by then at AAPT workshops, with the computer-based stuff, and so on and so forth. And I get done, and [laughs] I sit down, and I sit down next to Alex. And Alex turns to me, he looks at me, and he says, “They have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.” [laughs] It was just kind of like Arnold Arons, but Alex is a much nicer guy. [laughs] And I understood that this was not reachable by them.
And then I was able to observe the way that Alex behaved in front of this group, how he brought himself to the level where they were. What was their knowledge? What were they used to doing? Because I had no idea. I should have done my homework, but I didn't. And I learned. I learned how you could do this with people whose experience was to be lectured to. And that was it—to have 100 students in a classroom, and that’s what you do; you lecture. You just write it on a board. How do you bring them to the point where they can do something other than that? And, by the way, of course it is that they have to do it. And if they're not doing it—because for them, it’s a totally new experience, for many of them. If they're not sitting there and making predictions and thinking about the experiments they're going to do, and then actually doing the experiments with very simple apparatus, they cannot appreciate, number one, how this method of learning works, and number two, how it could be a better thing to do with their students. And number three, that they could actually do it. Because the equipment that we use is, by and large, very simple stuff. So that was my first experience with that. It went on that ASPEN, Asian Physics Education Network, continued to sponsor workshops, and I did maybe a couple more.
I remember I went to Sri Lanka next, of all places. I probably didn't know where Sri Lanka was. I remember always getting malaria shots anywhere I went. And I went to Chonju, Korea. Two summers, we got invited to do workshops there. Ron, Priscilla, and I went to Korea, under the same auspices, Asian Physics Education Network. And then out of a clear blue sky, I get this contact from Alex, and he says, “Minella”—or maybe it was from Minella—Minella Alarcon from UNESCO—Minella Alarcon had moved to Paris. She was now at UNESCO Paris. And she was the science and math specialist. And she wanted Alex and me to come to Paris and spend five days there, consulting with her at UNESCO. And this is another one of these things; it’s like somebody saying, “Hey, come to Paris and consult for five days;” is that a no-brainer or what? So we went, and during this, we were talking a lot about what ASPEN was doing, which I had only been a little bit involved in. And then she starts talking about this new program called Active Learning in Optics and Photonics. And I said—again, it’s the serendipity and chutzpah thing—so serendipity in that my field is optics. I've worked at a science center developing optics magic tricks as part of what I did. I've been doing active learning for 15 years now. And Minella says, “Well, we've got this new program, which I thought you might be interested in. We're going to go to developing countries in Africa and do an active learning workshop for five days, and it’s going to be on optics. And what we need is very simple stuff that we can do with inexpensive equipment.” And the remarkable thing about this is that the people who wanted this in the first place were people who didn't really know anything about active learning. But they knew they wanted something—they wanted to do something for humanity and for students, but they had no understanding of active learning, really, except for Minella, who did, and Alex, who was also involved in it from the beginning.
And so, they developed this thing, and I got involved in it, and I knew immediately what I wanted to do in there. There’s a whole manual—I think maybe I sent you—I'm sure I sent you the link to that—there’s a whole Active Learning in Optics and Photonics training manual. It’s translated into several languages. It has all the activities in there. I served as the editor. And I wrote the one on geometrical optics. And part of it is these magic tricks that I had—some of them I developed myself; some of them, others had developed. In any case, I became part of that team. I said, “Look, yeah, I’d love to do that.” And the rest is history because not only has it been this incredible experience—I counted; it’s like 1,200 faculty in developing countries who we hope but can’t know, because communication has always been poor, what they continue to do. We know of some examples where we know they continued to do it. But 1,200 at least faculty who have been introduced to active learning in very, very remote, developing places.
So, it’s remarkable, and Minella kept the program working until she retired. And now, for a number of years, it has been directed by Joe Niemela, who is a physics person at ICTP, Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, in Trieste. By the way, I'll just mention that, of course I haven't seen any of these people in at least a year and a half. Our last ALOP was in Pune, India in December 2019. But we had a whole team. There was originally a team of seven people, who wrote the training manual, each one doing a module on their specialty, and continued to do workshops. Some of us still do these workshops. When we were able to send a whole team, there would be five or six people, leaders, who went to a workshop. And these people are like a family to me, now. I've known these people for a long time. We had a Zoom call about a week ago. I organized it. I said, “You know, we need to talk, because we haven't seen each other.” And it was incredible, because we all had these wonderful experiences to relate, both in the workshops, and in the countries that we visited. But the remarkable thing is that there are people in developing countries in North Africa, for example, who do active learning more than the people in my department do it. Because they came to one of our first workshops, and they tried it, and they’ve even done workshops for other educators in their countries. Anyway, that was a longwinded answer.
