Growing our own scientists and engineers: As the nation prepares to improve its global competitiveness, will Florida be left behind?

Two news developments this week made it clear that Florida should take steps to grow more of its own scientists and engineers. Furthermore, that effort should be led by Florida’s Governor and Commissioner of Education.

First of all, the United State Senate, which is usually deeply divided, overwhelmingly passed a quarter-trillion-dollar bill to support scientific research and development in what the New York Times said is an effort to “bolster competitiveness against China”. Nineteen Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, voted for the bill.

Second, Governor DeSantis signed two bills that would, according to the Orlando Sentinel, “combat foreign influence in Florida’s universities from countries deemed hostile to the U.S., especially China”. Not enough young people from the United States are educated to become the world-class science and engineering students and professionals needed to maintain our nation’s leadership in these fields. So our nation imports many of its graduate students and professional scientists and engineers from other nations – and especially China.

Ironically, if the bill passed by the US Senate is approved by the House of Representatives and signed by President Biden, it may increase the need for more foreign students and scientists at American universities and corporations.

Florida does an especially poor job of educating scientists and engineers. Our state is ranked only 35th in the nation for the rate at which it produces bachelor’s degree graduates in science and engineering fields, according to the National Science Foundation.

Florida’s problem doesn’t originate at the university level. The state’s public high school students enroll in two of the high school subjects recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education – calculus and physics – at rates far below the national rates. During the 2020-21 school year, Florida students took calculus at only two-thirds the national rate and physics at only half the national rate. One out of every six large (more than 1,000 students) public high schools in the state did not even teach physics in the fall of 2020.

The scores that Florida’s high school students earn on the math section of the SAT college entrance exam can also provide some insights about where our state stands, although care must be taken in comparisons with other states. Florida is one of seven states in which 100% of the graduating high school class of 2020 took the SAT – the other such states being Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Michigan and Rhode Island. Since essentially all high school graduates in these seven states took the SAT, it is fair to compare their performance on the math SAT section. Among these seven states, Florida’s average SAT math score was the lowest.

Florida’s failure to provide its students with better opportunities to become scientists and engineers have consequences for the futures of the state’s students and families as well as for the state’s economy.

However, instead of focusing on improving the preparation of Florida’s K-12 students for economically durable careers in science and engineering, the Governor and Commissioner of Education are distracted by educational culture wars. While they cannot solve the state’s STEM education problems on their own, they can set a course for a state economy that is more dependent on the industries of the future like quantum computing (which is included in the package just approved by the US Senate) and less on Mickey Mouse. They can encourage the state’s school districts to provide information to parents about how to provide their own students the opportunity to choose science and engineering careers. They can encourage high school students to take courses in challenging subjects like physics instead of falsely stating that such subjects are irrelevant to 21st century life. They can lead changes in the state’s academic standards and testing program that encourage students to take challenging science and math subjects instead of discouraging them. This is especially true now that the Governor has decided to get involved in district-level school board elections.

Our nation is clearly at a technological inflection point, and we can hope that our leaders make a choice to be more globally competitive. But if the nation makes such a move, will Florida follow? Or be left behind?

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Student preparation is an important ingredient for success in the first-semester calculus-based introductory college physics course, which is an important milestone for math-intensive STEM majors. What prerequisites do Florida’s public colleges and universities set for this course?

The calculus-based introductory physics course is an important milestone for students majoring in engineering, physical sciences and computing. But several studies (including this one and this one) make it clear that student success in this course is correlated with student preparation in math and physics.

One way college faculty have of making sure that students are prepared for a class is through the use of prerequisites. Here is a trivial example: The first-semester calculus-based introductory physics class is a prerequisite for the second-semester course. In theory, a student cannot register for the second-semester class unless she or he has succeeded in the first-semester class.

