When did you first learn about the PSSC?
I kept hearing my mentor Bill Layton talking about the PSSC as a series of films and then later, a collection of labs that were really good. When Bill and I talk, we often make references to the source of an idea or teaching technique or lab, or even the physics argument that justifies a point. Over time, he kept referencing the PSSC. Finally, I asked him what it stood for.
What is the PSSC?
The Physical Science Study Committee.
After Sputnik, the American government decided it wanted to invest in its citizens’ knowledge in the physical sciences so that we could produce a generation that would close the science gap. The committee was formed to improve science education in America. As you probably already know, for many people, the science community included, Sputnik was a wake-up call, because the Russians sent the satellite into space before the Americans did.
In 1956, the PSSC was funded by the National Science Foundation, Henry Ford, and Alfred P. Sloan. Scientists and science educators from MIT and Cornell, among others, worked together to create a textbook, lab manual and resource for teachers, and also a series of films. At the time this program was implemented, my college Bill Layton, a professor at UCLA (retired), was teaching in Los Angeles and he used the PSSC curriculum in his classrooms. In his class, the lights would go off and the latest PSSC film would turn on.
How did the PSSC curriculum and resources make a difference for physics education in America?
Before this book, physics in schools was mostly about fixing a car and home maintenance repairs and sometimes, engineering. However, the PSSC gave physics educators set quality standards by introducing the modern subject matter of topics we teach today. Classical mechanics, as opposed to practical mechanics, started to be taught according to this program. Another example: the modern treatment of the atomic structure of matter.
Try your hand at one of the problems!
One of the contributions of the PSSC that I find most interesting is the justification of a concept by experimental evidence. Students learned about experiments that can be performed or performed the actual experiment that illustrates a physics concept.
For example, when the textbook discussed electric fields, and while many books have similar diagrams (see above), this textbook raised the bar.
Beside the diagram, on the facing page, photographs of electric fields are included (see above an image from the textbook). These electric fields were created by electrocuting grass seeds in oil. I did a similar experiment with lettuce seeds in vegetable oil on this video. Encouraged by the pictures I had seen in books, I created this electric field demonstrator.
Want to Learn More?
Link to a PSSC film about Coulomb’s Law downloaded from archive.org
At this website, where I have compiled collection of physics videos (aptly named physicsvideos.net) you can find “Frames of Reference,” one of the most well-known films produced by the PSSC.