No, that’s great. Just to foreshadow to your leadership at AAPT later on, in what ways were you taking on increasing positions of leadership or connectivity within the Society, leading up to 2007, 2008?
[laughs] Okay, I'm laughing because the answer to your question is probably that—I wasn’t. [laughs] Because I have to admit, my relationship with AAPT was a rocky one. Because I was really, really gung-ho on active learning. I really said, “This is the way we have to go. And people who don’t see this at all, or people who are behind the times and don’t know that this is going on, they need to be awakened.” And to a very great extent, AAPT was behind the times. They let us offer our workshops—I sometimes felt it was begrudging, that the leadership at AAPT was really behind the times, and they knew there was something here that they had to tolerate. This was before the Physics Education Research Conference was held. This was not developed by AAPT; it was developed by members who thought it was an important thing to do. There were sessions that were active learning, but there were a lot of sessions that were very traditional. So just like The Physics Teacher was a journal that was almost totally traditional. I mean, it was a good boy’s thing. “Oh, I did this the other day, and the students seemed to like it.” And that gets published in a journal. And here, Priscilla and Ron and me and McDermott and her group, they're starting to do stuff where they have real research evidence to show that these things are effective, and these other things are not. So why are these people still doing this other stuff? So, when we did workshops—doing workshops at an AAPT meeting was often an obstacle course that you negotiated. Because they would make some very—what I thought…what do I know?—were really strange decisions about the logistics of doing a workshop. So, there was friction. And again, I was the organizer. So, there was, I would say, significant friction between me and the powers that be at AAPT. Bernie Khoury who was the executive officer, and then Warren Hein.
David, I wonder how you might square that circle with winning the Millikan Award and that being basically the strongest AAPT seal of approval that one can obtain?
Yeah. So probably, it’s a testament to the fact that AAPT is run by its members and not by its leadership.
Aha, good point.
And, also, that the leadership came along. Let’s put it this way—by 2009, or I guess it’s 2007—by 2007, when I got the Millikan Award, the work that Ron, Priscilla, and I had done was published. It was used by a lot of people. It was well out there. There were a lot of publications about it. AAPT was doing a lot of active learning stuff, a lot more active learning stuff. Remember, those committees, the awards committee, is run by the members. It’s not run by the administration. I can’t remember who was president in 2007. Warren Hein was executive officer. Actually, at the time that I was first on the executive board, he was still the executive officer. Anyway, it was the membership that ran those things. And the only question—because I think I had accomplished enough by the time I got that Millikan Award, that it was fair that I was recognized for it. And the only question was, should we give the award to—is it okay to give the award to one of those three people? Because so much of what Ron and Priscilla and I did, we did together. And I'll say a little bit more about that, because really you couldn't ask for a better grouping of people, because we really did complement each other, in many, many ways. But for now, suffice it to say, Priscilla had already gotten the Millikan Award, and Ron and Priscilla had gotten some computer award. I don’t remember exactly what that was. And I think maybe Ron and I were both being considered for the Millikan Award. My understanding of the story is that the question was asked, “How can we give the award to one or the other of those?” And the argument was, “Well, Ron already got an award. Shouldn't David get an award?” So, I got the Millikan Award that year.
Did you see it more as like a lifetime achievement award, or were you being recognized for a particular area of research?
I think the Oersted Award is more of a lifetime thing, so that’s the one that I got a couple years ago. I think the Millikan Award…I think the statement is it recognizes some superlative contribution to physics education. So, it could be one contribution. It could be a continuing contribution. I think it’s a little bit vague on that. I think in my case, by 2007, I had done enough stuff that it could be either way. So, I think with Real-Time Physics and Interactive Lecture Demonstrations out there, and all the workshops and so on, I think it could be taken either way. And I don’t remember—I mean, the certificate would have used the language of the award, so yeah.
Just to dial back a few years, how did you get involved with UNESCO on the Active Learning in Optics and Photonics project?
