The Teacher Salary Penalty in Computer Science, Math and the Physical Sciences – In Two Graphs

The nation needs more strong secondary teachers in computer science, math and science, particularly in physics.  But we will not successfully address this severe shortage until we address the salary penalty that young people in these fields pay for choosing a teaching career over other options.

How big is that penalty?  The graphs below provide an answer.  The first is a plot of average salaries for recent college graduates with computer science, math and physical science graduates from

The second plot is of average starting teacher salaries from 2012-2013, listed by state, courtesy of the NEA (and thank you to the APS’s Monica Plisch for pointing these out).

There are always some who dispute the idea that the low salaries we pay middle and high school teachers discourage students from choosing these fields.  Such folks would look at the plots below and ask, “If salaries were really that important in convincing students to choose teaching careers, then New Jersey would be cranking out lots of physics teachers!”  Well, yes.  During the period 2009-2012, New Jersey colleges and universities graduated an average of 162 bachelors’ degrees in physics per year.  In 2011-2012, New Jersey graduated 31 students with physics bachelors’ degrees from its teacher education programs.  In other words, about 19% of New Jersey’s new bachelors’ degree grads in physics went into secondary teaching in 2011-2012.  Compare that to Florida, where five (yes, 5) students with physics bachelors’ degrees graduated from teacher education programs in 2011-2012.  Colleges and universities in Florida graduated an average of 199 bachelors’ degrees in physics per year from 2009-2012.  So about 3% of Florida’s new bachelors’ degree grads in physics went into secondary teaching in 2011-2012.  QED. (All the statistics in this paragraph were gathered by Monica)

We can talk all we like about the satisfaction of a teaching career.  But for a talented young person who wants to start a family, there is no substitute for a good salary.




Posted in Uncategorized

Undergraduate and Graduate Student Research in Physics at FSU – A Power Point Primer

Download this power point presentation from last week’s FSU Induction Ceremony for the Future Physicists of Florida, turn on the slide show, sit back and watch.



Posted in Uncategorized

The new AP Engineering course will be useful only if it is integrated into a program that includes AP Calculus and AP Physics

Engineering, computer science and physics majors consistently dominate rankings of salaries earned by recent college graduates (for example, see “The Economic Guide To Picking A College Major” posted on on September 12 of this year). Recently, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) has been organizing a Congressional effort to urge the National Science Foundation to continue its efforts to promote Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Computer Science and Engineering. The AP Computer Science course has been offered by the College Board for many years. Few students have been taking it, although a recent campaign by an organization called to promote computer science education, and specifically to promote AP Computer Science, shows signs of success. The organization is financially supported by Amazon, Google and Microsoft, among others.

The AP Engineering course is still in the development phase and is scheduled for rollout in fall of 2016. Unfortunately, the efforts to promote careers in engineering and computer science via the AP program have neglected two other subjects – calculus and physics – that are foundational for engineering and computer science. While the percentage of 2013 high school graduates having a passing score on the AP Computer Science exam is frustratingly tiny (0.47%), the percentages of high school grads with passing scores on the algebra-based AP Physics B exam and calculus-based AP Physics C Mechanics exams are also small (1.37% and 0.78%, respectively). Only 4.3% of 2013 high school grads had earned a passing score on the AP Calculus AB exam, which is equivalent to Calculus 1 at many colleges and universities. (These statistics are from the 2014 AP Report to the Nation)

If the nation intends to expand the percentage of college graduates that have majors in engineering, computer science and physics beyond the present levels (in 2011 they were 4.5% in engineering, 2.5% in computer science and 0.30% in physics, according to the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators) then AP courses in calculus and physics must become much more heavily subscribed. There seems to be plenty of potential for growth in AP Calculus AB since as of 2011 47% of 8th graders in the US were enrolled in Algebra 1 or a higher level course (Brookings Institution, September 2013). There is also potential for strong growth in AP Physics with the arrival of the new AP Physics courses (AP Physics 1 and 2) this school year. In particular, AP Physics 1 is intended to replace Honors Physics in American high schools.

Given the unmet demand (and associated high salaries) for engineers and computer scientists, it is clear that an expansion of AP Computer Science and the availability of an AP Engineering course would be positive developments for the nation’s high school students. But it would be unwise for the College Board and organizations associated with the engineering and computer science industries to promote these courses without also promoting AP courses in calculus and physics. In fact, the most prudent course for all these organizations would be to promote a high school program that includes all four of these courses – AP Calculus AB, AP Physics 1, AP Engineering and AP Computer Science – to the entire top quartile of American high school students.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Death of the Lecture Hall

With the advent of MOOC’s and other technological means of beaming non-interactive lectures to students, does it make any sense to spend scarce public resources building new $5 million 500-seat lecture halls at state-supported universities?  Would any self-respecting state legislator vote to support such an expenditure?

