224 Bay District middle school students to be inducted into Future Physicists of Florida on Monday


The cover of the program for Monday’s FPF induction ceremony.

The Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook FSU-Panama City chapter of the Future Physicists of Florida will induct 224 students from Bay District middle schools this coming Monday.  The ceremony will begin at 5:30 pm at FSU-PC’s Holley Center.

The scientific keynote speaker will be FSU Physics Professor Susan Blessing.  Professor Blessing is an accomplished experimental high energy physicist and is one of the nation’s leading physics educators.  This fall, Professor Blessing was elected to fellowship in the American Physical Society and received the Pegram Award for excellence in physics education in the southeastern US.  She was also appointed to the society’s Panel on Public Affairs, which addresses issues of national importance.

Other speakers scheduled to address the students and family members attending the ceremony include FSU-PC Dean Randy Hanna, Gulf Coast State College President John Holdnak, and Bay District Superintendent Bill Husfelt.

Future Physicists of Florida was founded in 2012 to recognize and encourage middle school students who have shown promise and interest in math and science, and to provide parents with information about the high school math and science courses necessary to prepare for the rigorous college majors in engineering, physics and other STEM fields.  The first Bay County induction ceremony was held in 2015.

The Bay District Future Physicists of Florida chapter was named for the Cooks in February of this year after they made a gift to establish the FSU-Panama City STEM Institute Endowed Fund, which is providing annual support for STEM activities at FSU-Panama City and around the district.


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Ten years ago, a committee of scientists and science educators was working on new K-12 science standards for Florida. This is what the committee members said when the process was completed.

A decade ago, a group of scientists and science educators at the K-12 and postsecondary levels were working to assemble world-class science standards for Florida’s K-12 classrooms.  In February of 2008, the tumultuous process reached a climax when the State Board of Education narrowly voted to adopt the standards recommended by the committee. 

After the SBOE vote, thirty-nine of these committee members signed a letter to Commissioner Eric Smith sharing a vision for a world-class science education program in Florida’s public schools.  The proposals in the letter were largely ignored, but there is value in seeing the direction that these thirty-nine experts thought the state should take.

February 27, 2008

Dr. Eric J. Smith
Commissioner of Education
325 W. Gaines St, Suite 1514
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0400

Dear Commissioner Smith:

As members of the Science Standards Framers’ and Writers’ groups, we first want to acknowledge the tireless work that the staff of the Office of Mathematics and Science (OMS) did to advocate for the tremendous progress we achieved in the standards. The standards that were adopted will allow Florida’s science educators to move forward in helping their students achieve a bright future.

However, we realize that the development of excellent standards is only one step in establishing Florida as a world leader in science education. During our deliberations, we identified a list of steps that we believe are necessary for Florida’s science education program to lead the nation and the world.

In arriving at our recommendations for action steps listed below, we have consulted with the International Advisory Board of the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Our recommendations to follow the successful completion of the new standards include:

1) Ensure the alignment of curriculum, instructional methods, assessment and pedagogy with these new standards.

2) Require four high school science credits for graduation.

3) Adopt the 2003 National Science Teacher Association teacher preparation standards.

4) Establish a permanent panel of scientists, business leaders and educator-leaders that advise the Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Education on science education issues.

5) Support the development and adoption of research-based instructional materials, including laboratories and authentic field experiences.

6) Commit at least $100 million per year to professional development of science teachers that is based on the best research about how students learn this subject.

7) Provide an immediate differential pay structure that will increase salaries of science teachers by 20%, and provide full state funding for this. This step is recommended in the report “Teachers and the Uncertain American Future” issued by the College Board’s Center for Innovative Thought. We believe that all the recommendations in this report should be implemented in Florida.

We understand the budget difficulties that the state government is presently facing, and that the program we are recommending would require an extraordinary commitment on the part of the people of Florida. However, better knowledge of science and the analytical and problem-solving skills it teaches are essential to Florida’s long-term competitiveness in an increasingly technological society. A citizenry better educated in science will help attract high technology industry to Florida.

We stand ready to assist your efforts to improve science education in Florida. Please let us know what we can do to help.


[39 signers]

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Preparing high school students for college majors in engineering: Why is this so hard for people to understand? (And why did I have to write an Orlando Sentinel op-ed about it?)

Engineering is built on a scientific foundation of physics and a mathematical foundation of calculus.  Therefore, nobody should find it surprising that the American Society for Engineering Education recommends that high school students who are considering college majors in engineering should take physics and calculus in high school.

