Which SUS institutions lead on bachelors’ degrees in computer fields and engineering?

The numbers of bioscience bachelors’ degrees awarded by Florida State University System (SUS) institutions has exploded during the last decade, even though the economic power of these degrees is limited at best.  Meanwhile, the rates at which the system has awarded bachelors’ degrees in more lucrative STEM fields – computer, engineering and physical science fields – have stagnated or even declined.


An op-ed published in the August 10 issue of the Tallahassee Democrat (and reproduced here) and the above plot describe this situation in more detail.

Which of the SUS institutions are most responsible for these trends?

The University of Florida is the SUS institution that produces by far the largest number of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and biosciences.  The reason for this is not that UF awards the largest number of bachelors’ degrees in total – it doesn’t.  UCF, USF, and even FSU awarded more bachelors’ degrees in 2012-2013 than UF did.  Instead, the percentages of total UF bachelors’ degrees that are awarded in engineering and the biosciences are much larger than the corresponding percentages at other SUS institutions.


In 2012-2013, 12.2% of all UF bachelors’ degrees were awarded in engineering.  The nearest competitor in the SUS was UCF at 6.3%.


In the same year, biosciences accounted for 9.7% of all UF bachelors’ degrees, while USF ranked second in this category at 7.7%.

While the large percentage of engineering degrees awarded by UF has been fairly constant during the last decade, UF’s high rate of production of bioscience degrees is a recent phenomenon.


As recently as 2007-2008, only 3% of UF’s bachelors’ degrees were awarded in the biosciences.  That rate has more than tripled since then.

The above plot of UF bachelor’s degree production also shows another interesting result – the zeroing-out of the production of degrees in computer fields.  Most other SUS institutions award between 1.5% and 4% of their bachelors’ degrees in computer fields.

sus_computerUF has certainly not been alone in rapidly growing its bioscience bachelor’s degree production.  FGCU, FIU, FSU and UCF have also experienced rapid increases in the percentages of bachelors’ degrees they award in the biosciences.




ucfThe plot of bachelor’s degree production at FAMU shows another striking result – the collapse of the engineering degree pipeline at that institution.


In 2003-2004, 8.2% of the bachelors’ degrees awarded by FAMU were in engineering.  By 2012-2013 that rate had dropped to just 2.3%.  FAMU awards engineering degrees through the joint FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, which is presently the subject of a legislative study after an attempt to split the college during the 2014 session.

The statistics in this post come from the Interactive University Data page on the web site of the Florida Board of Governors.  The bioscience numbers are the totals for all bachelor’s degree programs under CIP code 26; for engineering, CIP code 14; for computer fields, CIP code 11; and for physical sciences, CIP code 40.





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Op-ed from the August 10 Tallahassee Democrat: “Reality Check on STEM Earnings”

The op-ed below was written by me and published in the Tallahassee Democrat on August 10.

If you’re a parent who is encouraging your kids to excel in science and math courses and nudging them toward careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, then here’s something you should know: Not all STEM careers are created equal.

Bachelor’s degree grads in the biosciences not only earn less than grads in other STEM fields on the average, but they also earn less than the average for non-STEM fields. Furthermore, the state’s educational system seems to be ignoring this economic reality by steering students toward the biosciences.

The number of bioscience bachelor’s degrees awarded by Florida’s public universities has exploded during the last 10 years, while the percentages of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the more lucrative engineering, computer and physical science fields have been flat or declining during the same period.

A report recently published by Temple University economist Doug Webber examined lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in a variety of majors.

His general conclusion — that professionals with bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields earn more on the average than those with bachelor’s degrees in other fields — is not a surprise.

But when Webber broke down the general category of STEM fields into four more specific categories — biology, computer science, engineering and physics — he found that bachelor’s degree graduates in biology have career earnings that are lower than the average earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in non-STEM fields.

After correcting for an “ability premium,” which accounts for fact that more talented individuals tend to earn more than less talented individuals with the same level of education, Webber found that bachelor’s degree graduates in non-STEM fields earn $2.36 million over a career, while the average for bachelor’s degree grads in STEM fields is $2.75 million. However, the average for bachelor’s degree grads in biology is only $2.17 million.