Instead of simply settling for the obvious answer of “obviously not” for both questions, let’s examine the issue a little more carefully.

The traditional lecture class consists of students sitting passively and (if they care to) taking notes while a more-or-less distant lecturer having more-or-less charisma talks at them for 50 minutes or more.  Those few of us who were successful in lecture classes as students were able to dig into class material either on our own (reading and in the case of quantitative classes problem-solving) or with small groups of students that we arranged.   Assessments of student learning consist of periodic quizzes or exams that can consist of long answer questions (if there is an army of instructors or teaching assistants who find a way to grade uniformly) or multiple choice questions (which solve the problem of uniformity in grading but can limit the scope of the assessment).

The traditional lecture class would continue to be fine if our goal was to educate only a few percent of students for leadership careers like those in engineering and the physical sciences.  But if we are serious about making these careers available to students from a broader range of backgrounds, then we must dramatically improve the opportunities to learn challenging subjects.

In physics, it’s been demonstrated that student learning gains in classrooms where interactive activities are emphasized (such as the SCALE-UP classes we teach at FSU under the brand name “Studio Physics”) deliver student learning gains that are roughly double those in traditional lecture classes.  This is not an incremental improvement – it’s double.

But some of the features of a SCALE-UP class can be exported to a lecture hall physical environment.  The Peer Instruction program developed at Harvard uses carefully scripted group exercises that are performed during lecture class periods and clicker technology to capture the learning enhancements that SCALE-UP delivers.  Peer Instruction is being implemented this semester in one of FSU’s lecture-based introductory physics courses on a trial basis.  It’s worth noting that while the Harvard Physics Department has cast its lot with the lecture hall-based Peer Instruction, their neighbors across town at MIT have adopted a variation on SCALE-UP for their introductory physics courses.

Peer Instruction is not the only physics curriculum package intended to introduce extensive interactivity to a physical lecture hall environment.  smartPhysics, developed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, won a major award from the American Physical Society last year.

However, one can imagine that a basic MOOC model – in which a “great professor” delivers golden lectures over the internet in a way that allows a student to replay the lectures or sections of a lecture – would be an improvement over the traditional lecture class, in which the quality of the speaker/instructor is hit-or-miss and the presentation doesn’t have a “rewind” button built in.

Improving the learning gains in a lecture class isn’t as easy as including a few “clicker questions” in which students respond to rudimentary multiple choice questions posed by the lecturer during the lecture to make sure the students are listening.  The development of Peer Instruction took years, and the interactivity of Peer Instruction classes is intense.

In fact, FSU’s Registrar, Kim Barber, demonstrated the futility of poorly executed clicker questions in her doctoral dissertation, which was completed in 2013.  Her study of large lecture (400 student) macroeconomics classes at FSU failed to find any student learning advantage – or even any improvement in student attitudes – resulting from the use of clicker questions over an unenhanced traditional lecture class that didn’t use clicker questions.

As FSU and the State University System sift through a priority-setting exercise and planning processes for various academic facilities under Florida’s tight funding constraints, facility planners should keep in mind that lecture halls are either useless warehouses for students or at best awkward substitutes for purpose-built interactive learning facilities.  And they should stop building lecture halls.  Forever.


Posted in Uncategorized

The frustration and promise of virtual education: We must do better than we’re doing, but online courses could short-circuit the push to improve – or lead it

Redefinedonline today posted about a study showing that virtual school courses – specifically those from Florida Virtual School – are as effective as classes in brick-and-mortar schools.

I am not writing to dispute that finding.

Instead, I’m writing to say that at least in the subjects I address on this blog – math and science – we have to do better than we’re doing in brick-and-mortar schools.  And that there is a danger that in falling back on virtual education we will lose sight of the need to improve.

Both the study and the post emphasized one of the obvious advantages of virtual schooling – access to courses that would otherwise not be available.  Certainly in my field (physics) and my state (Florida) this is a concern.  I received data from the Florida Department of Education yesterday showing that of the state’s 67 schools districts, 12 (all rural) did not offer physics at all in 2013-2014.

But the students who take the standard physics or honors physics courses in Florida’s high schools aren’t learning much of anything.  My own pretesting of students in my courses demonstrates that the physics understanding of incoming engineering and science majors who have taken a standard or honors physics course in a Florida high school is nearly indistinguishable from the level of understanding of students who haven’t taken any high school physics.  And that level is zero (random answers on my multiple choice pretest).