The first-semester calculus-based introductory physics class (which usually carries the course number PHY 2048C at Florida public colleges and universities) uses calculus (go figure). So it makes sense that at least a first-semester calculus class for STEM majors would be a prerequisite, doesn’t it? Not everyone would agree: If a student arrives on a college campus without a calculus credit from high school, then that student’s physics courses are delayed a semester, which then delays other courses in their majors for which physics is a prerequisite…and so on.

Of the eleven public universities in Florida that use common course numbering (that leaves out New College), nine list the first semester calculus course for STEM majors (which usually carries the course number MAC 2311) as a prerequisite. The two that do not, Florida A&M University and Florida International University, are both minority-serving institutions.

Perhaps it’s even more interesting that of the 25 Florida College System (FCS) institutions that offer the calculus-based introductory physics sequence, all but three list the first-semester calculus course for STEM majors as a prerequisite. The three that do not are Chipola College, Daytona State College and South Florida State College. (The three FCS institutions that do not offer the calculus-based introductory physics sequence at all are Central Florida State College, College of the Florida Keys, and Florida State College – Jacksonville)

Students without a high school physics course are at a disadvantage in calculus-based introductory college physics classrooms nationally. In my classroom, such students earn on the average a full letter grade lower than students who had a high school physics class.

So should high school physics be listed as a prerequisite for the first-semester calculus-based introductory college physics course? Two of Florida’s public universities answer that question with “yes”. They are Florida Polytechnic University and the University of Florida. Both of those institutions provide an alternative track – students who do not have high school physics can take a course titled “Introduction to Principles of Physics” (PHY 2020, if you are taking notes). One other public university, the University of North Florida, simply requires a course called Introduction to Physics (PHY 1028) as a prerequisite for PHY 2048C.

There are also four FCS institutions that have a physics prerequisite for PHY 2048C – East Florida State College, Gulf Coast State College, Hillsborough State College and Miami-Dade College. East Florida says that students should take Introduction to Principles of Physics (PHY 2025) if they haven’t taken a high school physics course. Gulf Coast requires Survey of General Physics (PHY 1023) regardless of whether a student has taken physics in high school. Hillsborough gives a physics placement test, and requires those who cannot pass it to take Conceptual Physics (PHY 1025). Finally, Miami-Dade requires students who have not taken high school physics to take Basic Physics (PHY 1025).

Of course, that leaves seven universities and twenty-one FCS institutions that do not list physics prerequisites for PHY 2048C. One of them is my institution, Florida State University, where about one-third of the students taking PHY 2048C have not had a high school physics class.

Should FSU have a physics prerequisite for PHY 2048C? I am torn. Some students succeed without high school physics, but many more perform poorly. The few students who ultimately perform well in PHY 2048C without high school physics would be unnecessarily delayed by a physics prerequisite. But most students would benefit.

In the end, what I think doesn’t matter: The majority of my colleagues are opposed to having a physics prerequisite for PHY 2048C, so we will not.

One possibility to consider at my institution and elsewhere is to recommend that students without a high school physics background take a course like those offered at UF, Florida Poly, UNF, East Florida, Gulf Coast, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade that would be offered here at FSU. Of course, it’s not at all clear that anyone would sign up for such a course if it were recommended but not required.

It seems to me that the best strategy of all is to adopt evidence-based instructional practices – like our Studio Physics Program (pictured below) – in PHY 2048C to give every student the best possible chance to succeed…and to recommend that every college-bound high school student take a high school physics course. I’ll just keep plugging away on both of those tasks.

A Studio

Above: A Studio Physics PHY 2048C class at Florida State University.

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Are Florida’s collegiate high schools preparing their students well for bachelor’s degree programs in math-intensive STEM fields? No. But the situation is fixable.

A scene from the Polk State College Collegiate High School graduation this spring.

A casual observer of Florida’s education scene might expect that graduates of the state’s eight collegiate high schools associated with institutions in the Florida College System would be superbly prepared to take on math-intensive STEM majors at the state’s public universities.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the experience I’ve had in my own FSU physics classroom.