Career earnings for bachelor’s degree graduates in the other STEM fields examined by Webber are considerably higher. Adjusted for the ability premium, the career earnings for a graduate in computer science are $2.92 million; in physics, $3.02 million; and in engineering, $3.33 million, which is more than 50 percent greater than the earnings of a biology grad.

It’s important to mention that Webber’s analysis excluded those who earned postgraduate degrees. So an individual who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and then earned a medical degree is not included in the analysis. Nor is an individual who went on to earn a doctorate in engineering, physics or computer science.

But for parents and policy-makers who are interested in the economic power of a bachelor’s degree, the conclusion is clear: STEM bachelor’s degrees have widely different values.

Majoring in biology may be fine for a student who has plans to enter professional schools in medicine, physical therapy or other health professions. But by itself, a bachelor’s degree in biology does not offer many viable career paths. And it’s worth noting there are other routes to medical school — the highest average scores on the Medical College Admissions Test are earned by students majoring in economics, physics, biomedical engineering, mathematics and electrical engineering.

This is where there is a disconnect between education policy in Florida and economic reality.

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biosciences by Florida’s public universities exploded from 1,392 in 2003-2004 to 3,629 in 2012-2013.

That represents an increase from 3.13 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded by the State University System (SUS) in 2003-2004 to 5.84 percent in 2012-2013.

Meanwhile, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering was nearly flat — 5.34 percent in 2003-2004 and 5.42 percent in 2012-2013. The story was nearly the same in the physical sciences, in which 0.90 percent of grads earned their degrees in 2003-2004 and 1.14 percent in 2012-2013.

For computer fields, in which the state’s workforce needs are urgent, the picture is much worse. While 2.81 percent of SUS bachelor’s degrees grads were in computer fields in 2003-2004, by 2012-2013 that had declined to 1.74 percent.

This is not just a university problem — some of the blame must rest with Florida’s K-12 system. The only science course specifically required for high-school graduation in the state and assessed with a statewide end-of-course exam (and therefore counted in the state’s grading scheme for high schools) is biology. Physics — the high-school science course that provides the gateway to careers in engineering and the physical sciences — is not required even for the state’s new “Scholar” high-school diploma designation.

If you are the parent of a daughter, here is one more thing to keep in mind: Women earn about 60 prcent of the bachelor’s degrees awarded in biosciences in the SUS, but less than 20 percent of those awarded in computer fields, engineering and the physics. So for whatever reason, Florida’s girls and young women are being steered into the least lucrative STEM fields.

It’s clear that a refocusing of Florida’s STEM education effort is in order — at both the K-12 and university levels.

The state can start by ending the preference for high-school biology and adopting the Massachusetts model for graduation requirements in science: offering statewide end-of-course exams in biology, chemistry, physics and technology/engineering, and allowing a passing score on any one of those exams to satisfy the science exam requirement for graduation.

And the state’s Scholar diploma designation should be modified to require a complete set of science courses — biology, chemistry and physics — so that the state’s young scholars are equipped for any of the STEM career paths offered by the state’s universities, not just the least lucrative.

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American Physical Society’s Committee on Education calls on all states (including Florida!) to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards

Twelve states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards since their release in April 2013.  Florida is not yet among them.

With my two-year term as chair of the American Physical Society Committee on Education winding down, I thought it was a good time to repeat the committee’s statement on the Next Generation Science Standards.  It is unequivocal.

The American Physical Society Committee on Education has reviewed the sections pertaining to physics education and recommends the Next Generation Science Standards for adoption by states. The Committee further urges states to implement the necessary discipline-specific teacher professional development to enable all students to meet these standards.

The committee didn’t say that the standards needed modifications.  It said they are fine exactly as they are, at least in physics.

There were some objections to the physics standards from the Fordham Institute, which prior to that had been a trusted source of wisdom on science standards.  However, the institute’s position on the high school physics standards reflected a disconnect from reality on the part of their physics reviewer.

I’m still hoping that when it is safe for Florida’s science education community to talk about science – after the election – that the Next Generation Science Standards will be installed as they are.


