In an op-ed in Friday’s Orlando Sentinel, Central Florida attorney and entrepreneur Larry Pino talked about developing local talent to build the local scientific and technological economy – a process he called “economic gardening”. But Pino made a classic error: Underlying his piece is the assumption that the preparation of scientists and engineers begins in college, when in fact it starts much earlier.
Pino needs to read an open letter posted earlier this week by a group of leaders in the sciences at UCF about the science courses that high school students should take. The UCF science leaders who signed the letter included the Dean of the College of Science at UCF, the Chair of the UCF Department of Physics, the Chair of the UCF Department of Chemistry, the Director of the UCF Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and the Chief of Proton Therapy Physics, Orlando Health – UF Health Cancer Center. The letter was organized (and also signed) by Adam LaMee, UCF Physics Teacher-in-Residence and the President of the Florida Chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers. The signers argue in the letter that “it is critical for every student capable of trade school or a college degree to take a full year each of chemistry and physics”. In addition, they point out that “The rate at which Florida’s high school students take chemistry and physics is critically low.” That claim is backed up by a comparison of state and national enrollment rates in chemistry and physics.
The UCF science leaders left math out of their call for improvement, but a high school calculus course is recommended by leaders in many STEM fields, and Florida is well behind the national rate for calculus course-taking just like it is behind in chemistry and physics.
Of course, a student is unlikely to be successful in rigorous high school math and science courses without a solid middle school education in math and science. In fact, that is the motivation for the Calculus Project run by Orange County Public Schools. While that project aims to get students from a broad range of backgrounds (especially disadvantaged backgrounds) into a high school calculus course to open up STEM career options, it begins by recruiting 6th graders with average scores on Florida’s standardized math test into 7th grade Algebra 1 classes. Then it gives those students a remarkable level of support, including summer math boot camps and after-school math tutoring.
And…fostering interest in science – even physics – doesn’t have to wait for high school or even middle school. On Tuesday, Seminole County Public Schools will hold a ribbon-cutting to initiate its Physics Bus program to serve the district’s elementary schools. According to the district’s press release about the event, the bus “will be making scheduled stops at SCPS elementary schools while giving students and their families STEM experiences to develop critical math skills.”
Central Florida is fortunate that so many of the region’s K-12 and university educators understand that developing scientists and engineers starts much, much earlier than college – even if Mr. Pino doesn’t (at least not yet). Of course, Mr. Pino has plenty of time left to learn.