Do students get a better education at New College than at Florida State University? Not in my field – physics.

FSU Physics Professor Simon Capstick with a group of students in a Studio Physics class.

The proposal by Randy Fine, the Chair of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives, to merge New College into Florida State University as a means to save money has sparked a furious backlash from the New College community. The basic argument – at least in responses such as one written by Sachs Media communications professional Karen Cyphers on – is that the quality of education at New College is so much better than it is at (say) Florida State University that it justifies the cost to taxpayers of a New College degree – which is about a factor of five greater than it is at FSU.

I don’t support the merger. Nobody has convinced me that swallowing New College would be good for FSU and its students. But I’ll defend the quality of education we provide at FSU – at least in the Physics Department where I’ve been a professor for 33 years.

In October of 2016, a joint task force formed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers released a report on the future of undergraduate education in physics that cited five college and university physics programs as national models. Florida State University’s Physics Department was one of those model programs.

The task force said this about the FSU Physics Department:

As a large research university, the physics department at Florida State University must balance competing priorities, including graduate and undergraduate education and research productivity, among a diverse faculty. A strong undergraduate committee and a focus on preparing all students for success have led to a number of successful curricular interventions that prepare students for several key transitions in the major, including entrance to the major and the transition to the upper division, and support students in developing communication and computation skills within the context of the discipline.

These interventions help keep students from leaving the major and better prepare them for success. The department’s other strong focus is on student community. Through intentional group work (particularly at the lower level), connection to faculty, and a centrally located lounge that keeps students visible, students are strongly encouraged to interact with one another.

The task force also cited the department’s active learning introductory-level Studio Physics Program (based on the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University), curricular innovations developed for physics majors and the department’s emphasis on getting students involved in cutting-edge physics research early in their time at FSU. (It’s proper to mention here that Rep. Fine visited my Studio Physics class in October.)

Is New College a better place to learn to be an economist or a writer than FSU? I don’t have the expertise to say. But I can say with 100% confidence that New College is not a better place to learn physics or to learn to be a physicist than FSU.

I could pick through Ms. Cyphers’ arguments about why New College is a superior learning environment issue-by-issue. For example, I could point out that nearly all FSU students live either on campus or in nearby privately-owned-but-student-oriented housing – making her statement that the on-campus residency rate at New College is much greater than at the other state universities, including FSU, somewhat (let’s say) disingenuous. And as for Ms. Cyphers’ preference for face-to-face instruction, which she says is “becoming less common at other universities”, I’ll issue an invitation for her to visit my classroom as Rep. Fine did. I teach in a classroom that is about a mile from her office at Sachs Media. On a nice day, it’s a pleasant walk.

Legislators make appropriations decisions – including about higher education – for all kinds of reasons. And it is not my place to say that New College should or should not merge with FSU (although I don’t see how such a merger would make FSU a better place to learn). But the New College community should be very careful about arguing that a New College education is superior to the education that FSU students experience. Because at least in my field, it’s not.

In the FSU Physics Department, undergraduate majors are encouraged to get involved in the department’s cutting-edge research programs early.
A Studio Physics class at FSU.

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Getting ready to start your first year of college? Is there any chance you might pursue a STEM major? If so, don't declare "exploratory" or "undecided" as your major.

The college experience for a student majoring in a STEM field like engineering, chemistry, computer science or physics is fundamentally different from the experience of majoring in almost any other field. Why? Because of the “vertical” structure of these majors: Almost every course you take in a STEM major requires one or more prerequisites, so that you must get off to a fast start with math and science courses during your first semester of college to stay on track to graduate in four years.

And that is why declaring “exploratory” or “undecided” as a major is a bad idea for a student entering college if there is any chance at all that she or he will want to complete a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field. Instead, a student entering college should declare the most challenging STEM major that student might possibly choose. If an entering student declares an engineering major and then decides a semester or a year later that engineering is not for her or him, then she or he can switch to (for example) political science easily enough and graduate in four years, anyway. However, a student who chooses an exploratory major (or who declares a major in English or sociology) who then decides to switch into (for example) physics a semester or a year later is likely to end up in college for five years instead of four.

The ease of switching from a STEM major into one with a less vertical structure can be illustrated through the case of a physics major I worked with more than a decade ago who decided when she was two-and-a-half years into the bachelor’s degree program in my field that she wanted to pursue a career in science policy instead of in scientific research. So she added a second major in political science – which she completed in three semesters with no grade below an “A-” – and went on to earn a master’s degree in science policy at another prestigious university. Today she has a premier science policy job in a federal agency.