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Arne Duncan and the art of flexibility

Arne Duncan convinced me to modify the syllabus for my university physics class.

On Thursday, US Secretary of Education Duncan announced that he will allow states that hold waivers from certain requirements of the No Child Left Behind Law – including Florida – to delay the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations by a year.    The announcement seemed to be a bolt from the blue – something that no one expected.  For years, Duncan had taken a hard line about measuring student learning gains using standardized tests and using the results to evaluate teachers.

Duncan’s statement even adopted some of the arguments made by his critics.  He said that testing has been “sucking oxygen out of the room” in many schools (a quote featured in the School Zone post on the statement.  Also see the New York Times article here ).

With the delay, Duncan sought to let some of the air out of the controversy surrounding the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.  No doubt the pause will lower the tension level and perhaps even allow a more reasoned discussion about teacher evaluations at the state level.

Which brings me to my course syllabus.

I give the students in my SCALE-UP introductory physics course a quiz every Friday – 14 quizzes for the semester.  Most of the other introductory physics courses do the same.  But most of my colleagues allow students to “drop” one of the quizzes each semester, so that only 13 count.  If a student misses a quiz, then that is the dropped quiz.  If not, then the lowest of the student’s scores on the 14 quizzes is dropped.  I did this for years, and learned that this policy didn’t eliminate student unhappiness.  If a student missed a quiz for a family trip or a university function that seemed more important than class (Model UN is my favorite example) then they would complain that it wasn’t “fair” that they didn’t get to drop the lowest quiz grade like the darn goody-two-shoes students who took all 14 quizzes and didn’t have well-rounded lives.  I finally threw up my hands and decided to require all 14 quizzes without exceptions – I figured that the student complaints couldn’t get any worse.

And they didn’t with the new policy.  But it turns out that the no-drop policy might have been more costly than I realized.  Students may not have complained any more often, but I’ve noticed a problem with classroom atmosphere – students seem more subdued than one might expect in a class specifically designed to empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.

So I’m looking for ways to improve my students’ sense of empowerment (short of allowing them to evaluate their own learning – that’s my job).  I’m going to restore the one-dropped-quiz policy that my colleagues generally use and that I used for so many years.  It’s important to understand what this will not do.  It will not improve student grades – I’m no slave to numerical scores and I take great care to understand what my students can do and not do.  It will not eliminate student complaints or even reduce them.  But it may give students an increased sense of empowerment in a small way, and I’ll be trying to discern whether this is the case or not.

And this is where Arne Duncan’s one-year reprieve comes in.  It’s only a one-year reprieve – and the controversial teacher-evaluation-by-testing requirement will still likely arrive a year later.   But Duncan is acknowledging the frustrations and concerns of many teachers and administrators by even adopting their language.  Perhaps that validation will help smooth the way a little.  And maybe the delay will ultimately lead to a more thoughtful approach for teacher evaluation, one that both policy-makers and teachers can accept.

But at least Duncan has demonstrated that he’s listening.  And that’s an important step forward all by itself.  I’m going to try to do better on that myself.

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Florida moving up on the ACT science exam (sort of): Now 47th, except…

Florida has moved up to 47th on the ACT science exam in the just-released 2014 state rankings (thank you to Leslie Postal for posting the news about. the release and a more general look at Florida’s performance on School Zone).  Florida students averaged 19.1 out of a possible 36 points on the exam, on which 23 is considered college-ready for science.  It is the highest ranking Florida has achieved (out of 50 states plus the District of Columbia) since I started paying attention in 2010.

Well, except the news isn’t quite as good as I’m making it out to be.  The three states below us (Mississippi, North Carolina and Hawaii) and the state tied with us for 47th (Louisiana) all had larger percentages of high school grads take the ACT than Florida did.  81% of Florida high school grads took the ACT, while 100% took the exam in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, where the test is required of all grads.  In Hawaii, 90% took the test. The margin between the average scores in Florida (19.1) and the two states tied for 49th at 18.9 – Mississippi and North Carolina – suggests that if all Florida high school grads had taken the test that our state would have slipped back to 50th place.

The ACT science results provide one more bit of evidence that learning science is not a priority in Florida’s K-12 schools.