The eight collegiate high schools aim to have students earn associate of arts (A.A.) degrees while they are completing their high school diplomas. Especially during their junior and senior high school years, students take dual enrollment classes instead of standard high school courses. The courses students take satisfy both Florida’s high school graduation requirements and the general education requirements for an A.A. degree.

The eight collegiate high schools are scattered throughout the state. Florida Southwestern College has two collegiate high school campuses – one in Charlotte County and the other in Lee County. The State College of Florida has two collegiate high school campuses as well, in Manatee and Sarasota Counties. St. Petersburg College has two collegiate high school campuses, both in Pinellas County (one is called “North”). Polk State College has a collegiate high school located in Polk County. Finally, Northwest Florida State College has a collegiate high school campus in Okaloosa County.

The collegiate high schools don’t all host students for all four high school years, but both Florida Southwestern College collegiate schools do. This past fall, the numbers of students in each grade at the Charlotte campus varied between 78 and 110. At the Lee campus, the largest grade had 106 students and the smallest 83.

The State College of Florida Manatee campus also hosts all four years, with grade sizes ranging from 71 to 83 students.

However, three of the collegiate schools only host students for three years – 10th, 11th and 12th grades. The sizes of the grades at the first St. Petersburg College collegiate school campus range from 71 to 89; at the St. Petersburg North campus, the grades range in size from 63 to 82 students. At Northwest Florida State College’s collegiate high school, the grade sizes range from 75 to 110.

The remaining two collegiate high schools – at Polk State College and at State College of Florida’s Venice Campus – host only 11th and 12th grades. Polk State has large grades, with 161 students in 11th grade and 170 students in 12th grade this past fall. The State College of Florida Venice program is much smaller with 48 11th graders and 47 12th graders.

While the collegiate high schools host large numbers of college-bound students, there are relatively few students taking the physics and calculus courses that faculty and professional organizations say high school students should take to prepare for bachelor’s degree programs in fields like engineering, the physical sciences, computing and the life and health sciences. I take the course enrollment numbers here from the Florida Department of Education web site (which also provides the grade size numbers above). To preserve student privacy, the FLDOE only quotes numbers of students registered in a course at a school if there are ten or more taking it. If the course is being taken by at least one student but by fewer than ten, then the spreadsheet gives an asterisk instead of a number.

Nevertheless, we can still draw some conclusions about student course-taking from the FLDOE spreadsheets. During the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters, there was only one instance in which there were as many as ten students taking a physics course. At Polk State College’s Collegiate High School, ten students took PHY C020, a general education physics course, in the spring. In all other cases – at all the collegiate high schools and during the fall and spring semesters – there were fewer than ten students enrolled in each physics class.

At several of the collegiate high schools, all or nearly all of the students take a standard high school chemistry class that is either Honors or non-Honors. It is likely that students take this subject during 10th grade. Of course, in the standard biology-chemistry-physics science sequence physics is taken in 11th grade. At that point, students at collegiate high schools are supposed to be taking all dual enrollment classes. It appears that most of the students at these schools never take a physics class at all.

The situation with calculus is not optimum, either. There were several instances in which 10 or more students took the first calculus class for STEM majors, MAC 2311, which is equivalent to the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course that is taken by about 15,000 Florida high school students each year. During the fall semester, 14 students took MAC 2311 at the Florida Southwestern College Collegiate High School campus in Lee County; 11 took the same class in the fall at the State College of Florida campus in Manatee County; 22 took the course at Northwest Florida State College; and 11 took the course at St. Petersburg College’s main collegiate school campus. In the spring, another 15 took MAC 2311 at the State College of Florida Manatee County campus; 14 at the Florida Southwestern College campus in Lee County; and 16 took it at the St. Petersburg College North Pinellas campus. These numbers should be larger at high schools that are intended to provide outstanding preparation for bachelor’s degree programs.