So that’s what I was starting to tell you—there was this consultation in Paris. Minella talked about this project, and I had an interest in it, both from the active learning and the optics points of view, and I said, “I’d be really interested in this.” And she already knew me from the previous active learning workshops and decided that I could be involved, as one of the members of the team. So, I wasn’t a member of the group that originally had the idea to create an optics workshop of some sort, but when it came to actually developing the curriculum for that five-day workshop, I ended up being the editor of the training manual. So, all of the contributions to the training manual filtered through me. So, if you want to blame somebody for the style of what’s in that manual, it falls on me. But the amazing ideas of the activities to do came from the individuals. So, fortunately for me, she invited me to be part of the team. There’s another funny thing about that, and that is that while I was there in Paris, she said, “David, there’s two people involved in this project who you know very well, and you know from the University of Oregon.” Which of course is a totally off-the-wall thing, that there could be two people from the University of Oregon who I know somehow related to active learning. Well, it turns out that because—so this program developed at ICTP—one of the physicists at ICTP was Joe Niemala, who I mentioned to you is now the director of ALOP. He’s actually retired now, but he continues to direct it. He was involved in the development of ALOP, way back at the beginning, when they had their first meetings at ICTP. He had been an undergraduate, graduate student, and postdoc at University of Oregon. So, I had known him already for 12, 15 years, and his thesis advisor, his office was right next door to mine, so I knew Joe for many, many years. He had been gone from Oregon for a while.
And then this other guy, Vengu Lakshminarayanan, who’s a very well-known optics guy who’s at University of Waterloo and has been for many years—he’s a theoretical guy—he was one of the original people at ICTP who was involved with starting the project. And I had known him—he was a graduate student for one year at University of Oregon, and as associate department head, I was in charge of all the teaching assistants, and he was one of my teaching assistants, back in 1979. So [laughs] I knew two people on this project, so how could I not be involved in this project? And the rest is history. Like I said, 37 of these workshops to 1,200 or more people. And especially the places where we went, quite remarkable places to do active learning. And how many people do you know who have been to Zanzibar, Addis Ababa, Kigali (Rwanda) and Réduit (Mauritius)?
I didn't quite finish your question about how I built up my presence in AAPT. So just very quickly, I didn't, I don’t think, that I recall. In fact, I may have done exactly the opposite. But at some point, a colleague of mine at University of Oregon I think essentially said to me, because he was annoyed also by something that they had done—his name is Stan Micklavzina, and he’s one of the famous demo guys from AAPT, who did many, many workshops all over the place, and at AAPT. And he was annoyed about something, and he said to me probably in 2006, “Why don’t you run for president of AAPT? I'll nominate you.” So, it was one of these totally bizarre things. Because it wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do, but it was like, if we're complaining about the way they're doing things, then don’t we owe it to them to become an officer? And I did. So, I ran for vice president, and I got elected. I really knew nothing about the administrative structure of AAPT. So, you know that there’s the officer chain, and it was the third year that I was president. By the time I became president, I kind of knew what was going on. And it turned out that Warren Hein had been executive officer but was ready to retire. Bo Hammer, who you probably know. Do you know Bo Hammer?
Sure, of course.
Bo Hammer, who had left APS, and I think he had been working at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and he had joined AAPT as associate executive officer. He was the very likely candidate to become executive officer of AAPT. And Beth Cunningham came out of nowhere. She was selected by the hiring committee. So, she took over as executive officer at exactly the same time as I took over as president. And Bob Hillborn became associate executive officer. All three changes at the same time. And, at the same time, we were running out of money [laughs] and in very bad shape financially. This was 2010, with the financial crisis still lingering. But I learned enough about the organization that I could—and I was organized and frugal enough that I think I did an okay job for a year as president. The organization didn't fall apart. And strangely enough, not long after, it started to thrive. But I won’t take any credit for that, because it has absolutely nothing to do with—it has much, much more to do with Beth than it does with me.
I wanted to ask an overall collaboration question about your writing. Given how much you have done with Priscilla Laws and Ron Thornton, what was the overall contribution of each of you intellectually to all of those projects? And for the book projects, the articles that you did solo, what was the decision-making there?
In a certain sense, Ron and Priscilla are kind of visionaries. I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I've been the much more practical person. Ron and Priscilla had a number of very, very forward-looking ideas. Priscilla at some point before they started collaborating was dabbling around in computer-based things. I think Priscilla was kind of a tech nerd, an early tech nerd. And she had an early project where she worked with Atari and actually made some kind of sensors for an Atari computer. And she got involved in that kind of stuff. And did she have a good sense for physics education at the time? Maybe not, I don’t know. But she was, like I said, kind of a techie. Ron, I got the sense he got tired of high-energy physics, and so he started doing these education projects. He started doing solar energy, and then he started working at TERC, where I think, mostly, he was writing very simple curriculum for middle-school kids. He may have been involved a little bit in developing sensors. Remember now, they were doing Apple II computers. TERC developed a little red box interface for an Apple II computer. I think that Bob Tinker was the visionary for that stuff. But Ron had this connection with what Tinker was doing.
