Yes, as Anna Eskamani said in her Orlando Sentinel op-ed it would be great for Florida’s economy to grow our clean energy innovation and manufacturing sector. But we should also focus on preparing our state’s young people to be among the engineers and scientists leading the sector.

State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who is suddenly getting some attention as a possible 2022 candidate for Governor, argued in an op-ed in yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel that Congress should fund a major initiative in clean energy and that such an initiative could be a great thing for Florida’s economy, environment and people.

Florida would maximize its benefit from such an initiative if the state were able to grow its clean energy innovation and manufacturing sector, and if Florida’s young people were prepared to assume the engineering and physical science roles that are at the heart of the clean energy sector.

Unfortunately, Florida does a poor job providing its young people access to careers in engineering and the physical sciences. Florida is ranked 37th among the states in the number of bachelors’ degrees awarded in science and engineering fields per 1,000 18-24 year olds, as shown in the plot below. The plot also shows the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate for public K-12 students in each state. That rate is an indicator (admittedly imperfect) of the socioeconomics of the students in the public K-12 schools.

Where Florida (orange dot) stands in educating bachelor’s degree-level scientists and engineers relative to other states and DC, with the x-axis chosen to allow the reader to sort by a measure of socioeconomic status of the student population. The degree data are from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators, and free and reduced-price lunch data are from the National Center for Education Statistics.

While there is much we can do to help Florida’s students be more successful in engineering and the physical sciences at the university level, the problems in the pipeline begin before college. In fall of 2019, Florida public high school students took physics – a subject which the American Society for Engineering Education says is necessary for students considering a college major in engineering – at a rate 55% below the national rate. The rate at which the state’s public high school students took calculus (another high school subject recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education) was 35% below the national rate. In chemistry, Florida’s students were 16% below the national rate.

Of course, Black students fare worse than white students do. In 2018-19, Black students earned only 6.5% of the bachelors’ degrees awarded by the State University System in engineering, even though 22% of the students in Florida’s public K-12 schools are Black. In physics, the corresponding percentage was only 3.9%. In chemistry, it was 8.7%. (Shown below)

The underrepresentation of Black students begins before college. Of the Florida students who passed the Advanced Placement Physics 1 exam in May of 2019, only 2.3% were Black. In AP Calculus AB, only 4.1% of the Florida students passing the exam were Black. (Shown below)

Data from IPEDS, College Board AP Participation and Performance site, and Florida Department of Education.

Florida’s most important initiative for bringing students from underrepresented groups into the engineering and science pipeline is in Eskamani’s district – the Orange County Public Schools Calculus Project, which recruits middle school students from underrepresented groups into Algebra 1 classes. Districts throughout the state should be adopting the Orange County model, but they have not done so.

That was the situation before the pandemic. Now the situation will be much worse because Florida’s K-12 schools are facing catastrophic budget pressures. The number of public high schools that do not offer calculus and physics is likely to grow dramatically, depriving students of the opportunity to prepare properly for college majors in engineering and the physical sciences.

A clean energy initiative – or indeed any initiative that proposes to grow a sector that involves technology – should include a substantial investment in the K-12 schools. If we neglect to give all of Florida’s students, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, the opportunity to enter the fields that provide leadership for such a sector, then we are not pushing our state forward. Instead, we are simply making things worse.

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Protect medically vulnerable educators so that they will be ready to serve when we need them most – Fall 2021

From the Associated Press report on Anthony Fauci’s testimony before a Congressional committee yesterday, July 31:

Appearing before a House panel investigating the nation’s response to the pandemic, Fauci expressed “cautious” optimism that a vaccine would be available, particularly by next year.

“I believe, ultimately, over a period of time in 2021, that Americans will be able to get it,” Fauci said, referring to the vaccine.

It is highly likely that I will be teaching an in-person Studio Physics class in the fall of 2021. Even with my asthma, I will be vaccinated and confident that if I get COVID from my students it will not kill me.