The physics problem at the collegiate high schools could be easily remedied. A general education physics course that emphasizes the concepts of motion, forces and energy in mechanics and that uses evidence-based instructional practices would be a positive experience and widen the career options for every student. Each collegiate high school has access to college physics faculty, so making such a course available for every student in the fall semester of 11th grade should not be a problem.

More importantly, students would have to be more aggressively advised regarding course selection than they are now. Students (and parents) should be told that taking physics and calculus are important for a wider range of college majors than they realize, and that taking those subjects during early college opens a wide array of career opportunities that they might find attractive in a few years.

That may not seem like college to some, but even universities have figured out that students need more prescriptive advice than they have been getting in years past. It may be time for collegiate high schools to learn that lesson as well.

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Which dual enrollment courses were Florida’s public high school students taking this spring?

This spring, 16,824 of Florida’s public high school students were taking the second-semester college “freshman” English class via dual enrollment at the state’s public colleges and universities.

The course, ENC 1102, enrolled about three times as many students as the second most popular dual enrollment course, College Algebra (MAC 1105), which had 5,742 students. US History from 1865 (AMH 2020) was the third most popular dual enrollment course with 5,080 students.

Much smaller numbers of students took courses in calculus, chemistry and physics that satisfy requirements for bachelor’s degree graduation in STEM fields. A total of 1,359 students were enrolled in Calculus 1 (MAC 1311 or 2311), Calculus 2 (MAC 1312 or 2312) or Calculus 3 (MAC 1313 or 2313), which are required in fields like engineering. The two introductory chemistry courses required for STEM majors, General Chemistry 1 (CHM 1045, 2045 or C045) and General Chemistry 2 (CHM 1046, 2046 and C046) were being taken by 1,662 students.

Only 432 students statewide were taking a physics course that satisfies a graduation requirement for a STEM bachelor’s degree. Of those, 135 were taking one of the two algebra-based courses (PHY 1053, 2053, C053, 1054, 2054 or C054) required for students majoring in fields like biology. The other 297 were taking one of the calculus-based courses (PHY 2048, C048, 2049 or C049) required for students majoring in fields like engineering, chemistry and meteorology.

In short, few Florida high school students use the dual enrollment mechanism to get a head start on bachelors’ degrees in STEM fields. Instead, these students more often use Advanced Placement courses to attempt to get that head start. For example, this spring 14,038 students in the state’s public high schools were taking AP Calculus AB, which is equivalent to MAC 1311 or 2311 and which dual enrolled only 712 students this spring. The AP Chemistry class, which is equivalent to CHM 1045 and 1046, was being taken by 5,629 students (compared to 1,662 taking the dual enrollment courses). The AP Physics 1 class, which is equivalent to the first semester algebra-based class PHY 2053, enrolled 5,672 students this spring. The equivalent dual enrollment course had only 103 students registered.

The numbers quoted here are taken from the Florida Department of Education’s spring course enrollment survey.

The top 25 dual enrollment courses for Florida’s public high school students in the Spring of 2021.

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Students should be encouraged to aim high when it comes to careers. Steering them to lower level careers because of their skin color, gender or geography is a crime.

Every year, our Nuclear Medicine and Science Summer Camp includes a field trip to a nuclear medicine facility. During the first year of the camp, we visited a local hospital and learned about the use of Technetium-99 in medical imaging. It was a great experience.

There was only one really bad moment during that visit, and unfortunately it was at the very beginning of the visit. Our campers, who were aged 13 to 15, were a very diverse group race- and gender-wise. After we entered the hospital, we filed into a small auditorium where a member of the hospital’s human resources staff welcomed the campers. She looked at the campers and gave them some career advice – that they should seriously consider careers as medical and nursing assistants. Sitting behind the campers, I was aghast.

Perhaps I should have stood up and shouted down the human resources staffer as soon as I realized what she was saying, but I didn’t. Instead, we enjoyed the rest of the visit without any further unpleasant incidents. But as soon as we returned to our home base on Florida State University’s Panama City campus that afternoon, I spoke to the campers about the “welcome remarks” given by the human resources staffer. I said something very close to this: “Every one of you should be aiming for a career that involves a doctorate. It might be a Ph.D. It might be an M.D. But you shouldn’t be aiming any lower than that.”