And so, when it came to these rather forward-looking ideas about using computers in the classroom, they came out of those two people, and there was an electronics engineer (who had no knowledge whatsoever of physics) who they worked with, who developed a Macintosh/PC interface which eventually was marketed by Vernier Software and Technology, and so on. So, it was this strange synergy of two people who had a strange sense and were starting to understand the literature on physics education, and in addition had this tech background of one sort or another. And the story is that, at some point, they were working completely independently, didn't even know each other. But they each wrote grants to FIPSE, from the U.S. Department of Education—they both wrote grants independently, and the guy who would have been their project officer said, “Look, I'll fund both of you, but you have to work together.” And so, he introduced them to each other, and the rest is history, because they worked together on projects. Priscilla incorporated things that Ron was doing into her stuff. Ron incorporated stuff that she was doing. And then eventually, right about the same time that they started working together, I got involved with Ron, in the way that I said—that I heard him at a talk at an AAPT or AAAS meeting, and I asked if I could work on a project with him, and I went to Cal Poly, and he had some money to fly me out to Tufts, and that’s how that all developed. And so then eventually I got involved with both of them.
Then we started doing workshops. So, I never worked on developing Workshop Physics, but there are things in Workshop Physics that came out of what Ron and I were doing. When you come to Real-Time Physics—by the way, one day, Priscilla said, “You know, we should develop something—there’s a need out there for something that can be used in more traditional environments.” Because Workshop Physics was inherently a curriculum for small classes. It rested on the idea that you had small groups of students working in a studio. And it was not going to be adopted by a place like my university. What my university needed was perhaps a lab curriculum, which they could use to replace their traditional lab curriculum. And so, we agreed, “Yeah, we need to do something like that.” And Priscilla said, “If we develop something like that, that’s going to be the big seller. When Wiley is selling books, that’s the one that they're going to love.” And so, we agreed we need to do something like that.
And I became—[laughs] again by default, I think—I became the principal author of RealTime Physics. And we had a contract with Wiley. There was some NSF grant involved, as I recall. And I recall the Maine AAPT meeting, the one in Orono, Maine, that the project for writing RealTime Physics started. I had just gotten married again. [laughs] I was traveling to Orono for the AAPT meeting. When the AAPT meeting was over, I was spending my honeymoon in Acadia National Park. But, during the time that I was at the AAPT meeting, I was absolutely working my butt off; when I was free, I was starting to write RealTime Physics. And quite frankly I think there’s not a word in RealTime Physics that didn't come from my pen. But there’s an awful lot in there in some of the modules that came almost directly from, originally from, Workshop Physics. The computer-based lab exercises came from the things that Ron and I worked on. And that’s it. So that’s how we became a team.
But really the first time the three of us became a team was doing Chautauqua courses and other outreach courses. Because I got invited—maybe the second summer that I was working with Ron, I got invited to go to Dickinson and be involved in Priscilla’s summer seminars, that's what she called them. At that point it was probably for every college faculty. And then we started doing those two-and-a-half-day Chautauqua courses. And from the beginning, it was the three of us doing those. You asked me about individual projects. And probably ALOP is one of the first projects that I was involved in, and it wasn’t an individual project of my own, but it was a project that I was involved in without Ron and Priscilla, at all. They've never been involved in that. Although I'll say that a number of the ideas that are in that ALOP training manual come from RealTime Physics and from Interactive Lecture Demonstrations. And the whole basis of Active Learning in Optics and Photonics comes from Interactive Lecture Demonstrations. So that comes from them, but they've never been involved in that project. And then I was involved in a project right before the pandemic, developing Real-Time Physics for the IOLab, the little self-contained computer-based device. And that I did with two people from Portland State University, and Chemeketa Community College up in Portland, which didn't involve them. And then the most recent thing—I think I said I’d tell you a little bit about it—is these online, Home-Adapted Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, and I did that whole project myself, under duress with the pandemic and trying to do something that people could use.
How did you get involved as rep to the U.S. Liaison Committee for the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics? It’s a mouthful. I'm very curious how that all came together and how that might have broadened your perspective, taking a global view.
Sure, and there’s two parts of that, because I've also been the—I think it’s officially the AAPT representative to the International Commission on Physics Education, which is Commission C14 of IUPAP.
Now, those are separate? They're connected?
