On Friday night, Rutherford High School defeated the Bozeman School 20-7 in the football season opener for both teams.
But when I visited both schools on Friday – before the football game – I saw that students are winning at both schools because teachers and administrators have opened new opportunities for students to prepare for STEM careers.
I started Friday morning at 7:15 am – Zero Hour – with the IB Physics 2 class at Rutherford High School and its charismatic teacher, Rachel Morris. Rutherford is a diverse school of more than a thousand students located in the built-up southern part of the county not far from Tyndall Air Force Base and the Gulf of Mexico. The school houses the Bay County school district’s International Baccalaureate Program.
Rachel, who is a former Rutherford Teacher of the Year and a winner of Governor Scott’s Shine Award, also teaches math. She has been a Bay County leader in implementing interactive teaching strategies for physics. Rachel earned her bachelor’s degree in Math Education at FSU in 2008 and taught briefly in Gulf County before joining the Rutherford faculty.
Rutherford’s IB Physics 2 course is the first second-year physics course the school has offered in memory. In fact, the second-year class is only part of the expansion of the physics program at Rutherford. Two years ago, during the 2015-16 school year, Mrs. Morris had a single 14-student class that combined AP Physics 1 and Honors Physics. This fall, she has two AP Physics 1 classes and the second-year IB Physics 2 class that I visited. In total, about four times as many students are taking physics at Rutherford this year as two years ago.
Rutherford’s physics growth is a significant contributor to the growth in physics courses district-wide. In 2015-16, only 100 students took physics at Bay District’s high schools. This year, the number is about 300 – a factor of three increase in only two years.
On Friday afternoon, I visited a 17-student Honors Physics class at Bozeman – the first time physics has been offered there. Bozeman is located in the rural northern part of Bay County and draws students from a large and sparsely populated geographical area (most of the county’s residents are concentrated along the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of the county). Bozeman covers all grades K-12, and is best known for an award-winning agricultural program. The school graduates about a hundred students each year, so the 17 students taking physics represent a reasonably large percentage of a graduating class.
Bozeman’s physics teacher is Denise Newsome, who grew up not far from Bozeman and who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from FSU in 2008. She is an experienced chemistry teacher but only joined the Bozeman faculty last year. This summer, Denise collaborated in leading a summer camp on the physics of dance at FSU’s Panama City campus. As part of the preparation for the camp, Denise unearthed electronic sensors and computer interfaces purchased for Bozeman years before but never used (nor even unpacked from their original boxes) and deployed them so that the camp’s dancers could quantify their motion. That long-lost equipment will be used extensively in Bozeman’s physics class this year.
Bozeman students are aiming high. Even though physics was being offered at Bozeman for the first time, several were planning to pursue careers in engineering and meteorology. After I finished my discussion with the class about how the Sun produces its energy with nuclear reactions, one of the students asked about how difficult it would be to power a home or a city with solar power. We made some estimates and found that with 10% efficient solar panels we could power a medium-sized city – requiring about 100 MW of power – by covering a square about 1 km on a side. And we noted for the benefit of the half-dozen physics students wearing their football jerseys that 1 km is about ten football fields strung end-to-end.
Both Rutherford and Bozeman – located worlds apart despite being in the same school district – are bursting with promise. This year, both schools are making substantial progress in unleashing that promise.