My students have often made me ill. My most recent pneumonia was in early February, but a course of antibiotics took care of it and I didn’t miss a day of class – until after Spring Break, of course. That’s the deal I make with myself and my family: By taking flu shots every fall and otherwise trying to stay fit, I give myself a great chance of surviving whatever bug I pick up from my students or colleagues or whomever. It’s the same deal that many educators make every year. Sure we get sick, but we make sure that the results of those illnesses will not be tragically irreversible.

It’s quite possible that if my students made me ill this fall in class that it would kill me. I’ll be safe this fall only because I will not be meeting with my students in person; instead, I’ll be teaching 70 students online. The trade-off is that I know that the students I have this fall will, on the average, learn less than they would have in a face-to-face class – and that the students who come from weaker academic backgrounds (often because they come from high schools largely populated by low income students) will suffer the most. This will be the case even though I will probably be working much harder at my teaching than I do in-person. I am not happy about that trade-off, but if I accept it for a year I will be able to return to what I know is best for my students in the fall of 2021.

I am concerned about educators at all levels – K-12 and postsecondary – who are medically vulnerable like I am but who will be asked to be in physical classrooms with students this fall. By forcing these educators to teach in person this fall, we might lose their services for the fall of 2021 either because they decide to leave the profession in the next few weeks to avoid a hazardous situation, or because they become ill with COVID this school year and are unable to return.

We will need every strong educator in the fall of 2021. No matter how determined we are, the academic year that is about to start will be disrupted (probably repeatedly) by waves of illness and more economic and personal tragedies. It will not be a good year to learn for anyone. But next year – the 2021-22 academic year – could be a good year unless we decimate Florida’s educator corps with rash and delusional near-term decisions that squander our ability to succeed in the future that is only twelve months away.

That isn’t to say that we should write off the 2020-21 academic year. On the contrary, every educator should be working hard to do the best she or he can given her or his medical limitations. There are some teachers who want to teach students in physical classrooms and who can do so with only a low level of risk. They should be allowed to do so. There are others like myself who would be betraying our loved ones if we agreed to teach face-to-face. I’ve taken my situation as a challenge to do the best I can online. I have the freedom to take on that challenge because I have resources, access to expert colleagues (from all around the nation) and an empty nest.

We should be making educational decisions with the future – fall 2021 – in mind. We should protect our medically vulnerable educators and give them the resources to teach remotely as well as it can be done. We will need all hands on deck in the fall of 2021, and we should not be doing anything to jeopardize that.

What my Studio Physics class will look like in the fall of 2021.
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FSU cannot solve its equity problems in STEM fields without precollege efforts

It is tempting to look at the first plot above – the underrepresentation of Black students among bachelor’s degree graduates in STEM fields at FSU – and conclude that FSU’s professors can solve this problem within the boundaries of our campuses in Tallahassee and Panama City. After all, that’s the comfortable conclusion. We are at home in our classrooms, our research laboratories and our offices. We know the language and conventions of discussion on our campus. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves that we can change people’s behaviors enough on campus to solve whatever problems are keeping Black students from earning degrees in physics or engineering or biology, and maybe now we are psyched up enough to make something of an effort to do so.

But the second plot above demonstrates just how misguided such a conclusion would be. That plot shows the underrepresentation of Black students among 2019 Florida Advanced Placement exam passers in calculus, physics and computer science – key subjects for high school students preparing for college STEM majors. The AP plot is similar to the bachelor’s degree plot. And it shows that the problem of Black students in STEM fields originates well before these students arrive on college campuses (or don’t), even though there are certainly plenty of issues for Black students on our campuses that must be solved.

There are three ways for those of us who are professors to react to the AP plot.

First, we can throw up our hands and say – as a colleague of mine told me a few years ago – that we didn’t cause the problem so it’s not our problem to solve. The word “complicit” comes to mind.

Second, we can ignore the evidence that there is a large precollege component to the problem of underrepresentation and stay in our comfort zone. Once we’ve finished whatever comfortable steps we can take in our own classroom or laboratory without disrupting things too much, we might declare the problem to be solved so that we don’t have to bother with it anymore.