As I spoke, I assumed that these students – still very young at 13 to 15 years old – wouldn’t have fully grasped the significance of the HR staffer’s comments nor the comments that I made. I was wrong. When I finished speaking, the campers gave me a round of applause. They understood why what I had just said was important. It was the first of several camp moments during which the campers surprised me with their understanding and maturity. (The next was when they easily grasped the ideas of discrete energy levels and electromagnetic transitions in atomic nuclei. Yikes! Who knew that would happen?)

Why did the HR staffer talk down the campers’ career prospects? It’s impossible to know for sure, but my conclusion was that she looked at the campers, saw lots of Black, Brown and female faces and decided that they were best suited for careers as medical and nursing assistants.

I wish that incident was unusual, but it’s not.

There are high schools where the administration seems to think that students don’t need access to courses in physics and calculus because the students come from low income families and low income kids don’t go into engineering, science or health careers. Or because the students are from a rural county and they are all going into agriculture, anyway. Or because the school is an arts magnet and therefore none of the students will select STEM majors when they get to college.

Every school – whether it is a traditional public school, a charter school or a private school – should give each one of its students the opportunity to fulfill their potential. And it should always be assumed that there are students in any school who have the potential to be engineers, scientists or health professionals if they are given the opportunity. Every parent should be informed of those career options and should be given information on what their students need to do to prepare for college majors in those fields – and that includes high school course selections. A high school principal who says “None of the parents in my school have asked for a physics class” almost certainly hasn’t told parents why taking physics is important preparation for college majors in many desirable fields. (If you are a high school principal who doesn’t know why physics is important preparation for college majors in many desirable fields, contact me at my FSU email address and I’ll be glad to help) A principal or counselor who doesn’t think talking with parents about these things would help needs to read this.

This isn’t to say that every student would make a fine engineer, scientist or health professional. Some would, and some would not. But deciding whether a student would or not based on the color of their skin or their gender or the place they grew up is more than just a tragedy. It’s a crime.

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An open letter to Denisha Merriweather: This is why physics at Jones High School is important.

Dear Ms. Merriweather:

I appreciate that you took the time to get involved in the public recognition and discussion of the success of the physics program at Orange County’s Jones High School, which was featured in an Orlando Sentinel article recently.

But you may not realize why what Jones High School has accomplished is important.

Every school – whether it is a traditional public school, a charter school or a private school – should give each one of its students the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

For example, high schools should provide their students opportunities to properly prepare for college majors in math-intensive STEM fields like engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. To prepare for these majors, high school students should take chemistry, physics, precalculus and (if possible) calculus. Some high schools do not provide such an opportunity. One such high school, Polk County’s Tenoroc High School, was featured in the Lakeland Ledger this morning. In the article, Tenoroc’s valedictorian expressed his frustration with the school’s course offerings, which do not include calculus or physics.

I am a physics professor at Florida State University, and I teach the introductory physics course that students majoring in these math-intensive fields take. About one-third of my students did not take a high school physics class, which means they have not prepared properly in high school for their college majors. These underprepared students earn, on the average, one full letter grade lower than students who have taken a high school physics class. Each year, there are a few students who have not taken high school physics who nevertheless perform well in my class. But there are many more who do poorly. Some of those students fall out of their engineering, computer science and physical science majors altogether after performing poorly in their introductory physics or calculus classes.

That’s why it is so important for every high school – and perhaps especially high schools that have demographic challenges like Jones – to offer classes in physics and calculus.

Unfortunately, there are many schools in Florida that, like Tenoroc, don’t teach those subjects. A national organization just released a report showing that Florida is in a small group of eight states in which access to high school physics is significantly lower than the national rate. Furthermore, Florida’s public high school students take physics at less than half the national rate. Nationally, the percentage of high school graduates having a physics course in high school is rising; in Florida, it is declining.