I have recurring nightmares about a conversation I had with a few high-ranking Florida education officials last year.  I was asked to record my lectures so they could be beamed into rural physics classrooms, thus solving the lack of physics courses in rural districts.  Here’s a hint about my response:  I don’t lecture in my classroom – at least not for more than a few minutes at a time.

Here’s another hint – a picture of my classroom:

Class PanoramaThis is a classroom in which learning gains are more than double those typical of a traditional lecture class, which is how the vast majority of physics instruction takes place in Florida high schools.  The model shown in the picture above is just as effective in a high school classroom (see, for example, Bishop Moore High School) as it is at the introductory college level.

The danger of the move to virtual education is that we will decide that recording lectures or adopting other didactic practices in a virtual environment solves all of the problems of the science and engineering pipeline, and we will lose sight of the fact that our instructional practices in physics (and chemistry, and math) need a complete overhaul – in both virtual and brick-and-mortar environments.

Virtual instruction could, in fact, lead the way toward improving student understanding in science and math.  There are hints of progress in virtual science learning being made by some of the world’s leading educators and educational researchers.  But continued progress in this area will requires hard work by experts in learning and investments and patience from policy-makers.  In case you’re wondering, it’s the policy-makers I’m worried about.  Taking the easy way out by simply adopting ineffective but cheap instructional practices may be too tempting for our leaders to resist.

Posted in Uncategorized

Reminder for policy makers: Calculus and physics are key ingredients in the making of an engineer (and even a computer scientist)

Over the weekend, I became aware of a recent effort in Congress to make a big push for AP courses in engineering and computer science.  This is a fine thing, but without the basics – math and physics – this is like having the icing without the cake.

Every engineering major needs to know physics and calculus – those are the gateway courses to engineering careers.  A bachelor’s degree in computer science requires physics and calculus.  I’m puzzled that our engineering and computer science colleagues who are lobbying Congress don’t understand that we should all be working together to promote a high school pipeline course sequence that includes calculus, computer science, engineering and physics – all of them.  Promoting computer science and engineering without promoting calculus and physics is just, well, dumb.

What’s needed is a real strategy for promoting careers in computer science, engineering, and the physical sciences, especially among young women and underrepresented minorities.  That strategy needs to start in middle school and ensure that the entire top 35% of students (roughly the number that takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before in Florida – and it’s probably nationally representative) graduates from high school with AP courses in calculus, computer science, engineering and physics.

The piecemeal approach that the lobbyists for engineering and computer science education seem to be taking on this is just, well, I said it above and will not say it again.

I’ll add some numbers here to provide some perspective.  They should all be compared to the 35% number of students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before.

About 4% of high school grads have passed the exam for the first AP Calculus course, Calculus AB.  If a student takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade and follows the standard math sequence (Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus) then AP Calculus AB is the senior year math course.  This 4% number is pathetic.

Less than 2% of high school grads have passed an AP Physics exam.  That should dramatically increase this year with the introduction of the new AP Physics courses.  The first, AP Physics 1, is designed to replace the traditional high school physics course, which has been taken by roughly 23% of American high school grads.  While the effectiveness of the traditional physics course in many high schools is questionable, the new AP course incorporates elements that may significantly enhance student learning.

The US is badly undersubscribed in AP calculus and physics courses already.  Those are obstacles to growing the engineering, computer science and physical science workforce that need to be addressed along with the need to implement an AP engineering course and expand the AP computer science course.


Posted in Uncategorized

Is UCF really a great university for minority students?

According to the magazine Diverse:  Issues in Higher Education (as reported by School Zone), the University of Central Florida ranked 12th in the nation for awarding degrees to minority students.  In particular, Diverse ranked UCF 8th in the numbers of African-American and Hispanic students earning degrees.

I pulled up numbers from the Florida Board of Governors using the Interactive University Database to see whether UCF is really doing a better job than the entire State University System (SUS) at graduating African-American and Hispanic students.  In particular, I compared UCF and the SUS by examining the percentages of bachelors’ degrees awarded to African-American and Hispanic students – both for all fields and for the most marketable degrees (engineering, computer fields and physical sciences).

The bottom line is that UCF awards a smaller percentage of its bachelors’ degrees to African-Americans and Hispanics than the SUS in all the categories I examined.

In 2012-13, UCF awarded 9.5% of its bachelors’ degrees to African-American students, while the corresponding number for the entire SUS was 12.1%.  Hispanic students received 18.1% of UCF’s bachelors’ degrees – the SUS number was 22.8%.

The percentages for engineering, computer fields and physical sciences all followed the same pattern, although UCF seems particularly weak in educating African-American students in computer fields.

The reason UCF graduates so many African-American and Hispanic students is because…it’s so darn HUGE (60,000 students) and not because it is doing anything particularly effective for its minority students.



Posted in Uncategorized