Those are separate. Because—maybe you only said one of them. So, there’s this thing called the Liaison Committee, the U.S. Liaison Committee for IUPAP. And then there’s this Commission. The U.S. Liaison Committee is a committee that ostensibly looks over how IUPAP spends the United States money it receives. And IUPAP is this international body for physics around the world, and it has 20 commissions, one for each area of physics. And USLC, it has a meeting once a year, and now it’s a virtual meeting. And I am the AAPT representative to that. And I got on that because I was just finishing my term as president of AAPT, I believe, and they needed somebody to be their representative. And I was interested because it was an international thing. And I'll just say that that committee is interesting to me because I learn things about visas and the problems with getting visas, and I hear about that, and I hear about projects that are going on all over the world, but I never have really felt like I had to represent AAPT there, because it’s not really a decision-making body. I suppose I could raise an objection to something if I thought they were doing something wrong. But to me, it’s more—it’s interesting.
The other one, the International Commission on Physics Education, I actively sought. And because I was so involved in international physics education and because I knew of the meetings that they sponsored—they sponsor a meeting every year—I knew the president of that commission—Hideki, no Hideo Nitta—it’s a funny thing how names are the hardest thing when you get old. Anyway, I had gone to the international meetings they sponsored. I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do, even if just to be on the Commission that was sponsoring these international meetings. So, I actively sought this. And Beth Cunningham nominated me, and I got elected to it, three years ago. Let's just say that I have been disappointed with how little we have accomplished. I've just been re-elected to a second three-year term, and I hope we will accomplish more. It's nice, though, because I meet with this international team of people, and they're all very interesting to work with. And they're the same people who I would meet with at international meetings. And ICPE does publish books of proceedings. And they published some nice books about active learning, and I'm involved in writing a chapter for this one. So, I don’t know, IUPAP—I guess I think IUPAP—if only for getting people from the developing countries together for scientific meetings, they do something good, because that’s a very good thing. And I'm a firm believer that that’s very, very, very important, especially in this day and age when science seems to be on the outs, in some very important places. So, as I said, if you asked what was the physical thing for getting on the Commission, Beth nominated me, and she nominated me again for reappointment. And I'm elected by that other commission, USLC. That’s the one thing I know they do, is they elect the members of these commissions, all of them, all 20 of them.
David, when you had the opportunity to reflect over your career when you won the Oersted Medal, you indicated in the address or in the paper that you've had the ability to see the way some of your ideas have gained traction in physics education, not only in the United States but around the world, with regard to active dissemination and active learning. So, my question there is, over the course of those many decades, what were the feedback mechanisms? How did you know that these ideas were gaining traction? And how has that influenced more broadly physics education generally?
That’s the hardest thing, because for many of these workshops, many of these ALOP workshops—I mean, let’s start with domestic. That’s an easy one. Because the domestic workshops, first of all, you do a workshop, you've got 20 people there, it’s relatively easy to get feedback. First of all, did they get anything out of the workshop, and secondly, did they do any of this stuff? Because you can see whether they adopted books. You can ask them and get responses from people—“Have you changed the way you teach?” And when you see these people again at AAPT meetings. So, you definitely get some feedback as to what people are doing, and have they changed the way they look at teaching. And I’d say, to me, the biggest change would be that people recognize that they have to pay attention to what their students are thinking. It’s not the computer-based tools. It’s not Real-Time Physics. It’s not Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, although those two things are validated, and we know they do work. And if you adopt them or adapt them, you're going to get better results on student learning. But it’s first of all recognizing that you have to pay attention to what your students are learning, and what they're thinking. And the more people who have become adapted to that, the better things are. And that…you can see that during a workshop in a developing country, because you see the number of people who are willing to stretch themselves to do this. Because you have to think, what kind of a stretch is this?
By the way, more recently, when we go and do a workshop at AAPT, and we always ask at the beginning of the workshop—we spend about a half an hour to have each person introduce him or herself and explain why they're taking this workshop—more recently, when you do that, two thirds of the people will say, “Oh, I've read all this stuff about active learning, and I want to learn how to do it.” It’s not anymore, “Oh, I’d like to see how to teach better.” It’s like, “I know there’s a way out there to teach better. I want to learn how to do it.” Or they might say, “I want to learn how to introduce computers in my classroom.” So that’s changed. So, we know that’s very different. There’re fewer and fewer people who have no clue about the fact that lecturing is not an effective way to teach introductory physics. So that’s part of it. Again, when you get to the developing country things, you see it in the workshop. Because for most of those people, it is so much bigger of a stretch. Because they have never seen this. I mean, by and large, they've been taught by the British or some other such method, and they are used to having their students be just sitting there as a captive audience. I'll just say that when you see, in the workshop, that they are willing to go along with what we're doing, and by the end of the workshop actually be entertained by it and do it well, where they actually have to make predictions and explain things, it makes you think that there’s a possibility that they're going to do this.