Third and last, we can roll up our sleeves and invest time and energy in engaging middle and high school students, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators to try to address the precollege issues.

As a physics professor who has engaged with students, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators in middle and high schools, I can report that it is often not comfortable. In fact, if you are completely unwilling to get in an occasional argument, you should just crawl back into your university campus rabbit hole. I’ve offended teachers, parents, counselors, principals, school board members and district superintendents. I’ve also had my breath taken away by courageous teachers, parents, counselors, school board members and district staff who were willing to do the right thing for their students by urging them to take the challenging upper level high school math and science courses necessary to open up opportunities for careers in engineering, computing, and the natural and health sciences.

Of course, everything I thought I knew about middle and high schools has now changed. We are entering an entirely new education landscape in which mental health, physical safety and engagement of any type are the highest priorities. In most high schools in Florida, courses in physics and calculus were only marginally important in pre-pandemic times. In many places, post-pandemic budgets will cause the loss of upper level math and science courses from high school offerings. This may happen in as many as half of the state’s medium and large sized public high schools. And there will be little or nothing we as professors can do about that.

So professors will have to become much more hands-on when it comes to engaging high school students. We will have to offer high school students extracurricular opportunities for doing physics and calculus, and perhaps even teach dual enrollment courses – that is, college courses intended for high school students.

It is tempting to delegate extracurricular high school tasks to non-professor outreach staff, but doing so would be a mistake. Professors have an impact on the perceptions and ambitions of high school students and (especially) their parents that no non-professor staffer can match.

The bottom line for my physics department is that if my colleagues want to continue to graduate 25 bachelor’s degree students per year they will have to get involved with high school students and their parents. I will continue to do so, but others will have to join the effort.

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The representation of women, Black and Hispanic students among STEM bachelor’s degree graduates is an important equity issue at FSU and elsewhere. Here is where we are as a university right now.

Florida State University President John Thrasher has appointed a Task Force on Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion, bringing the issue of equity on campus to the fore.

The plots below show where the university is right now in graduating women, Black and Hispanic students in a range of STEM fields – an equity issue worth addressing.

The plots shows the percentages of women, Black and Hispanic students among FSU bachelor’s degree graduates for the three academic years 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 in a range of STEM fields. These percentages are compared to the percentages of these groups in Florida’s public K-12 schools.

The data are taken from the IPEDS database.

Just a note on the membership of the task force: There are no professors on the task force from any of the departments represented in the plots.

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Are you a high school student thinking about majoring in engineering or computer science in college? You should considering majoring in physics!

Physicists – even those with only a bachelor’s degree in the discipline – are the most versatile players in the modern technological economy.

Starting at the undergraduate level, physicists learn the laws of nature and how to apply them rigorously to all sorts of natural and man-made phenomena – the ultimate training in critical thinking. But they also learn a wide array of quantitative, modeling and statistical methods. They learn high level computing skills. Since college and university physics departments generally attract many of the most talented students on any campus, physics majors learn to interact with the best and brightest. They learn teamwork, because learning advanced physics topics and participating in cutting edge research (which most undergraduate physics majors do) require collaboration.

About half of bachelor’s degree graduates in physics go on to postgraduate programs in physics, engineering or a range of other fields (including law and medicine). But the other half get jobs right after graduation in fields including engineering and information technology

The American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center has released a booklet titled “Employment and Careers in Physics” that highlights the wide range of careers that bachelor’s degree and doctoral degree graduates in physics pursue – as well as the salaries that they earn pursuing those degrees. Below we show several of the plots about bachelor’s degree graduates in physics that are included in the booklet.

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Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Florida should be focusing on the fall of 2021 so that near-term mistakes don’t damage the prospects for long-term success

It is quite possible – perhaps even likely – that most Floridians will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the fall of 2021. What will the state look like then? What will the prospects of its people – and its children – be?

And most importantly: Will the decisions we make in this moment of anguish and danger make Florida and its education system stronger or weaker in the long term?

