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3 Questions with Frank Lock

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An AAPT high school physics photo contest entry by Isabel Marie Lavrov. Courtesy of American Association of Physics Teachers, High School Physics.

An AAPT high school physics photo contest entry by Isabel Marie Lavrov. Courtesy of American Association of Physics Teachers, High School Physics.

Photonics Media learned about STEP UP in April when the organization sent a press release. Physics ambassador Frank Lock explains how this NSF-funded organization is supporting high school-age girls and women who have an interest in the sciences, specifically physics. STEP UP stands for Supporting Teachers to Encourage the Pursuit of Undergraduate Physics.

What are the mission and goals of STEP UP, and how is it administratively structured to accomplish its goals?

STEP UP is a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is a collaboration of the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), and two research institutions: Florida International University (FIU) and Texas A&M University-Commerce (TAMUC). It is designed to mobilize thousands of high school physics teachers to reduce barriers and inspire young women to pursue physics degrees in college, through materials for high school classrooms that are freely available on our website ( We also strive to change deep-seated cultural views about who does physics.

These goals are partially achievable with materials created by STEP UP researchers. Research has shown that most women pursuing physics majors report they became interested in high school1. A high school physics teacher’s recognition of a young woman as being a “physics person” is a significant predictor for choosing a physics career. If each high school physics teacher in our communities can inspire at least one additional young woman to pursue physics each year, we would reach parity in bachelor’s attainment in physics.

The STEP UP organization has two parts, a project management team and an ambassador program coordinator. The project team is dispersed over four partner institutions and is composed of professional societies, researchers, project managers, and support staff. FIU and TAMUC lead the research, APS is responsible for recruiting teachers to the movement, and AAPT oversees the ambassador program.

The ambassador coordinator works with seven ambassador leads who support a key recruitment element of the project, our ambassador program. The second ambassador cohort began in March 2020 and comprises 80 teacher leaders.

Ambassadors are a group of STEP UP teachers and members committed to empowering fellow teachers to inspire young women to pursue physics. This is done through training and supported implementation of the STEP UP curriculum in classrooms around the country.

How many instructors are participating, and what types of materials has STEP UP provided? Do the materials encourage exposure to optics, lasers, or other photonics technologies?

For the 2020-2021 cohort of ambassadors, there are 85 instructors including the program coordinator and leads. In conjunction with the AAPT Summer Meeting, STEP UP holds a summit to prepare the instructors to present the curriculum to be used by the teachers recruited to the STEP UP program, and to use the curriculum in their classes. The materials consist of three sets of lessons: Careers in Physics, Women in Physics, and Everyday Actions. The professional development in which the teachers participate prepares them to use these lessons with their students. So far, the ambassador program and other recruitment efforts have brought an additional 950 high school teachers to the community of STEP UP supporters.

In their high school classes, students encounter concepts related to optics and lasers. Further exposure to photonics technologies depends on emphasis by the individual teachers. The portion of the STEP UP curriculum dealing with Careers in Physics provides information about careers related to photonics technology.

Do female students in other countries have better success rates? If so, what about the U.S. isn’t working and what needs to change?

The international context of women in physics is an important aspect to the STEP UP project, as we are hoping students will grapple with the societal factors that underlie stereotypically gendered professions such as physics. The graph is incorporated into our Women in Physics lesson and shows where the U.S. ranks in the number of women earning physics bachelor’s degrees compared with seven other countries: seventh of eight.

Percentage of undergraduate physics degrees awarded to women in various countries. Courtesy of IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics Proceedings (2005-2013)

Percentage of undergraduate physics degrees awarded to women in various countries. Courtesy of IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics Proceedings (2005-2013)

Data indicates that in high school classrooms in the U.S., nearly 50% of high school students enrolled in physics classes are women. In introductory college physics classes, enrollment by women drops to 20%. This data indicates that women in high school may not receive enough information about the variety of careers available to those having an undergraduate degree in physics, as well as the job satisfaction reported by women in careers in physics and related to physics.


Anne Kornahrens, the APS STEP UP project manager, contributed to the answers.


1. Z. Hazari et al. (Feb. 2017). The importance of high school physics teachers for female students’ physics identity and persistence. Phys Teach, Vol. 55, Issue 2, pp. 96-99,

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2020
STEP UPphysicsNational Science FoundationNSFAmerican Physical SocietyAPSAmerican Association of Physics TeachersAAPTFlorida International UniversityFIUTexas A&M University-CommerceTAMUC3 Questions

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