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The engineering and physical science pipeline is badly broken, and the fix will require leadership from those professional communities. When will somebody step up?

Last week, I delivered a talk to the Nuclear Physics Town Meeting on Education and Innovation at Michigan State University.  It was a return to my professional “home” – the nuclear physics community – after stints with the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education (the last two years as Chair) and the Executive Committee of the society’s Forum on Education during the last four years.

I returned to plead for the leadership of the nuclear physics community in fixing something that’s badly broken – the engineering and physical science pipeline.  My talk documented what’s broken about the pipeline.  Despite the growing reliance of the national economy on technological innovation, the production of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics is flat over the last ten years as a percentage of total bachelor degree grads.  In fact, the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970.  Yes, you read that correctly – the absolute number of bachelors’ degrees in physics is about equal to what it was in 1970.  The percentage of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by women has been stuck at about 20% for a decade.  The percentages of bachelors’ degrees in engineering and physics earned by African-Americans is drifting downward under 5%.  The percentages of those degrees earned by Hispanics is not doing much better.

I argued using statistics from AP exams and physics course-taking in high school that these problems originate before college – somewhere in K-12.  I showed a group of 8th graders from Orlando Science School who were inducted into the Future Physicists of Florida in October of 2013, and observed that if we could get that group intact – with its large percentages of women (well, girls since they were in 8th grade) and minority students – into college engineering and physics programs that we would finally make significant progress in solving the fields’ diversity issues.  The target has to be middle school students, and we have to stay with these students while they are in high school.

I also pointed out that some nuclear physicists besides me are already engaged in similar efforts to reach out to middle and high school students, and argued for a nuclear physics community-wide effort to address the engineering and physical science pipeline.

Of course, if it had gone well I wouldn’t be writing this post.

Fragmented, one-off efforts of scattered individuals will not change the big picture.  Weak self-congratulatory organizations like Change the Equation don’t seem to be getting anywhere.  Nobody in the K-12 establishment really cares – people are too busy fighting about whether strong reading and math standards and assessments are good for their paychecks or egos.

So it’s up to the scientists and engineers themselves.  Someday, some segment of the science and engineering community will step up and make a powerful, coherent effort to address the issues I raised in the talk.

But as of today, nobody has.

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High school physics instruction takes great leap forward with arrival of new AP physics courses

The most important thing for a high school physics class to have is a great teacher.

But once you have that, the next thing to have is a great physics curriculum.  That curriculum – the new algebra-based AP physics courses – arrives this month in classrooms around Florida and the nation.  

The new courses, AP Physics 1 and 2, were developed by a group of physicists, high school physics teachers and physics education researchers.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are replacing AP Physics B, a single year-long course.  AP Physics 1 and 2 are each designed to take a year and will cover somewhat more physics content, making them a better match to algebra-based physics courses taught at the college level than AP Physics B had been.  In 2013, 5061 Florida high school students took the AP Physics B exam, scoring an average of 2.57 on the 5-point AP exam scale.

Furthermore, while AP Physics B was designed to be a second physics course – taken after an Honors Physics or standard Physics course – AP Physics 1 is intended to be a first physics course.  While taking the standard high school science sequence, Biology-Chemistry-Physics, some highly motivated students had faced a difficult decision for their junior year science course selection – whether to take an Honors Physics course or an AP Chemistry course that they believed (and were sometimes told by teachers and counselors) would look better on an application for a selective college.  The new AP physics courses eliminate this dilemma by making Honors Physics obsolete.  In fact, no high schools in Florida or elsewhere should be teaching Honors Physics this fall.

This quiet revolution in high school physics teaching has gone nearly unnoticed by the media.  The only story that has appeared in the Florida media is this from the Gainesville Sun that notes rather skeptically that AP Physics 1 will be taught to a small group of 8th graders in Alachua County this fall.  The journalist completely misses – and is probably unaware of – the importance of the new courses for a broader audience of Florida students.  In fact, about 20% of Florida high school students have been graduating with an Honors Physics or standard Physics course.  If all of those students take AP Physics 1 instead, then that will represent roughly a ten-fold increase over the number of students who have taken AP physics previously.    

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