Can the advantages of a SCALE-UP learning environment be reproduced in a distance learning program?

class-panoramaWe know that the social interactions among students and between students and instructors in a studio physics learning environment dramatically improve student learning.

But can those social interactions and the collaborative hands-on learning environment that characterize a studio physics experience in a physical classroom be reproduced in a distance learning program?

This possibility was recently explored in a master’s thesis project completed by Allison Cottle, a student in Harvard’s Department of Architecture.

[OK, this is where my journalist friends put in a notice that they might have a bit of a conflict of interest. So here is mine: Allison is my daughter. And no, I didn’t make her do this project. It wasn’t my idea at all. Now to continue…]

The core idea of the project will be simple to understand for educators in physics and other fields who use the SCALE-UP learning environment pioneered by North Carolina State’s Bob Beichner. Instead of having all of the round tables in one physical room (the SCALE-UP room in which I’m teaching this semester has round tables that each seat nine students who operate as three groups of three students each, as shown above), connect round tables in different geographic locations with each other with audio and visual channels that are as complete as possible. And connect all of those student locations with an instructor in a different location. The students would benefit from in-person interactions with the other students in the physical room, and would have the best remote connection possible with students in other locations and the instructor.

Nobody would argue that the interpersonal connections between the students in different locations and the instructor (or with students in other locations) would be as high quality as they would be in a single physical room. But as pointed out in the project, having everybody in the same physical room isn’t always an option. The geographical focus during the project presentation was on Green River, Wyoming, a town of 12,515 (according to Wikipedia) which has limited access to higher education. The argument presented during the thesis presentation was that such a facility would provide Green River students with access to professors from high-powered institutions like UCLA, MIT or Harvard.

But one could imagine such a scheme serving the Florida Keys, which is a 150-mile-long string of islands served in a limited way by Florida Keys Community College. The facilities envisioned in the thesis could be located at the three FKCC locations in the upper, middle and lower Keys and provide a “critical mass” of students for a course in, say, calculus-based physics, which is required for students who want to transfer to Florida’s four-year universities and study engineering. FKCC does not presently offer that course, cutting off a population of Keys students (primarily those from disadvantaged backgrounds) from access to careers in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. It wouldn’t take a professor from MIT to lead such a course. It could be done by any of the instructors from Florida’s studio physics programs at FSU, UCF or FAMU.

This model could also provide high quality physics instruction to high school students in Florida’s rural districts, about ten of which do not presently provide access to physics courses. It has long been argued by the state’s reform activists that expanding access to physics instruction will require an online component. In an interview on Florida Public Radio in 2011, Foundation for Excellence in Education CEO Patricia Levesque said, “unless we change the way we think about online learning and what types and how teachers are hired and how student takes courses, we won’t be able to offer physics to every student in the state.” It’s certain that Patricia was not thinking about the highly interactive learning environment proposed at Harvard, but instead was arguing for a broadcasting recorded lectures, a model with limited instructional potential.

The problem with the proposal presented at Harvard is that it is not as cheap as just planting a student in front of a computer screen in a random classroom or at home to watch recorded lectures. But the old saying that you get what you pay for is certainly relevant here.

The specific classroom design proposed in the project used D-shaped tables, with one table per highly-wired room. Furthermore, the primary focus of the project was not on the dynamics inside the classroom, about which there is a tremendous amount of research. Instead, the project focused on the importance of what goes on just outside the classroom. The facility in which the classroom is embedded plays an important role in inviting students to talk among themselves before and after class, and for convincing students that the learning in which they are engaging is important to them and to society – even though they are in a remote location.

The primary obstacles facing such a distance learning proposal are those that always obstruct proposals to improve the quality of and access to effective STEM career preparation – culture and priorities. On culture: One member of the panel of critics for the thesis presentation questioned whether there are enough people interested in learning with understanding – rather than doing the minimum to earn a credential – to make the construction of this distance learning facility worthwhile. The opposition to interactive engagement pedagogies is actually much broader than that critic realizes. Not only do many students resist such pedagogies, but large segments of the communities of educators and policy-makers do as well. In fact, that battle occurs within individual classrooms, including mine.

And then there are priorities. There are Florida school districts like Seminole and Brevard Counties in which providing strong preparation for STEM careers – including health careers – is a high priority. But then there are many more Florida districts in which physics, calculus and even chemistry are considered specialty courses needed only by a few students.

Nevertheless, there is tremendous value in thinking about how to provide the highest quality learning environment in rural locations so that the broadest possible range of career options can be available to students who live there. Allison’s project was well-received by the panel of critics, who bought into the premise of the project and then focused on architectural issues that were well beyond the limits of my expertise. Now we will see if anyone beyond the Harvard Graduate School of Design is interested.


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What does Florida need from its math and science teacher education programs?

There is a great deal of hand-wringing (and not much else) going on about the shortages of math and science teachers in Florida.  Inevitably, the state’s college- and university-based math and science teacher education programs come up during these discussions.