Concerns about the present state of Florida’s economy – and especially the tourism sector – are consuming much of the decision-making oxygen right now. And yet no one seems to be thinking about what economic activity can be built up in the future to replace the diminished tourism and hospitality sectors or how we should change the way we educate the state’s young people to prepare them for those new opportunities.

Florida has historically done a poor job preparing its K-12 students for the modern economy’s most robust careers – those in engineering, the physical and life sciences, computing and health professions. There are islands of success in this regard – notably Central Florida’s Seminole and Brevard Counties. Orange County’s Calculus Project is the state’s most important effort to open STEM careers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Instead, the limited amount of thought that is given to how K-12 education can prepare students for careers is focused on low-level options – high school construction academies and digital design, among others. There is nothing wrong with such options, but students who are capable of more should be provided with access to the educators and resources necessary to achieve at higher levels.

The most important point is the one that should be obvious but so far has gotten lost in all of the discussion about opening schools in a few weeks: In the Fall of 2021, every K-12 student in Florida should have access to a strong academic program. That will not be the case this fall, whether we want to admit it or not. The 2020-21 school year will be repeatedly disrupted by disease, and that cycle of disruption will not end until most Floridians have been vaccinated. But we can have hope that the 2021-22 school year will be a good one, and we should focus on preparing for that.

The most critical step to take to prepare for the 2021-22 school year is to preserve Florida’s teaching corps, including its medically vulnerable educators. Forcing teachers into classrooms in a few weeks will decimate the state’s teaching corps and undermine the effort to provide every student a great education in the Fall of 2021.

If we are successful in preserving our teaching corps, then Floridians can move on to the next step – giving up the state’s exclusive focus on providing no more than a basic education and instead providing every student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential. That means making sure that every school has the skilled teachers necessary to provide those opportunities, including those in engineering, science, computing and the health professions.

There are students who need to be in a physical classroom this fall – students from disadvantaged families, students with special physical and intellectual challenges. There are teachers – most likely young teachers without underlying health issues – who would volunteer to teach these students in physical classrooms this fall. Those students and those teachers should be welcomed and accommodated in ways that minimize their health risks and the risks to their families.

Orange County Public Schools is trying something that looks a lot like this. The district will be asking both parents and teachers whether they prefer in-person or remote classes. Teachers are concerned that the number of teachers volunteering to teach in person might not be sufficient for the number of students in physical classrooms, and that some teachers would then be forced into classrooms. Their fears might be unfounded. On Friday, OCPS Superintendent Barbara Jenkins said during a school board meeting that of parents surveyed so far, 70% say they want their children to stay at home and not physically attend school.

Florida has stopped thinking about tomorrow, even though it’ll soon be here. In a reality-altering catastrophe, that is human nature. The challenge now is to rise above that impulse, and to start thinking ahead. The time to start planning for Fall 2021 is now. We shouldn’t make any decisions for the school year that begins in August that would undermine the effort to make Florida’s schools stronger next year and into the future.

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This week’s online (but hands-on) Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp highlighted the importance of giving talented teachers the resources and freedom necessary to innovate.

During equipment box dropoff on Thursday afternoon on FSU’s Panama City campus. From left, FSU-PC STEM Institute Director Ginger Littleton, teacher Denise Newsome, camper Joe Hovis and teacher Paige Johnston.

Update (Saturday): An FSU News story on the camp is here.

This week’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp, which started with nineteen middle and high school campers on Monday and ended today, provided a dramatic demonstration of what can be accomplished by talented teachers who are given the resources and freedom necessary to innovate.

The task facing Bozeman School science teachers Denise Newsome and Paige Johnston in this year’s camp was enormous. The in-person Nuclear Medicine and Science Camps held in 2018 and 2019 under lead teacher Rachel Morris were notable for their heavy emphasis on hands-on activities and tours of hospitals and physics research laboratories. The job Denise and Paige faced was to take the camp entirely online while maintaining the hands-on emphasis.

Denise and Paige succeeded.