But furthermore, we have a few experiences where this went further than that. So, for example, especially in North Africa—and sure, you can say that’s an easier sell than most other places, but still, the teaching there was very traditional. And the people in Tunisia and in Morocco really ran with this. And although it’s still hard to keep up with what they're doing now, and we've certainly lost touch, there were people in—first of all, there were people from there who are still involved in our project. But there were people there who were definitely doing this stuff in their teaching. And there was a whole high school training program based on ALOP that occurred in Morocco for several years in about the early to mid—2000-teens, that I was involved in. And the teacher trainers—they call them inspectors—were very, very interested in this. Now, it’s hard to keep these things up, because you're not there. And whether they continued, I don’t know. And recently, there has been a project with Organization of American States, where we did an ALOP workshop, a full-blown ALOP workshop in Lima, Peru, in August of 2019 for secondary teachers from all over Latin America and the Caribbean. So, not far before the pandemic. And they had mechanisms for follow-up on what these people did. Unfortunately, the pandemic came along, and so the prospect of them implementing what was an in-person active learning strategy during the pandemic is not good. And I haven't kept up with what went on this year. We in fact were supposed to do an ALOP in Jamaica, as part of that, as an outshoot of that, and that ended up being cancelled. So, it has come time, probably, where I need to follow up, besides following up with Hanoi and seeing if we can do something there, is to follow up with OAS, with the person there, and to see where that has gone. Probably it hasn’t gone, because it’s just been a bad time to be trying to do that. So that’s the best I can do.
We got up to 2020. We talked about your current interests right at the beginning of our talk. So, for the last part of our discussion, I’d like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. One I'm curious about is the most effective ways you have found interacting with the students themselves. Because obviously that’s going to be your most important dataset for knowing what’s working and what’s not. So how have you interacted both with American students and international students to get their perspective on what works and what doesn't in physics education research?
First of all, if you're talking about working with students, which by the way in an ALOP workshop, our real goal is to treat the participants in the workshop as if they were students in an introductory physics course. Because we want them to have that full experience. We want to model for them what the experience should be like in their classrooms. So, if I go around to a student—so let me say, then, that from the very beginning of my teaching career, I had this innate sense not to go around to students and tell them anything. That when I was in a situation where the students had a way of observing something, or had some information to think about something, to contemplate something, it was my job to ask them pointed questions, to be Socratic, and never be the lecturer. Never be the expert. I knew, inherently, unless they thought about things, they weren’t going to learn them. And that has been borne out by much, much research, and maybe it’s inherently obvious, I don’t know. So, I've never taught—well, I should never say “never”—do I really remember what I did when I first started teaching? Probably not. But now I react violently to a teaching assistant in a lab situation explaining the physics to a student. And to me it’s the foremost message that I want to get across when I teach a workshop. The message I want to get across, if nothing else, is “Don’t ever explain anything to anybody.” Because it might take a little bit more time, but if you ask the right question, and if you happen to have computer-based stuff or simple activities that you do, you have that to appeal to, and you can ask students a question about that, or a few questions about that, or ask them questions about the graph that appeared on the screen when they walked. Then they will figure it out. Mostly, they will. And if they figure it out, they have learned it. And if you just tell them, they haven't learned it. And the thing I always tell graduate students is, look—and faculty as well—look, part of the reason we went into this racket is because we love explaining things. It gives us pleasure. It may not be a selfish thing; it may not be, “Look, I know it and you don’t.” Ron Thornton used to always like to talk about Mr. Wizard. Do you remember Don Herbert?
Yeah, sure, I remember.
