State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who is suddenly getting some attention as a possible 2022 candidate for Governor, argued in an op-ed in yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel that Congress should fund a major initiative in clean energy and that such an initiative could be a great thing for Florida’s economy, environment and people.
Florida would maximize its benefit from such an initiative if the state were able to grow its clean energy innovation and manufacturing sector, and if Florida’s young people were prepared to assume the engineering and physical science roles that are at the heart of the clean energy sector.
Unfortunately, Florida does a poor job providing its young people access to careers in engineering and the physical sciences. Florida is ranked 37th among the states in the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded in science and engineering fields per 1,000 18-24 year olds, as shown in the plot below. The plot also shows the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate for public K-12 students in each state. That rate is an indicator (admittedly imperfect) of the socioeconomics of the students in the public K-12 schools.
While there is much we can do to help Florida’s students be more successful in engineering and the physical sciences at the university level, the problems in the pipeline begin before college. In fall of 2019, Florida public high school students took physics – a subject which the American Society for Engineering Education says is necessary for students considering a college major in engineering – at a rate 55% below the national rate. The rate at which the state’s public high school students took calculus (another high school subject recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education) was 35% below the national rate. In chemistry, Florida’s students were 16% below the national rate.
Of course, Black students fare worse than white students do. In 2018-19, Black students earned only 6.5% of the bachelors’ degrees awarded by the State University System in engineering, even though 22% of the students in Florida’s public K-12 schools are Black. In physics, the corresponding percentage was only 3.9%. In chemistry, it was 8.7%. (Shown below)
The underrepresentation of Black students begins before college. Of the Florida students who passed the Advanced Placement Physics 1 exam in May of 2019, only 2.3% were Black. In AP Calculus AB, only 4.1% of the Florida students passing the exam were Black. (Shown below)
Florida’s most important initiative for bringing students from underrepresented groups into the engineering and science pipeline is in Eskamani’s district – the Orange County Public Schools Calculus Project, which recruits middle school students from underrepresented groups into Algebra 1 classes. Districts throughout the state should be adopting the Orange County model, but they have not done so.
That was the situation before the pandemic. Now the situation will be much worse because Florida’s K-12 schools are facing catastrophic budget pressures. The number of public high schools that do not offer calculus and physics is likely to grow dramatically, depriving students of the opportunity to prepare properly for college majors in engineering and the physical sciences.
A clean energy initiative – or indeed any initiative that proposes to grow a sector that involves technology – should include a substantial investment in the K-12 schools. If we neglect to give all of Florida’s students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, the opportunity to enter the fields that provide leadership for such a sector, then we are not pushing our state forward. Instead, we are simply making things worse.