The first camp activity on Monday morning was an equipment pickup. Each family came to the driveway in front of the Holley Center at FSU’s Panama City campus, which hosted the camp, and picked up a box of equipment that included a Ludlum radiation monitor, a PASCO radioactive source (designed for use in high school laboratories), a PASCO gamma-ray absorber set, a ruler, graph paper, some No Salt salt substitute, and a button with the FSU Physics logo emblazoned on it.

On Monday afternoon, Denise and Paige led the campers through measurements with the Ludlum monitors of the dependence of radiation intensity on the distance from a radioactive source so that they could learn about the inverse-square law.

The next morning, the campers studied the attenuation of gamma-rays from their sources using the plastic, aluminum and lead shielding of various thicknesses in their PASCO absorber sets and the Ludlum monitors. They also measured the gamma-ray photons generated by the radioactive decay of the potassium-40 in the No Salt, and hunted for radiation in their homes and yards while documenting those hunts with Flipgrid videos.

On Tuesday afternoon, the campers made online visits to the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE) in New Mexico with staff scientist Dr. Aaron Couture and to the nuclear medicine facility at Panama City’s Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center with Interventional Radiologist Dr. Willie Nunez and Radiology Director Kim Brown. Denise and Paige were at Gulf Coast helping to coordinate the presentation.

The most challenging activity on Wednesday, the third day of camp, was to connect each camper with one of six gamma-ray spectrometers located in a physics classroom in the Holley Center so that the camper could control from home the collection of gamma-ray spectra from various radioactive sources. While Denise and Paige monitored the equipment and moved radioactive sources from spectrometer to spectrometer, each camper took a turn logging into FSU’s Virtual Lab facility and running a spectrometer.

While one group of six campers worked on the spectrometers, another group of six visited with FSU-PC Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Administrative Affairs Irvin Clark and Director of Enrollment Management and Student Success David Henry to talk about preparing for college and succeeding when there. The third group of six learned about radioactive decay modes and half-lives with me. At the end of three one-hour shifts, every camper had visited each of the three “stations”.

Mounting the spectrometers on the Virtual Lab required a substantial effort involving FSU-PC’s entire IT staff, IT staff at the Tallahassee campus, and Denise and Paige. Arranging for the campers to have the FSU courtesy appointments necessary to access the Virtual Lab involved a collaboration between FSU-PC Human Resources specialist Brent Bookout, Denise, Paige and the parents of the campers. Making the gamma-ray spectrometer activity work was a huge operation that may have involved as many as twenty FSU employees. Denise and Paige spearheaded the effort.

FSU Distinguished Research Professor of Physics Jorge Piekarewicz provided an exclamation point for camp week on Thursday morning with a presentation titled “Nuclear Astrophysics in the New Era of Gravitational Waves”. Families returned their equipment boxes on Thursday afternoon.

Of course, the camp program was not cheap to provide. The camp was underwritten by the Center of Excellence for Nuclear Training and University-based Research (CENTAUR), which is headquartered at Texas A&M’s Cyclotron Laboratory and funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The FSU Physics Department also provided substantial support.

But Denise and Paige provided the primary driving force behind the whole effort.

Camp week provided a reminder that effective education requires talented educators, dedicated support staff, and sufficient financial resources. Effective online education requires even more of all three. It is a lesson that our society must take seriously as we continue to move ahead in the pandemic era.

Equipment boxes prepared for pickup by the families of campers on the first morning of camp.
A Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participant making radiation measurements at home with equipment provided by the camp.
Los Alamos Neutron Science Center staff scientist Dr. Aaron Couture during his visit with Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participants on Tuesday afternoon.
Dr. Willie Nunez shows a bone scan using radioisotopes during a presentation to Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participants from Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center on Tuesday afternoon.
Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center Director of Radiology Kim Brown shows Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participants a gamma camera used for nuclear medicine on Tuesday afternoon.
A Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participant analyzing a gamma-ray spectrum on Wednesday. The spectrometer, located on campus at FSU-PC, was mounted on FSU’s Virtual Lab and the participant was controlling it from her home.
Dr. Jorge Piekarewicz making a presentation to Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participants on Thursday morning. The title of the presentation was “Nuclear Astrophysics in the New Era of Gravitational Waves”.
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In the Orlando Sentinel, the CEO of Explore Mars says America’s space program can be a source of unity – but that’s only true if all of the nation’s young people have the same opportunities to become the engineers and scientists that drive the program forward.