And if you go back and look at Don Herbert, which I've done occasionally, it’s more or less that he’s saying, “I know it and you don’t, so here it is.” And we try to get away from ever doing that. Because if you do that, you're putting yourself up on the podium, and you're making students think, well, they could never be like that. And if you can somehow set up a situation where they can observe something in an understandable enough way—and that’s the beauty of computer-based labs—if they can see something and understand it enough that you can ask them questions, whether you're physically there asking them questions or it’s a question in the book, or it’s a question online in these Home-Adapted ILDs, and they have to appeal to what they observe to answer that question, the chances are much, much greater that they're going to learn from it. So that to me is the fundamental lesson. And you can get people from any culture that I've worked with, to appreciate that. Will they do it? No, it’s harder for some. There’s no question that—my experience in Asian cultures, it’s much harder to get them to volunteer something. They keep things kind of close to their chests, by and large. But you can get them to do it. In African cultures, it's much easier. Will they do it with their students? I don’t know, but I have this colleague in Japan who for some strange reason keeps inviting me back to do things. She invited me to spend two weeks, or maybe it was a week, in her home city, Niigata, to give workshops to her university and another university. And then, she invited me to do a Fulbright! The second Fulbright that I did, the one in Japan—the first was in Argentina in 2011—it was her doing. And I came back, and for two weeks, I was in Japan doing workshops at three different universities. And now, she has just invited me to do a virtual keynote in October which she says is going to be the first-ever Japan Society for Science Education (JSSE) conference conducted in English! I'm going to do a half-hour thing online. And if no one else, she certainly has a firm interest, and there are people who keep returning to the things that I do because I keep seeing people over and over again. So, clearly, they have a feeling for the importance of this. And does it take a while for it to get implemented? I don’t know. I know she has implemented it. I know some of the people in the workshops I've done have. I should be better at keeping up with them to find out exactly what they've done. But during COVID, I was reluctant to ask people what they were doing. Maybe now that we're back again, I will do a better job of that.
David, it has been humorous to hear your perspective on this insider/outsider status within the physics pedagogy community over your career. As an Oersted and a Millikan Award winner, it would seem at least on the surface that you would be the ultimate insider in that regard. My question is, what about the broader world of physics educators? Not those who are scholars of physics education but are actually doing physics education. They're in the classrooms in the high schools, in the classrooms in college. What interaction have you had with them about the impact of your ideas on the way that they teach physics to students?
Well, we're talking about teachers who are in the classroom. So, you know that really the main impact, the main direction of my career since I officially retired, which means I stopped teaching students—so for the last 15 years, let’s say—those have been the people who I have interacted with. And on the one hand, it’s refreshing, that many of those people are familiar, at least partly, with the literature, and they understand that going into the classroom and just lecturing is not the thing they want to do, and they want to try to do other things, and they're willing to try to attend workshops. They may not have support within their institutions, although there’s more and more support for this. By the way, it’s interesting—even at my university, which I consider to be a fairly traditional institution, there’s some push from the higher administration that we need to be doing more active stuff for undergraduates. This is only fairly recent that this has happened, so that’s fairly refreshing. Not necessarily from the physics people, but from the administration. So, I think that makes for more interest in the physics department. But to me again, the lesson at this point is, there’s so much stuff out there that has been developed and that has been research-validated that for a new faculty member, for example, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be able to make your classroom an active place, a place where students actually are learning from their experiences, actually are actively thinking about things. And if you do that, the chances are that your students are going to be learning much, much more and coming away with a much better understanding of physics than if you persist in doing what’s traditional. There’re still people out there who are doing traditional stuff. I'm kind of floored when I find somebody like that in one of our workshops. I've learned over the years to be much more tolerant of people, partly because my partner, Christine, is an early childhood educator. She’s also retired after many, many years, of working with early childhood teachers. And she’s much more understanding and receptive than I could ever be. But she lets me know what that’s like, and I learn from it. So that’s another synergistic part of this.
David, it’s a buzzword for good reason, but I wonder if you've ever reflected on the importance of inclusivity in your motivations in physics education. Inclusivity, by which I mean, as you referred to with the Mr. Wizard reference, that physics is understandable. That people from diverse backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, that this stuff can be understood, it can be attainable by them. I wonder what motivations or satisfactions you've had in making physics more accessible to a broader swath of people, again both at home and around the world.
Sure. And clearly this has not been the emphasis of what Priscilla, Ron, and I have done. And if you look at the studies that we did early on when we were developing stuff, and the evidence that students were learning better by doing things in this way, there was certainly evidence that there was no gender bias—or I have to be careful how I say this, because even that has changed and broadened its meaning so much. Let me say it a different way—that women and men were affected advantageously by this style of learning, equally—Workshop Physics, Real-Time Physics. Any data that we had showed that very, very clearly. But have we had opportunities ourselves to study the broader impact, or tried to change things in the environments that we've worked in? No. And a lot of that whole business has come after I've been no longer actively involved in the classroom. I see a lot of things on inclusivity happening in discussions in my department, when I go online and read their discussions, that I would not have recognized 15 years ago. And even the fact that the people who are in my department now, who I don’t know, because they've come on since I retired, have ideas and thoughts and wishes that I never would have recognized in the department I was in 15 years ago. So, I see those things as very positive things. But the question you asked me is, is active learning more inclusive? I can’t see any way that it isn’t, and everything we know about it says that when you allow students to express what their thoughts are in a protected environment, in an environment where—by the way, one of the things we make absolutely sure that everybody understands—everybody who is going to do active learning of this style has to understand from the beginning that a prediction has to be treated in a very special way. Students have to understand that they are in an environment where they can say whatever they want, where they can say whatever they believe about physics. They can say the most off-the-wall thing, and nobody is going to honk a horn or buzz a buzzer or say, “Boy, you were stupid to say that.” We are very careful to be receptive of everybody’s ideas. And that’s a very, very important thing for active learning.