So why is it so difficult for many advocates and educators to say that physics and calculus are must-takes for high school students who might possibly major in engineering in college?

My op-ed in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel discussed the problems that Florida is having in the high school segment of the engineering pipeline.

To supplement the discussion, I’ll add this plot of the physics enrollment rates in 30 states plus the District of Columbia from a survey of state departments of education in the summer of 2015.  Connor Oswald (now teaching in Duval County) did all the work, and I presented this plot during my talk to the 2016 PhysTEC Conference.  Florida’s physics enrollment rate was approximately half the national rate measured in that survey.  Since then, the number of high school physics enrollments in Florida has dropped 5%.


To close, I’ll share a story of a conversation I had with another STEM education advocate and his boss a few years ago.  This advocate is very successful in his own way, but when I asked why he refused to urge students to take physics and calculus, his boss answered, “Because if we said that the parents would stop listening to us.”

There is plenty of research demonstrating the effectiveness of communicating with parents about the importance of taking courses like physics and calculus.  And I have my own successful experiences in Bay County as well.

But it’s certainly true that some parents – and some educators – will reject that message no matter what.  I just don’t think we should allow such people to keep us from pushing ahead.

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Can technology be a force for good in the science classroom? Yes – but only if you have a strong teacher.

Can technology improve student learning in science?

Technology can raise the ceiling on science achievement and open new career vistas for every student.

But students can only take advantage of those new opportunities if they can have intense interactions with a strong teacher who deeply understands the science and just as deeply understands the students.

Consider this from my own 70-student classroom:

Three students measure the bouncing of a four-square ball.  One holds a device that measures the position of the ball using ultrasonic waves.  Another is responsible for bouncing the ball in such a way that it stays under the ultrasonic device.  The third is responsible for turning on the data-taking program that record the signals from the ultrasonic device.

Cottle-Capstick Lab Photos-5986The student responsible for bouncing the ball lets it go.

Bounce…bounce…bounce.  It bounces ten times.

On the screen in real time, the position of the ball is plotted against time.  After every bounce, the position graph shows a parabola.  The position graph shows clearly that the maximum height that the ball reaches decreases after each bounce – demonstrating how the ball loses some energy on each bounce.

Below the position graph is another graph – the ball’s velocity plotted against time.  The computer effortlessly calculates the time rate of change of the position to plot the velocity in real time.  After each bounce, the velocity plot shows the ball rising quickly, then slowing down, then momentarily stopping at the top of its path, and then dropping faster and faster until the next bounce, when the graph shows the ball violently changing direction.

Cottle-Capstick Lab Photos-5930_1That was the fun part.

Now comes the hard part – making sense of the graphs.

Eventually – we hope within an hour after bouncing the ball – the students will see that between the bounces that the sum of the energy of motion (“kinetic energy”) and the “gravitational potential energy” stays constant during flight.  And the students will also be able to calculate exactly how much energy the ball loses on the floor during each bounce.

This laboratory exercise takes place in my classroom at FSU once a year.  We do other similarly technology-enabled learning exercises during other weeks in the semester.  And while my class has a pretty selective group of students, there are still very few who can make the transition from staring at the position and velocity graphs on the computer screen the first time to understanding what all of this has to do with the basic physical principle of conservation of energy without help.  When students first get stuck in this data-to-learning process, they look at each other – their groupmates – and try to work it out themselves.  That works sometimes, but more often one of the students puts up her hand and asks for help from an instructor.

In my classroom, the instructors are generally me and two graduate teaching assistants.  All three of us are “experts” in the physics, of course.  But we need to know more than that.  We need to know something about how students learn physics from the voluminous body of physics education research.  We must have the persistence to draw a student into a learning dialogue, even when the student really just wants to be told the answer.

And we need to manage the other issues that come up in the classroom, including those that occur because men outnumber women in our classroom two or three to one.  Research at other institutions shows that our interactive engagement model of instruction – which uses lecture very little – doubles student learning gains and is a more hospitable environment for women and students from underrepresented minorities.

Technology helps us one more way.  If a student really wishes to have the extended lectures that are typical in most science classes, I can direct her or him to the Khan Academy.  That guy is a better lecturer than I am, anyway.  That way, we don’t waste valuable class time on lectures, which are ineffective as learning tools.  The student can watch lectures on her own time.

We use an online homework system.  It has its limitations, but for students who are mature and motivated, it can be a useful learning tool.  We provide class time for students to ask questions about their online homework problems.