That is why I celebrate what Jones High School is doing. You should celebrate it, too.
Of course, I can only speak to the situation in Florida’s public schools. Tracking course enrollments in the state’s public schools is a hobby of mine, and I’m able to do so because the Florida Department of Education is the nation’s leader in making that information publicly available.

However, I do not have access to that sort of information for private schools – those served by the state’s private school scholarship programs or otherwise. It would be useful for parents who are considering enrollment in those schools to have access to that information, just as they do for the public schools.

I am not your average public education advocate. In fact, I’m really not a public education advocate at all. I want each of Florida’s students to have the opportunity to excel in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences, if they choose to do so. I don’t care about the sector of their high school. In fact, I once volunteered to help Step Up for Students promote preparation for math-intensive STEM careers. I made a trip to St. Petersburg for a meeting about that. I am sure that nobody at Step Up or in any other school choice advocacy organization remembers that, if they ever knew.

I am also aware of your personal story, and I am glad that you have been successful in the field you chose. But I want the students in the schools for which you advocate to have the opportunity to excel in the fields I am discussing here. Your Sentinel op-ed didn’t give me any reason to believe you care about that.

I hope that sometime we will get a chance to talk about this in person.



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American Institute of Physics report says that high school physics is trending upward nationally. But in Florida the trend is downward.

According to a report released this week by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center, the percentage of high school graduates who have taken at least one physics class in high school grew significantly between 2013 and 2019. The first results from the 2018-19 Nationwide Survey of High School Physics Teachers show that 42% of high school graduating class of 2019 had taken at least one physics course in high school, larger than the rate for the class of 2013 (39%) measured during the last such survey.

The number of students enrolled in high school physics courses during the 2018-19 school year was 1,543,000, 12% higher than in 2012-13 (when the enrollment was 1,376,000). The number of high school seniors had grown by 6% during the same time period.

College faculty and professional associations in a variety of disciplines including engineering, computer science, architecture and biology recommend that students considering college majors in those subjects take physics in high school. So the AIP results say that more students nationally are becoming better prepared to succeed in those college majors.

Meanwhile, the situation in Florida is quite different. Enrollment in physics classes in the state’s public high schools has declined 20% since Fall 2014. During the Fall of 2020, only 4.5% of public high school students in the state were enrolled in a physics course. At the national level, the 1,543,000 high school students taking physics in 2018-19 reported by the AIP was 9.2% of the nation’s 16,745,000 high school students.

From Florida Department of Education – compiled here.

The AIP also reported that while 84% of the nation’s high school seniors attended schools where physics is taught every year in 2018-19, Florida is one of eight states in which the rate was significantly lower than 84%. The other seven states in that (sad) category were Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

In fact, during the Fall of 2020 one out of every six large (>1,000 students) high schools in Florida did not teach physics.


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Florida State University needs more of what Randy Hanna has brought to it.

A picture from the 2016 Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony published by the Panama City News-Herald

This morning, Florida State University’s Presidential Search Advisory Committee will begin publicly considering candidates to succeed President John Thrasher, who has been an extraordinarily successful and popular leader. One of the candidates they will be considering is Randy Hanna, the Dean of FSU’s Panama City campus.

Florida’s leaders talk a good game about integrating our entire PreK-20 educational system and connecting it with Florida’s economy. Through his work as chancellor of the Florida College System and through the careful cultivation of community and school leaders he has performed as Dean, Randy has extraordinary – and perhaps unique – experience working on this project in a hands-on way.

This can all sound very technocratic, but for Randy it is really a humane project. He has worked to make the connection between Florida’s schools, colleges and universities and the economy because he believes this is the best way to help the state’s young people thrive, and not because he believes the educational system should be a servant of the state’s businesses.