What do we need from our math and science teacher education programs?  We at least need these three things (and perhaps more):

  1. They must recruit strong math and science students into teaching.  The recent CALDER Center study of the Texas UTeach sites argued that their ability to recruit strong students was what most distinguished them – particularly the Austin site.
  2. They must train their students in the most effective teaching techniques and make sure their students deeply understand the research that forms the foundation of these techniques.  Most new teachers will find that they have to compromise on the issue of how they teach when they arrive in their first jobs.  However, that process of compromise should not begin while the prospective teachers are being trained.
  3. They must prepare their students for the task of classroom management.  So here is a confession:  I teach 20-year-olds at a fairly selective institution.  That means I know nothing about classroom management.  But I keep hearing this from experienced teachers and administrators:  “Nobody prepares new teachers to manage their classrooms!”  So I take that to mean that classroom management is a important issue that is inadequately addressed in teacher preparation programs.

It would be best if every teacher preparation program did all of these things, but clearly they don’t.  Let’s set the bar this way:  Every teacher preparation program should do at least one of these three things.  And if a program doesn’t do any of these things, it should be shut down.  Period.

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Decisions on math and science that students make in high school can limit their STEM options in college

I frequently talk with FSU undergraduates or recent graduates who realize – too late – that the decisions they made in high school not to take courses like precalculus, chemistry or physics either limited their career options or put their career ambitions at risk.

Some tell me that after arriving at FSU that they found some technology or physical science field that piqued their interest.  Sadly, they then figured out their decisions not to take upper level math and science courses in high school (because in high school they were sure they were going to be writers or “in the political science business”, for example) made it nearly impossible to succeed in those fields in college.

Others arrive at FSU without the necessary preparation for their chosen majors and then become deeply frustrated when they run into trouble.  About a quarter of the students in my studio physics classes decided – for one reason or another – not to take physics in high school.  It seems inexplicable to me that a student intending to major in engineering or even chemistry would skip high school physics.  Nevertheless, too many do.  A few succeed anyway.  Many more do not.  About half of the biology majors at FSU didn’t take physics in high school, and that turns out to be a significant problem for them as well.  More recently, I’ve become aware of students who arrive at FSU intending to pursue careers in the life sciences or health professions who didn’t even take chemistry in high school, much less physics.

A lack of math preparation can be equally problematic.  Too many students arrive on campus having to take College Algebra, which leaves them a year-and-a-half behind the students who arrive on campus with credit for AP Calculus AB or an equivalent IB calculus course.  For a fairly large number of STEM majors, taking College Algebra during the first semester on campus makes it is impossible for students to keep up with the pace required to graduate in four years.  These students are unable to keep up with the university’s “map” schedules and they ultimately get kicked out of their intended STEM majors.

I was thinking about this as I listened to the discussions during legislative committee meetings last week, where preparing high school students for STEM careers – even affluent students – was left off the agenda and even belittled a bit.

Then I thought about it again when James Madison Institute Senior Fellow Jack Chambless discussed the importance of picking an economically viable college major – like his daughter’s choice in the health professions – in the Orlando Sentinel.   The only problem with Chambless’ commentary was that he ignored the importance of high school preparation for the majors he was selling – especially those involving lots of math and science (Chambless noted that there were 100 psychology majors at the Georgia State graduation he attended and only one physics major).

The James Madison Institute once published an article about the importance of high school preparation for college STEM majors in its journal.  Alas, the institute has lost interest in the subject – and in the subject of how we are going to find enough strong teachers in math and science so that all of Florida students can have access to these economically robust STEM careers.

The plots below show how high school math and science course-taking are correlated with STEM bachelor’s degree attainment.  The data are from Florida’s high school graduating class of 1999 and were published by USF researchers led by Will Tyson in 2007.  The figures are taken from a paper published in The Physics Teacher in 2011, which can be downloaded here:


The same figures were also published in the above-mentioned Journal of the James Madison Institute article on high school preparation for STEM careers, which I authored.

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Basic RGB





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A thank you to the FLDOE public information staff for their nation-leading transparency

This post is a heartfelt thank you to Cheryl Etters and her colleagues on the Florida Department of Education public information staff.  Their hospitality to me – as a private citizen who is not by any means a professional journalist – has been remarkable.  My only regret is that I couldn’t get this placed in the Tallahassee Democrat so that more folks could have seen what wonderful work Cheryl and her colleagues have done.

Florida is a state in which governmental transparency is a constant theme. Political leaders and journalists often talk about the importance of making information about public institutions easily available.

Educating our children is the single most important thing we do as a state. So transparency about what the students in our public K-12 schools are doing well and not doing so well is the most important public information mission our state government has.