And even when we ask students to make their own prediction, and then have them go into a small group to discuss it, and then we ask for volunteers to say what the prediction is, we are very, very careful to make sure that the prediction that they're sharing with the whole group is the prediction of their small group, and not their own prediction. That there’s no onus attached to sharing the thing that—not to mention that the group itself should be safe, that they can say what they believe and not have somebody laughing at them. But we want to, on top of that, say, “It’s not your prediction. It’s your group’s prediction. That’s what you agreed on. And the basis for that prediction was the physical environment where you found yourselves and an observation that you made of that.” If you have students able to do that, then the chances are that they are in a place where they can learn from the observations they made. And then it’s your job to guide them to learn from that. It’s not your job to tell them. And it might be your job in the end to summarize what they said. Because I often, in an Interactive Lecture Demonstration situation, will finish up the demonstration by saying, “Oh, Mary over there, I think Mary said this. And yes, in fact that’s what Newton’s second law would say.” But I'm not going to say, “Well, I know that Newton’s second law says this, so you should know that, too.” That kind of thing. So, whereas I don’t have the experience to comment on inclusivity—and there’s a big part of me that is really very glad that I didn't have to deal with those issues in the classroom, just like I'm glad I didn't have to deal with COVID in the classroom; I consider myself very lucky for that—I have to think that these things that people have been working on have the potential for being very inclusive, remarkably inclusive.
David, last question, to tie it all together—past, present, and future. You've indicated in several places, including during our discussion, that chutzpah, which we might translate as nerve or gumption, has played an important role in your research agenda and the impact of your ideas. Why? Why does the world need a little bit of chutzpah so that these ideas are embraced?
[laughs] It might be that the operative words should be “a little bit of chutzpah.”
Just to be careful about that. Well, look, I can only speak from my own personal experience, and we all draw from our experiences. Certainly, I grew up as a person who was fairly passive, introspective. And the thing is, everybody has ideas. Whether your ideas are good or bad will only play out if they're implemented in some way, or if people agree with you that they're good or bad, the powers that be. They will never be tested if you keep them to yourself. Your ideas will never, ever be tested. And for the longest time, I just never expressed my ideas. At some point, I believed that—I understood the idea that nobody was going to ever come to me and say, “Oh, what do you think about this?” Some people occasionally do, but—so if you have ideas about things, especially if they conflict with what people are doing, you have to express them. And that’s the way that you can have an influence on the world. Otherwise, you can’t. And maybe if it ends up that you end up being just totally pushy and think that you're always right—and maybe some people think that about me; I don’t know—that might be a problem. But for me, it has been that if I think something is better, I am going to offer it. If somebody doesn't think it is and they give good arguments to me why it isn’t, I'm okay with that. I'm going to accept that. But nobody would ever have known if I didn't say it. So, it’s better to say it than to not say it. And the other part to that is, if what you say is wrong, even if it’s completely wrong, and it’s universally agreed on that it’s completely wrong, what’s the consequence to you? The consequence is much bigger if you had something that was right, and nobody ever heard it. So that’s kind of what I mean by chutzpah. It’s just having the nerve to share what you believe, because there’s some basis for what you believe. There’s some basis for what any student believes. Their prediction may be wrong, but it’s because they've misinterpreted the experiment that they saw when they were riding their bicycle. So, you want to make sure they have the nerve to say it. You want to make sure you encourage them to say it. Because that’s where you're going to learn. You have to make sure that every person has the nerve to say what they think. And really that’s what it’s about. And I would add that I also use the word chutzpah personally to mean having the nerve to seize opportunities, or even to create them by asking the right people to support me in what I want to do to advance physics education.
David, this has been a fantastic conversation. I'm so glad we were able to connect. Thank you so much for doing this.
Well, you're quite welcome, and David, thank you. It has been a great pleasure to me. I'm very happy.