Our task is much easier than that of a high school teacher who is trying to provide the same quality of instruction so that her students learn with just as much deep understanding as ours do.

Consider Rachel Morris, the physics teacher at Rutherford High School in Bay County.  You can see three of Rachel’s students in the picture here (which was tweeted by Andrea Banks, an Assistant Principal at Rutherford), and you can see the track and carts that they are working with.  andrea_banks

They were using the same sort of ultrasonic devices we use at FSU, and the data were being collected on a laptop (both the lab equipment and the laptops being used at Rutherford – and at Bay High School and Mosley High School – were provided by FSU).  The students analyzed their experimental results using a spreadsheet.

Then they had lots of questions.  Rachel, who holds a bachelor’s degree in math education but who has invested an enormous amount of time during the last several years building strong physics content understanding, was ready for them.

Life would be easier for Rachel if she spent her class periods lecturing.  Her students’ questions would be limited almost exclusively to simple requests for Rachel to repeat things she had said during her lectures.

By allowing students to explore, and supercharging her students’ explorations with technologically-enabled tools, Rachel has opened herself up to the challenge of answering questions from her students that often seem to come out of left field and severely test her content knowledge.

The technology makes it harder to teach – not easier.  But students genuinely learn with understanding instead of memorizing a list of facts.

And the importance of recruiting and retaining superstar teachers like Rachel Morris becomes even more obvious in a technology-enabled classroom – at least one that is designed to improve student learning.

Recently, I caught a glimpse of the dark side of classroom technology in a rural school not far from my home.  Maybe half a dozen low-income students were learning calculus when their teacher decided to give up and leave early in the school year.  The school’s administration responded by plugging these students into an online calculus course – a recipe for disaster for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have no access to support at home or in their community.

Low-income students are scarce in the upper level high school math and science courses that open doors to opportunities in engineering, computer science and the health professions, so when I learned about this situation I wanted to help.  I asked the students in my class to volunteer to tutor these high school students, and one student volunteered.  I asked my colleagues to help and one of them volunteered as well.  Three hours before my colleague and I were scheduled to drive out to meet with the school administration, the meeting was cancelled.  The student volunteer never got her phone calls to the school returned.  We never heard from the school again.

Those rural students that had so much promise are tragically lost to the STEM pipeline.  There is no one in the school who can do the calculus that the students are attempting to learn.  The students no doubt floundered, and then gave up.  Maybe there was a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone – somebody who really wanted to help.  That might have worked with my kids.  There is no chance whatsoever that is going to work with a kid from the school we tried to help.

One more point:  The word “facilitator” has gotten a bad rap.  It’s actually a really good word to describe what I and my teaching assistants do in our classroom.  The primary complaint that many of my students have about me is that I don’t teach.  No, I guess I don’t.  But we facilitate darn well.

Unfortunately, the word “facilitator” has become associated with the cruder versions of “personalized learning” – where students sit in partitions and stare at a computer screen all day.  But “facilitator” is a lousy word for that function.  I’d use “babysitter” instead.  A babysitter doesn’t do anything but keep kids entertained and safe.  Babysitters don’t attempt to improve learning.  That person running the crude personalized learning classroom is a babysitter.



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Science at Florida Virtual School: Unionized or not, it seems like an odd idea.

When I pulled up Jeff Solochek’s Gradebook post on the drive to unionize teachers at Florida Virtual School, I got stuck on the first clause:  After teaching middle school science at Florida Virtual School for nine years…

I wondered:  What does an online middle school science class look like?  The course description I looked at mentioned “online laboratory experiences”.  Are those as effective in promoting deep student learning as physical hands-on labs?  Do students work together in virtual groups?  We certainly know from decades of research that students learn best when they are interacting with each other.  Do the virtual courses acknowledge that?  Has anyone even given any of this serious thought?

And how would a student who has been raised in virtual school science classes react to the learning environment I maintain in my face-to-face classroom, where we leverage carefully designed hands-on experiences and complex social interactions to give every student the best chance to learn with understanding?  Can a student raised exclusively on virtual science classes adapt to my classroom, where students learn twice as much as they do in traditional lecture classes?

And…why would a science teacher want to teach a virtual science class?

Eventually, I got past the first clause, and I found this from the FLVS teacher running the unionization drive, Lauren Masino:

She said the school, which currently contracts with each teacher individually, expects educators to be available 60 hours a week for work.

