Jones High School (Orlando) graduate and National Medal of Science winner Sylvester James “Jim” Gates has been elected to the American Physical Society’s Presidential Line. Members of the society’s Presidential Line rotate through four offices in four years. Gates will serve as Vice President in 2019, and he will then rotate through the offices of President-Elect, President and Past President.
While Gates’ enormous scientific achievements are the norm for APS Presidential Line officers, one aspect of Gates’ background will set him apart from previous members – his time on the Maryland State Board of Education.
Gates, now the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University, was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2011 for “contributions to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field, and string theories and extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.”
Born in 1950, Gates attended Jones High School while it was still segregated. He still returns to Jones each spring to award a scholarship to one of the high school’s students. He was inducted into the Orange County Public Schools Hall of Fame in 2017.
Gates was appointed to the Maryland State Board of Education in 2009. He was eventually elevated to the office of Board Vice President. But in 2017 Gates angrily resigned from the Board in protest of Governor Hogan’s executive order requiring that the state’s public K-12 schools not start classes until after Labor Day and finish the school year by June 15.
The APS has carefully limited its efforts in the K-12 arena to its (in collaboration with the American Association for Physics Teachers) PhysTEC teacher education program – which primarily interacts with higher education – and outreach efforts consisting of sending physics promotional materials to middle schools.
Even the society’s policy statement on K-12 education is cautious, saying only that
The American Physical Society calls upon local, state and federal policy makers, educators and schools to:
- Provide every student access to high-quality science instruction including physics and physical science concepts at all grade levels; and
- Provide the opportunity for all students to take at least one year of high-quality high school physics.
[As a member of the society’s Committee on Education (and chair in 2013-14) I shepherded this statement through the process. It was a lesson in concession and compromise.]
New Presidential Line member Gates certainly has the knowledge and influence to turn the society toward more involvement at the K-12 level. If he tries to do so, he will likely encounter some resistance from the society’s staff. However, Gates will be occupying a position of sufficient influence that if he wants to expand the society’s activity level in advocating for physics education in K-12 schools he will likely be able to do so. Whether he decides to do so remains to be seen.