To those who object to this advice on the grounds that “college is supposed to be for exploration”, I would argue that it makes more sense for a student to test drive a major (and then perhaps to set it aside and move on to something else) than it does to sample general education classes in a variety of fields. In STEM disciplines, using general education classes to choose a career field is like trying to decide from reading children’s books whether one wants to be a serious novelist. For a student, immersing one’s self in the introductory courses for a STEM major is the best way to find out if a career in the field is attractive to her or him.

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Leon County high schools lead the way in Northwest Florida at preparing students for college STEM majors

While talking with a group of high school physics teachers in Central Florida a few years ago, I mentioned that at Leon County’s Godby High School, which has a free and reduced-price eligibility rate of about 90%, about 40% of the students take a physics course during their time at the school. With one voice, the dozen teachers in the room insisted that I must be mistaken, and that no school that demographically challenged could possibly host a physics program that successful. My co-conspirator Adam LaMee, who is the Physics Teacher-in-Residence at UCF but prior to that taught physics at Leon County’s Lincoln and Rickards High Schools, assured the group of teachers that I was correct and that Godby is indeed that successful in attracting students into physics classes in large numbers despite the challenges.

Godby, where former school Teacher of the Year Zondra Clayton teaches physics, is still attracting students into the subject in large numbers. In fact, the school’s chemistry program is equally successful. Among the 37 public high schools with 100 or more 12th graders in Northwest Florida – a region bounded on the east by Leon County and on the west by Escambia County – Godby has the fifth highest enrollment rate in physics and the fourth highest rate in chemistry. For the STEM Career Prep Index, calculated as the sum of enrollment rates in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus, Godby ranks fifth – a remarkable achievement given the challenges faced by the school’s students, teachers and administrators.

In fact, among the eight schools ranked highest in the Northwest Florida STEM Career Prep Index for Fall 2019, which is calculated using course enrollment and school membership data posted by the Florida Department of Education, five are in Leon County. Chiles High School is first, Lincoln High School second, Godby fifth, Rickards High School seventh, and Leon High School eighth.

The other schools in the top eight are Escambia County’s Pensacola High School (second), the Collegiate High School at Northwest Florida State College in Okaloosa County (fourth), and Okaloosa County’s Niceville High School (sixth).

The enrollment rates for the individual subjects are calculated by summing the numbers of students enrolled in the subjects in all grades and then dividing that total by the number of 12th graders. The result gives an estimate of the course-taking rate, which itself can only be determined by examining individual transcripts.

The course enrollment numbers include dual enrollments. The FLDOE started including dual enrollments in their course enrollment spreadsheets for Spring 2019, so they are included here.

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The correlation between skipping high school physics and college heartbreak: Why a university physics professor cares about what happens in high school.

This week, I posted some depressing numbers about high school physics in Florida (statewide high school physics enrollments are down 16% over five years, and 45 public high schools of 1,000 or more students don’t teach physics).

What I didn’t do this week is tell my readers (and there were many of them this week – at least by my standards) why I care about this issue. I’m writing today to share with my readers why this is deeply personal for me.

I am a professor of physics at Florida State University, where I’ve been on the faculty for 33 years. I teach physics to students who have decided to pursue college majors – and careers – in fields like engineering, computer science, meteorology, chemistry and (of course) physics. Intellectually, all of these fields are built on a foundation of physics, of course. But more practically, students in these majors are required to succeed in calculus-based physics classes like the ones I teach.

About fifteen years ago, I took a careful look at how to give students the best possible opportunity to learn with understanding in our introductory physics classes. I settled on the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University because it provided the best active learning environment that was financially viable at an institution like mine. The SCALE-UP model provides better learning opportunities for all students, but research indicates that it is especially valuable for students who are members of groups that are underrepresented in the fields represented in my classroom, including black students and women. During the 2016-17 academic year, black students earned only 6.3% of the bachelors’ degrees in engineering, only 10.6% of the bachelors’ degrees in computing, and only 4.0% of the bachelors’ degrees in physics awarded at Florida’s public universities – even though 22% of the students in the state’s K-12 public schools are black. Women earned only 20.3% of the engineering bachelors’ degrees, only 17.4% of the computing bachelors’ degrees and only 21.8% of the physics bachelors’ degrees awarded in the state’s university system. (Source: IPEDS)

I worked with colleagues and the FSU administration to implement the SCALE-UP model in our physics department by building classrooms in the distinctive SCALE-UP design and providing the appropriate experimental equipment. We branded our implementation of SCALE-UP as the Studio Physics Program, and now each semester about 250 students choose the Studio Physics option for their introductory physics classes over the department’s other options, which until recently were traditional lecture classes. However, in the last few years even our lecture classes have adopted elements of the Studio Physics model. As a result, nearly all of our students are learning better than they would have in traditional learning environments.