“If we don’t we get poor scores on our surveys,” she said. “We have no work-life balance.”

This sounds suspiciously like the reality for those who teach in physical classrooms as well.  It seems that in the end, we expect teachers – in physical or virtual classrooms – to be so passionate about what they are doing that they are willing to accept working conditions that those in many other professions would find unacceptable.  And most teachers do so.

I have no doubt that as a certified middle school science teacher Ms. Masino could easily find a job working in a physical middle school science classroom, where she would have union representation.  I wonder why she hasn’t done so.  But in the end it is tempting to conclude that teachers’ unions – lightning rods though they are – are neither the primary problem in the K-12 system nor the solution to any of the big issues.



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What would a respectful discussion about the future of the teaching profession look like?

The teachers I know well are working their butts off.  And so are many of their colleagues.

If we are going to have the conversation we need to have about the future of the teaching profession, we all need to agree that many teachers are incredibly skilled and working exceedingly hard.

The job that the teachers I know best are trying to do is impressively complex.  They must have a high level of expertise in whatever subject(s) they are teaching.  The teachers I know best understand physics, chemistry and calculus at a level that the vast majority of Florida’s population – including most of the teaching profession’s loudest critics – should find intimidating.

But that’s the easy part.

These teachers know a great deal about what each student is thinking in physics/chemistry/calculus class – both because they understand the research on learning and because of the intense personal experiences they have had with hundreds of other students in their classrooms.

And they know teenagers.  A parent’s work is intense, but a parent really only has to deeply understand her or his own teenagers – a daunting enough task.

A teacher has to deeply understand everybody’s teenagers – and somehow engineer the group dynamics of all those chaotic young minds to arrange for the nearly magical synergy of complex social interactions that drives the deepest learning.  When some of those teenagers come from homes where it’s not clear where the next meal is coming from, that engineering task becomes much more difficult.

Now here’s the problem:  We don’t have enough of the amazingly skilled educators who can do this nearly magical work – particularly in math and science subjects – so that every student can be part of their classes.  How can we fix that?

I will start by saying what will not fix it.

We cannot fix it by whining that teachers only work seven hours per day and 190 days per year and therefore do not deserve to be paid salaries that would allow them to start families.

We cannot fix it by repeating the flawed argument that teachers don’t enter the profession for the money and that therefore addressing salary issues will have no effect on teacher supply.

Both of these arguments rely on fallacies.  The teachers I know are working much more than seven hours per day.  And as anyone who knows a little elementary economics knows, supply depends on the market price.

But from there it gets a little tougher.  The physics and calculus skills possessed by the teachers I know best make them more valuable in the general economy outside of the schools than, say, physical education teachers.  Yet they are paid the same salaries in almost every public school system.  In fact, the physical education teachers often have access to salary supplements through coaching assignments that math and science teachers can’t access.

Should we pay math and science teachers more than physical education teachers?  There are math and science teachers for whom I have tremendous respect who would say no.  A public school is a high pressure environment in which the social cohesiveness of the teaching corps is an important asset.  These teachers tell me that paying math and science teachers more than other teachers would seriously damage the relationships among teachers that are so important to maintaining the best possible learning environment for students.

These teachers might argue that the solution to the shortage of math and science teachers is to raise the minimum salary for all teachers in Florida – regardless of subject area – to something like $50,000 per year (as proposed in SB 586).  But that is simply not going to happen in a Republican-dominated state government.  It’s not obvious it would happen if the government were dominated by Democrats, either.  So saying that we should do nothing about teacher salaries unless the same thing is done for all teachers is simply concluding that providing more (or all) students with access to highly qualified math and science teachers is not important enough to disrupt the present social structure of the teaching profession.  It’s a statement of priorities by the teacher corps.

Of course money is only one issue in attracting math and science experts into the high school teaching profession.  A recent report led by the American Physical Society on the future of high school teaching makes that clear.

The only thing that is obvious is that addressing the supply of high school math and science teachers is a complex problem that will require a difficult and respectful dialogue.  That dialogue will almost certainly have to take place at the district level, since there seems to be no interest in the issue at the state level.

Shooting mean-spirited and intellectually lazy insults at teachers isn’t going to accomplish anything.


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Florida’s shortage of new high school math teachers: Update 11/13/17


There has not been any progress on addressing the declining supply of new high school math teachers since my last update two weeks ago.

In fact, as far as I can tell I am the only individual in the State of Florida who believes this is a problem.

Have a great week!

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