Fortunately, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) is the best in the nation at providing that information. During the summer of 2015, future high school physics teacher (and FSU physics major) Connor Oswald worked with me on finding out how many students around the nation were taking high school physics – the gateway science course to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. Much of Connor’s work consisted of contacting and reminding staff members at state departments of education around the nation to send him information. After a summer of work, we had physics enrollment numbers from 30 states and the District of Columbia. (You can find the results in this talk from the 2016 national PhysTEC conference)

Only one state – Florida – made it easy. In fact, the reader can try this at home: On the FLDOE web site, find the “PK-12 Public School Data Publications and Reports” page. Click on “Students” and then scroll down to “Course Enrollment”. Not only can you find out how many students are taking physics in Florida (or AP Computer Science, or Spanish 2, or Algebra 2), but you can also find numbers for each district, and even for each school.

You can also see how individual school districts are doing in graduating their students from high school and which districts have the largest numbers of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

If you go elsewhere on the FLDOE site, you can learn that while the number of students taking Algebra 1 in middle school is declining (a troubling trend), the percentage of those students who are black is increasing (which is encouraging).

The FLDOE has also led the nation for years in providing the detailed information from its “data warehouse” that researchers need to figure out what works in improving student achievement. For example, in 2007 researchers from the University of South Florida showed that students who take physics and calculus in high school are dramatically more likely to earn bachelors’ degrees in lucrative STEM fields than students who do not.

In another study – this one published in 2015 – researchers showed that the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program, which was terminated by budget cuts during the recent recession, was effective in reducing the attrition of math and science teachers in Florida’s public schools.

As Florida faces critical educational challenges in the New Year, we can be confident that policy-makers have the best possible information available to them. We can also be confident that those of us who observe and sometimes criticize those policy-makers will have access to that information. In this way, the FLDOE is providing a model for government transparency, not just for our state but for the nation.

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College majors and salaries: A broad look across disciplines

Former Florida Senate President Tom Lee mentioned preparing high school students for the “political science business” during yesterday’s Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, and it tweaked my interest enough to spend a few minutes going back to the report “The Economic Value of College Majors” that was published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in 2015.  I frequently cite the top 25 college majors for salary from that report, but here is a somewhat broader ranking that includes majors available at FSU.

There are three things about the chart below to keep in mind.  First, this is for graduates that only have a bachelor’s degree – they have not earned a graduate or professional degree.  Second, the salaries are averaged over a broad range of ages (25-59).  Third, the salaries are in 2013 dollars.

You’ll notice that Senator Lee’s favorite major, Political Science, is pretty much in the middle.  I’ll note again for the record that of the top 25 majors, 17 have the word “engineering” in them.  Physics, Computer Science, Economics and Applied Math are also in the top 25.  Several of the top 25 are not included in the chart below because they are not offered at FSU.


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If Florida’s state universities are going to elevate their law and medical schools,they should consider these statistics on who their strongest prospective law and medical students are.

Senate Bill 4, which was filed yesterday with considerable fanfare, would focus the efforts of Florida’s State University System on elevating its postgraduate programs in law, medicine and business.

Those who are the architects of that plan should remember that a key part of the process will be to attract the very strongest students.  And according to data provided by the AIP Statistical Research Center, many of the strongest prospective students in law and medicine are pursuing undergraduate majors in math, physics, engineering and economics.

While the leaders of our law and medical schools should keep this in mind, educational leaders at the undergraduate and K-12 levels should keep this in mind, too:  The best preparation for careers in law and medicine includes heavy doses of math and science – especially physical science – starting at the secondary level.



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The State of Florida has to change how it thinks about math

Florida needs to get to the point where saying “I’m not a math person” sounds just as bad as “I’m not a reading person”.

Right now, not being a math person is fine, according to many.  Some of our policy-makers – even those holding powerful positions in the education establishment – profess publicly that their math skills are poor.  Some have never made such a public confession, preferring to conceal their weaknesses in that area.  The problem is that few of those prominent individuals apologize for their lack of mathematical literacy.  After all, the predominant attitude right now is that some people are math people, and some people aren’t, and that is OK.

The problem is that while we keep giving mathematical illiteracy a pass, math skills are becoming more and more important to achieving middle class incomes.  The highest paying bachelor-level careers require very strong math skills.  The most lucrative associate degree-level careers require strong algebra skills.

Every time policy-makers have a public discussion about education and neglect to mention Florida’s crisis-level middle school math situation, they have missed one more crucial opportunity to right the state’s educational ship.

Of course, it is more comfortable for policy-makers to talk about reading, or virtue, or some other subject that they have mastered themselves.  So math – and its first cousin science – easily fall off the agenda.

More of these leaders need to take the lead of former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, who publicly talked about his own shortcomings in math (he did so at the inaugural Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony in 2012) but pushed hard for the improvement of math and science education.

Math and science education in Florida will not improve unless our leaders make it a high priority, talk about it every time there is a discussion about the future, and then focus the resources on the issue necessary to reach every kid in the state.

If our leaders do this now, maybe a generation from now our own kids will talk about the strange old days when adults thought it was OK to not be “a math person”.  And laugh about it.




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