The Studio Physics learning environment brings a professor into closer physical proximity with students. So a professor teaching in such an environment generally builds more personal relationships with her or his students than she or he would have in a lecture hall – and learns more about the obstacles students are encountering in learning physics.

Above and below – scenes from a Studio Physics classroom.

One of the things that I learned was that some of my students hadn’t taken a physics course in high school. In fact, when I started formally surveying my students at the beginning of each semester, I learned that the number of my students who hadn’t taken a high school physics was larger than I realized. Recently, it has been one-third of my students. Among a group of students majoring in engineering, computer science, chemistry, meteorology and physics, that should be a shocking statistic.

In my first-semester classroom, a student who didn’t take a high school physics course earns a final grade that is, on the average, about one letter grade below those who did take a high school course in the subject. Research on the correlation between high school course-taking and success in college science classes finds that my experience is typical for the nation. There are always a few students who didn’t take high school physics who sail through near the top of my class. But most students without a high school physics course cluster near the bottom of my grade distribution, and some don’t earn grades high enough to continue on with their intended majors, like engineering. It is painful to watch at close personal range a student who desperately wants a career in a field like engineering but is unable to attain it because of decisions that were made by those who were responsible for guiding that student in high school. It is even more painful to be that student.

If you have concluded from this discussion of the experiences of students in my class who haven’t had high school physics that there is something wrong with me*, then consider this: High school physics is listed as a prerequisite for the equivalent of my class at the University of Florida. If you don’t have a high school physics class, you are advised to take an additional introduction-to-introductory-physics course – which is only taught online and which lengthens a student’s time-to-degree by a full semester. How would that work for your students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

I’ve heard some remarkable excuses from adults working at school districts and high schools for their students arriving in my classroom without a high school physics class. One said that students at her district’s engineering academies don’t have time in their schedules for physics and calculus (calculus, along with physics and chemistry, are recommended for high school students considering college engineering majors by the American Society for Engineering Education). “That high school engineering design course is a suitable substitute for a high school physics class” was said by no college professor ever. A school board member in a different district said that providing physics and calculus courses for students in her district who might want to major in STEM fields is not in her district’s mission. Ponder that: “Preparing our district’s students to succeed in the college majors of their choice is not part of our mission.”

Our Studio Physics Program offered its first classes in 2008, just as I was completing my service on the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards. So I was immersed in education politics at the same time I was getting to know my students and their struggles in a new way. It was a powerfully motivating combination.

I’ve been involved in helping a few Florida school districts look for ways to better prepare their students for college STEM majors, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that everybody at all levels – parents, teachers, school administrators, district leadership – must be on the same page to make any progress. Such an alignment is very difficult to achieve, so I’ve seen only few victories. Bay County’s high school physics enrollment has increased by about a factor of five since the 2015-16 school year – and that’s even with the devastation of Hurricane Michael. Speaking of hurricanes, Monroe County improved as well, even with a direct hit from Hurricane Irma (although their improvement coincided with – and apparently benefited from – the end of my efforts there). Seminole County is remarkable for its sustained excellence, and now they are beginning a new effort (the Physics Bus!) to improve to an even higher level.

A Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony for Bay County middle school students – part of that district’s successful effort to improve the preparation of their students for college STEM majors.

But overall, Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate is about half the national rate and declining from there. I expect the percentage of students who arrive in my own classroom without the proper preparation – a high school physics class – to continue to grow. That means the heartbreak in my classroom will grow as well. I’m not looking forward to it.

*There is a lot wrong with me. Just not this.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Seminole County’s Physics Bus.
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Florida high school physics enrollments continue sharp decline, while chemistry enrollments level off from recent drops.

Physics enrollments in Florida’s public high schools continued to decline in the Fall of 2019, reaching a level 16.3% lower than five years ago, in the Fall of 2014.

In contrast, chemistry enrollments leveled off after three years of sharp declines.

Bridge to Tomorrow analyzed course enrollment data posted earlier this week by the Florida Department of Education. The FLDOE posts this data twice a year – once for fall semester enrollments and once for the spring semester enrollments.

In the Spring of 2019, FLDOE added dual enrollments to its course enrollment spreadsheets, and the department continued to do so for Fall 2019.

The 16.3% decline for physics enrollments quoted above does not include dual enrollments. However, in physics the number of dual enrollments in Fall 2019 was small – 553. The number of non-dual enrollment high school physics enrollments in Fall 2019 was 40,203 (vs. 48,034 in Fall 2014).

The plot of high school physics enrollments since Fall 2014 shown below includes the Fall 2019 dual enrollments in red – seen only as a small sliver.

As can be seen below in the plot of enrollment in the individual Honors Physics 1, non-Honors Physics 1 and AP Physics 1 courses, enrollment in the non-Honors Physics 1 course is collapsing quickly. Declines in Honors Physics 1 and AP Physics 1 are less precipitous.