In his Orlando Sentinel commentary (“Space exploration in next decade could teach and unify our world”), Explore Mars CEO Chris Carberry was right in saying that the nation’s space program can “serve as a symbol of what can be accomplished when we work together”.

But the program can only serve as a source of unity if all young people have equal opportunities to become the engineers and physical and computer scientists that drive the space program forward. Right now, women earn only about one-fifth of the bachelors’ degrees in these fields earned in Florida’s public universities.

Black students are severely underrepresented as well. In fact, during the 2018-19 academic year, Black students earned only 6.5% of the engineering degrees awarded in the State University System (SUS), even though 22% of the students in the state’s K-12 schools are Black. In computing the percentage of SUS bachelor’s degree graduates who were Black was 9.5%; in math and statistics, 5.7%; and in physics, only 3.9%. (Statistics from IPEDS)

Fortunately for Central Florida, the public schools in Orange and Seminole Counties are among the state’s leaders in helping their students prepare for careers in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences.

The Orange County Public Schools Calculus Project is Florida’s most important initiative for bringing low income students into the pipeline for engineering, computer science and physical science careers. All of Orange County’s district high schools offer both calculus and physics, which are critical courses to prepare for college majors in these fields.

Seminole County Public Schools is Florida’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) superpower. The district leads the state in the rate at which its students enroll chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus courses.

The future of American space travel will depend on how well we give all of our students the opportunity to contribute in the engineering and science fields that drive the program forward. As we make the difficult decisions that lie ahead about the future of our education system, we must keep this in mind.

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Next week’s online FSU-PC Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp involves many innovations – and it’s my last event as a member of Team Ginger.

Equipment boxes, including radiation monitors, radioactive sources, gamma-ray absorber sets and more, ready to be distributed to online Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp participants on Monday.

Next week’s online Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp, being hosted by FSU’s Panama City campus, will be my last event as a member of Team Ginger.

The online camp will nevertheless be hands-on in part because equipment (including radiation monitors, radioactive sources and gamma-ray absorber kits) will be distributed to the campers’ families on Monday morning. In addition, FSU-PC’s IT staff was able to mount six gamma-ray spectroscopy stations on the internet using FSU’s Virtual Lab, and campers will have an opportunity to “fingerprint” different radioactive sources while controlling those stations from their laptops at home. The camp will also include virtual tours of nuclear facilities at Panama City’s Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Ginger Littleton, who retired from the Bay County School Board at the end of 2019 and will be retiring from her post as Director of FSU-PC’s STEM Institute at the end of this month, invited me to Bay County to talk with district staff in the summer of 2015. At that time, Bay County was the worst non-rural school district in Florida for physics enrollment rate. In the fall of 2019, Bay was the sixth-ranked district in the state for physics enrollment rate. The number of public high school students taking physics had increased from the 2015-16 school year by more than a factor of five, despite the destruction in the county caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Ginger’s indomitable spirit and her concern about the future of the district’s students was largely responsible for that increase.

Of course, Bay County has been blessed with the best physics teacher corps in northwest Florida. One of those physics teachers, Bozeman School’s Denise Newsome, has been leading the effort on this summer’s camp, which starts on Monday. Denise is the best teacher of the physical sciences in the rural Panhandle, teaching both chemistry and physics at Bozeman and serving as science department head. This past year, she added Honors Precalculus to her teaching load.

For the camp, Denise has been joined by Paige Johnston, a science teacher at Bozeman who has tremendous intelligence and energy. Together they have assembled an impressive program for camp week.