I met Randy shortly after his appointment as Dean of the Panama City campus in 2016. I had become quite active in physics education outreach activities in Bay County (Panama City is the county seat), and Randy was personally involved in a program called Future Physicists of Florida that honors middle school students who have shown interest in math and science. During our induction ceremony in September of 2016, Randy found a way to make each member of the audience – parents and students – feel as if he was speaking individually to them even though hundreds of people were attending. He also announced that he had the goal of recruiting the students being honored that day to become FSU-PC students, and he shared his personal cell phone number from the podium so that the parents could contact him with questions. Randy shook the hand of each young person being honored that day and looked each in the eye. It was extraordinary and inspiring to watch.

The recovery of the Panama City campus from 2018’s Hurricane Michael was a feat of leadership for Randy. The entire community was demoralized by the blow, but somehow Randy managed to lead his team – and for him that team includes everyone working at the campus – to find ways to serve students only weeks after the storm and to restore a sense of some normalcy by the summer of 2019. I did not return to the Panama City campus myself until the summer of 2019, but I heard stories about how Randy applied himself to some of the details of making the campus livable again – including making sure a deli opened in the Holley Center so that people could buy lunch without leaving campus.

Randy has recognized the potential in the Panama City campus: as an economic anchor for Panama City as it strides forward into the technological economy of the future; as a magnet for young people growing up in the economically stagnant rural Panhandle; and as a beacon for students from farther away who see the unique atmosphere of the Panama City campus as an attractive place to grow and learn. Even in the teeth of the recovery from Hurricane Michael and the worst of the pandemic, he has pressed forward toward realizing that potential, including building a residence hall for students.

My university – my professional home for the past 35 years – needs more of what Randy Hanna has brought to it.

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FSU’s Panama City campus to offer two Nuclear Medicine and Science Camps this summer – one face-to-face and one online

This summer, FSU’s Panama City campus will resume the series of face-to-face Nuclear Medicine and Science camps that last took place in 2019. But following the success of last summer’s online version, which attracted national attention, the campus’ STEM Institute will also offer another online camp for students who live in the Florida Panhandle but are too far away from Panama City to commute to campus.

As in 2018, 2019 and 2020, the camps are being sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration’s CENTAUR consortium and the FSU Physics Department. But this year a new sponsor has been added – the Naval Support Activity-Panama City, the laboratory located in Panama City Beach.

Both the face-to-face and online camps are intensely hands-on. They also both feature field trips.

The online registration portal is located here.

From the face-to-face camp.
From the face-to-face camp.
From the face-to-face camp.
A home-based hands-on activity for the online camp.
Controlling a gamma-ray spectrometer from home during the online camp.

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What can I do to address the issue of students who arrive in my university physics classroom without high school physics? There are no easy solutions.

I have a dilemma.

I teach a two-semester introductory calculus-based physics course at my university. While I usually have a few first-year physics majors among the 40-80 students in my classes, most are in other math-intensive STEM majors like engineering, meteorology, chemistry and computer science.

The faculty in engineering, in particular, has expectations about how well students will understand physics concepts that are foundational in their discipline when they finish my class. So lowering the bar on physics understanding in my course is not an option. Nor is changing the content. Nor is extending the sequence into a three-semester sequence – engineering majors already rack up well more than the standard 120 credit hours to earn their bachelors’ degrees.

However, achieving the level of understanding that the engineering and physics faculty expect students to have when they finish my course requires most students to have had a previous physics course to lay the groundwork – most commonly a good high school physics class. There are always exceptions. Every year I have a few students who didn’t take physics in high school who excel in my course. But most who skipped high school physics end up well down on the grade scale. On the average, there is a full letter grade difference between students who took physics in high school and those who didn’t.

Unfortunately, about one-third of the students who take my course have not had a high school physics class. That number will likely grow. The number of students taking physics in Florida’s public high schools dropped 20% from the Fall of 2014 to the Fall of 2020. In the Fall of 2020, one out of six large (greater than 1,000 students) public high schools in Florida didn’t teach physics. These problems existed before the pandemic and have continued to worsen during the pandemic.