Enrollments in non-dual enrollment chemistry courses increased a bit in Fall 2019 over Fall 2018 (138,711 in Fall 2019 vs. 137,641 in Fall 2018). However, the Fall 2019 enrollment level is still far below its Fall 2015 peak of 160,141. There were 2,448 dual enrollments in chemistry in Fall 2019, shown in red in the figure below.

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Number of Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students but no physics classes grows to 45.

In the Fall of 2019 – the first half of the present school year – there were 45 Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students that did not teach physics.

That number is significantly larger than the corresponding number of high schools from last year (Fall 2018), which was 36.

Physics is the gateway high school science course to college STEM majors. The subject is recommended for high school students who are considering college majors in fields including architecture, astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, meteorology, pre-medical school and (of course) physics.

This result was extracted by Bridge to Tomorrow from course enrollment data posted by the Florida Department of Education earlier this week.

Last year’s result has been quoted by both Florida GOP Chair and Senator Joe Gruters and Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram during the last several months as a way of illustrating the effects of the state’s teacher shortage. Now they both have a whole lot more to talk about.

A list of the Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students that do not teach physics follows. They are grouped by school district.

Broward: Miramar High School, Coconut Creek High School, Somerset Academy Charter High

Citrus: Crystal River High School

Clay: Orange Park High School, Middleburg High School

Collier: Palmetto Ridge High School

Duval: Terry Parker High School, Jean Ribault High School, Westside High School

Escambia: Pine Forest High School

Gadsden: Gadsden County High School

Hernando: Hernando High School, Frank W. Springstead High School, Nature Coast Technical High, Weeki Wachee High School

Highlands: Avon Park High School

Lake: Mt. Dora High School, Tavares High School, Lake Minneola High School

Lee: Lehigh Senior High School, Estero High School, Bonita Springs High School

Marion: North Marion High School, Forest High School, Lake Weir High School, Belleview High School

Miami-Dade: Hialeah-Miami Lakes Sr. High, Miami Jackson Senior High School, North Miami Beach Senior High

Palm Beach: South Tech Academy, Palm Beach Lakes High School, Glades Central High School, Boynton Beach Community High

Pasco: Anclote High School, Fivay High School, Gulf High School, River Ridge High School, Hudson High School

Polk: Auburndale Senior High School, Tenoroc High School, Lake Region High School

Putnam: Palatka High School

Sarasota: Booker High School

Volusia: University High School

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Which Florida school district is best in 2019-20 at preparing its students for college STEM majors? Seminole County is #1 again, but the district is not resting on its laurels.

Seminole County is once again the best Florida school district in preparing high school students for college STEM majors, according to a Bridge to Tomorrow analysis of course enrollment data posted by the Florida Department of Education.

But being number one (albeit narrowly ahead of Brevard County) isn’t good enough for the Seminole County Public Schools leadership. Instead, the district recently launched a program to promote physics to elementary and middle school students in an effort to coax more students (and their parents) into taking on that subject when they get to high school.

The “STEM Career Prep Index” is calculated by adding high school enrollment rates for the four high school subjects recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education – chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus. The enrollment rate in each subject is calculated by determining the number of students in all grades enrolled in the subject and dividing that number by the number of 12th graders in the district. Spreadsheets that contain the course enrollment and school membership numbers are posted at the Florida Department of Education website.

The Florida Department of Education began including dual enrollment in its course enrollment spreadsheets in the Spring of 2019, so dual enrollment courses are included here. The one caveat about the present results is that the department only releases the number of students enrolled in a course if there are at least ten students enrolled. So courses without at least ten students enrolled district-wide are not included in the totals used here.

Seminole County is one of only two school districts in Florida that has a physics enrollment rate higher than the national rate of approximately 40 enrollments per 100 12th graders. The other is state’s number one district for physics, Brevard County. Nevertheless, on January 21 the district christened its first “Physics Bus” which brings equipment for hands-on learning opportunities to elementary schools around the district. The district is planning to maintain several such buses and to add middle schools to the program. By inviting students and parents to be more comfortable with physics in elementary and middle school, the district hopes to enroll more students from a wide range of backgrounds in high school courses in the subject – and thus to improve the preparation of those students for college STEM majors.

The Orlando Sentinel published a story on the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first Physics Bus. I participated in the ceremony, which was held at Hamilton Elementary School of Engineering and Technology.

Seminole County Superintendent of Schools Walt Griffin and School Board members at the ribbon-cutting for the first Seminole County Physics Bus on January 21.
Scene from the ribbon-cutting for the first Seminole County Public Schools Physics Bus at Hamilton Elementary School of Engineering and Technology on January 21.
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