But beyond Denise, Paige and Ginger, there were probably 30 other people who have made significant contributions to the camp. Because the camp involved so many innovations, the contributions of many talented individuals were required to prepare.

This year’s camp is being supported by the Center for Excellence in Nuclear Training and University-based Research (CENTAUR), which is based at Texas A&M University (FSU is a partner in the consortium) and is funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration. The camp is also supported by the FSU Physics Department, which is the home of one of the world’s premier university-based nuclear physics laboratories.

Panama City’s WMBB broadcast a preview of the camp, which you can link to here.

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We will need all of our K-12 teachers once a COVID vaccine has arrived and the pandemic is over. So why are we putting some of them at risk now?

I am afraid for my K-12 colleagues.

There are many elementary, middle and high school teachers like me – of late middle age (59 in my case) with underlying health conditions (mine is asthma). As a college professor, I will be protected this fall – I’m teaching a fully-online introductory physics class for 72 students. I understand that the students I have this fall will not learn as well (at least on the average) as the students I have in my in-person active learning studio-style classes in other more normal years, and that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be harmed the most by my choice. But by teaching online this fall, I will live to teach in-person another day – after I am vaccinated against COVID. And yes, my students sometimes make me ill: My most recent pneumonia was in early February. I persist in my studio-style classroom because I know how important it is for my students. But this year it could have killed me.

As far as I can tell, most of my K-12 colleagues will not have the option of teaching online. They will feel (or be) compelled to take the risk of spending hours per day in classrooms with students who they will care for as they always do, but each of whom might be the one to bring the virus into the classroom air for everyone to breath. Once infected, younger teachers might be able to shake off the infection with mild or no symptoms, although a few of them will fall gravely ill and they could still carry the virus to more vulnerable loved ones. But older teachers – teachers whose health situations are like mine – could suffer what one of my family’s physicians called “the direst consequences”.

We seem to be completely focused on student learning and the economic imperative of the schools’ child care function during the school year that is about to begin and that will no doubt be disrupted terribly by repeated waves of infection. We have forgotten that the virus will likely be defeated by 2022 and that we will desperately need every one of our teachers to start bringing Florida’s children back from the pandemic abyss when that time comes. We cannot afford to lose anybody from the teaching corps because of a short-sighted focus on the next 12 months.

Instead of forcing every K-12 teacher back into a physical classroom, our school leaders should start by asking for volunteers: Which teachers will feel comfortable in a physical classroom this fall? Which would prefer to teach online?

Once we know how many teachers volunteer to teach in physical classrooms, we would know each school’s capacity to accommodate students in physical classrooms. Parents should then be allowed to sign students up for those physical classroom slots until the slots are all full.

Here’s the catch: Student sign-up for the physical classroom slots should not go the way it usually does, with parents limited to signing up for slots in the schools they are zoned for, and the most active (and often advantaged) parents jumping to get in line first. Instead, parents under the most duress from economic and other circumstances should be given the first places in line, for every school. Whatever resources are available for student transportation should be focused on those students.

The students who do not get one of the scarce physical classroom slots would be invited to the district’s online program. They would also have the option of attending other non-public schools that decide to offer physical classroom opportunities.

In this way, the most vulnerable students would have access to the instruction we know is best – in-person instruction.

There are (at least) two fatal problems with this idea. One is that it is already July and school starts on August 10 for many Florida districts – there is no time to implement (much less negotiate!) such a scheme. Another is that teachers aren’t put on the payroll until August, and nobody has proposed an injection of funds into the K-12 system to pay medically vulnerable teachers to start early so they can prepare the best possible online instruction for the fall. (I’m paid for two months of work during our three-month summer)

It is likely that everybody who wants to will be back in physical classrooms and protected by a COVID vaccine by January 1, 2022. At that time, there will be a tremendous amount of work to be done to catch the state’s students up. If we decimate our teacher corps during the 2020-21 school year by putting vulnerable educators in harm’s way, that recovery may be impossible.

Thank you to Brandon Haught for his gentle and patient comments on this idea. I would not have written about the fatal errors without his input.

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