Many of the students who arrive in my class underprepared – the word I use for not having a high school physics class – come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But a surprising number of them are affluent and attended high schools where they had access to physics courses but decided for a variety of reasons not to take one.

So what should I do about underprepared students? I raised this question on Twitter this past week and received a few suggestions. I pointed out that there are several public colleges and universities in Florida (but not mine) that require students who have not had a high school physics class to take an additional course before starting the calculus-based introductory sequence. This likely extends the amount of time-to-degree for an engineering major by a semester. Several of the participants in the Twitter discussion argued that it is unfair that many of the students who would be required to take the additional semester course are low income students who can least afford to do so.

One recommendation that came in via Twitter was for a boot camp that would not be a formal course but which would be taken before the standard physics sequence. There is such a program at my university for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it is limited to one week. I declined to participate when I was given the chance because I didn’t think a week was enough to help a student build understanding about anything, much less replace an entire high school physics class. A colleague who led this mini-boot camp one year despaired afterward that it had not done any good – in part because only a few students took advantage of it.

Of course, I’ve faced this dilemma for decades here at my university. We do NOT require students without high school physics to take an additional course. Instead, they are placed in the first-semester calculus-based course with the better prepared students. Here is what I’m doing to address this issue:

I am using evidence-based active learning practices in my teaching. I teach in a SCALE-UP classroom that follows the design created at North Carolina State University. (This program is called the Studio Physics Program at my university.) Students work in collaborative groups of three, and we try to foster conversations among students and between students and instructors. We generally have five instructors in a 70-student class – perhaps the best student-instructor ratio the students have seen since elementary school. I monitor the groups for signs that individual students are being left out of discussions and make changes when I see this happening. Of course, my efforts in this regard are much less than perfect. A study based on observations made in my class a few years ago showed that conversations among students at one of the nine-seat tables in my classroom reflected gender bias on the part of the male students, even though women were the majority of students at the table. And because nearly all of the students in my class are majoring in math-intensive STEM fields, only 20-30% of the students in my course are women. Even fewer are Black since only 7% of the engineering graduates from Florida’s public universities are Black. However, our Studio Physics classes give underprepared students the best possible opportunity to learn and succeed – certainly much better than in traditional lecture classes. By monitoring the discussions I can address at least a few of the bias issues.

I am encouraging parents of high school students to enroll their students in chemistry and physics classes. The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that high school students who might choose to major in engineering in college take chemistry, physics, precalculus and (if possible) calculus in high school. Furthermore, university faculty in fields like computer science, biology, architecture, chemistry and meteorology recommend taking physics in high school. I deliver that message – especially to parents of high school students – whenever I can. During the last few months, I’ve talked with parents of students in the Orange County Public Schools Calculus Project at about a dozen schools. The Calculus Project recruits students from disadvantaged backgrounds into middle school algebra classes and provides a tremendous amount of support in the form of summer boot camps and tutoring after school and on Saturdays. I have helped establish the Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremonies, which each year (before the pandemic) recognized hundreds of middle school students for interest in math and science. I have worked on the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camps for middle and high school students in Bay County in the Florida Panhandle, and we are beginning a Nuclear Medicine and Science Academy at that district’s Deane Bozeman School. I use all of these opportunities to talk with students and parents about high school course-taking.

It’s also worth noting that there are a few Florida public high schools that buck the socioeconomic trend and recruit many students into physics classes. One is Godby High School right here in Tallahassee. Another is Orange County’s Jones High School. Both schools have remarkable physics teachers. Godby’s teacher and the success she has with her students were recently the subject of a doctoral dissertation.

But finding ways to help students who arrive in our university physics classrooms underprepared isn’t easy. There is no sweeping solution that would be obvious if only we would “open our minds”. We must be willing to work with one student at a time and talk with one parent at a time. It is the only way forward.

Last day of face-to-face class (March 11, 2020) in a Studio Physics class. We will return to face-to-face teaching this fall.
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