When my SCALE-UP classroom was closed for the first week of class by an electrical fire, I refused to teach in a lecture hall and just waited a week until my SCALE-UP room became available. Recent research on student beliefs about active learning from Harvard shows why I made that decision.

FSU’s Moore Auditorium, where I was assigned to teach Studio Physics during the first week of class while repairs were made to Carothers Hall, which houses my SCALE-UP classroom. An electrical fire damaged Carothers a week-and-a-half before the fall semester began. This picture, taken on the first morning of the fall semester, shows the exact number of students who would benefit from being in a traditional lecture physics class instead of my Studio Physics class.

An electrical fire closed FSU’s Carothers Hall a week-and-a-half before the beginning of the fall semester, closing off access to two of the SCALE-UP classrooms in which my colleagues and I teach our Studio Physics classes. Through the heroic efforts of the university’s Facilities and IT staff, we were able to get back into our SCALE-UP classrooms for the second week of class.

Those of us teaching in the Carothers SCALE-UP classrooms were assigned by the university’s Registrar’s Office to teach the first week of classes in various lecture halls and seminar rooms around campus. My colleagues complied. I did not. Instead, I sent the students registered for my Studio Physics section this email:

Welcome to PHY 2048C Section 1!

As you know, our course is a first-semester calculus-based physics class for students majoring in fields like engineering and the physical, mathematical and computer sciences.

The course is taught in a studio style. The “interactive engagement” instruction we use is very effective in helping more students learn physics with greater understanding than traditional teaching methods.

I am a Professor in FSU’s Physics Department. I helped found FSU’s Studio Physics Program more than a decade ago.

We will be meeting in Room 315 of Carothers Hall, which is purpose-built for studio-style science instruction. As you may know, there was an electrical fire in Carothers on August 16. Repairs are underway, but the building will not be available for classes until the week of Labor Day.

The architecture of our room is so important to your learning that I have chosen to postpone the first day of class until Carothers 315 becomes available. Our first day of class will be Wednesday, September 4.

Why did I do this instead of complying with the instructions from the Registrar’s Office? Because the hardest part of my job teaching a first-semester Studio Physics class each fall is convincing students that this is the best – in fact really the only – way to learn physics with understanding. Starting my class in a lecture hall would have undermined that message.

A study recently published by physics education researchers at Harvard in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports my decision. The “Significance” box on the paper says this:

Despite active learning being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom, a major recent survey found that most college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods. This article addresses the long-standing question of why students and faculty remain resistant to active learning. Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning. Faculty who adopt active learning are encouraged to intervene and address this misperception, and we describe a successful example of such an intervention.

I’ve convinced myself (without hard data, though) that on the first day of class less than a quarter of my students believe that the studio instructional model is best for their learning. I’ve also convinced myself that by the end of the semester three-quarters of the class believes it. During the semester, I evangelize, cajole and listen, and sometimes even plead with my students to believe in what we are doing.

In the end, my students achieve an average normalized learning gain on the Force Concept Inventory that is twice the average for traditional lecture classes. They build acquaintances – and sometimes genuine friendships – with other students in the class. Some learn to work better in groups. Research demonstrates that while all students benefit from this studio model, women and black and Hispanic students who are often marginalized in engineering, computer science and physics particularly benefit from the model – in part because we can keep an eye on how students are interacting with each other and act when we see a problem.

The studio model is better for all of our students. It’s just that we generally have to keep working hard to convince our students of that.

My studio physics students back in their SCALE-UP classroom in Carothers Hall this week.
FSU’s $120 million New Student Union under construction next to the Moore Auditorium. A project to build a $40 million science classroom building was recently scuttled by the Florida Legislature. Student activity fees are being used to build the Union. In contrast, money to build academic buildings must be appropriated by the Legislature. But the present post is not about this issue.

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Connor Oswald, FSU Physics B.S. grad and doctoral student in FSU’s Education and Evaluation Program, is joining me on Thursday afternoon to present this week’s FSU Physics Colloquium talk.

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Florida’s educational policies seem intentionally designed to dumb down high school. That’s why school and district level leaders and teacher-leaders are so important.

This is what Florida’s state educational policies for high schools incentivize:

Each student should learn a little algebra and have a bit of reading skill, learn to read a paragraph about biology (although actually knowing some biology is not encouraged), earn one (and only one) “accelerated” college credit preferably by dual enrolling in a freshman English course taught by a high school teacher or by taking and passing Advanced Placement Human Geography, and then take enough fun courses to keep students and parents from feeling stressed and to satisfy the state’s graduation requirements so a student can work on a construction site, perhaps earn a Microsoft certification in using Office programs or, if the student and parent are ready to shoot the Moon, go to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree in a discipline in which the courses do not require much homework or skill. [Editor’s note: The state’s leaders will eventually stop pushing computer science because they will realize it is really, really hard and that the effort required to be successful begins in the K-12 schools with unpleasant courses like calculus and physics.]

If a student does any more than the above, it wastes resources that should be saved for keeping taxes low.

And that is why it is so inspiring when you have district and school leaders and teachers like those at Monroe County’s Marathon School. The school has socioeconomic challenges (its free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate is 74%) and it is small – on the average, it has 90 students per grade. It is only a few miles from where Hurricane Irma’s center made landfall in 2017. So it has all of the excuses usually adopted for not bothering to offer students opportunities to learn upper level math and science. Yet the school does the opposite. Marathon offers AP Calculus AB and 14 students were taking it in the 2018-19 school year. It offers AP Calculus BC as well. Nearly all of the students take a physics course under the teacher Chris Hayes, and some take AP Physics 1. (Chris cut his teaching teeth in Texas, where it is assumed that almost all students should take a physics course) One Marathon graduate, Sarah Dodamead, is a recent bachelor’s degree grad of the FSU Physics Department.

Aside from Mr. Hayes and the other teachers who offer their students terrific opportunities, who deserves credit for making Marathon School a house of opportunity? Principal Wendy McPherson, District Science Supervisor Melissa Alsobrooks, and Superintendent Mark Porter. Because everybody in the chain of command needs to be on the same page to make opportunities like those at Marathon happen.

So when a school or district fails to offer its students the full range of opportunities for professional and personal growth we can blame the state. But when a school or district succeeds and provides its students with outstanding opportunities despite the incentives to do otherwise, we should celebrate that school’s and district’s teachers and leaders.

Monroe County Science Supervisor Melissa Alsobrooks
Monroe County Superintendent Mark Porter
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New research shows that when it comes to physics teaching, no good deed goes unpunished.

A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on student perceptions of active learning says this in the “Significance” box:

Despite active learning being recognized as a superior method of instruction in the classroom, a major recent survey found that most college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods. This article addresses the long-standing question of why students and faculty remain resistant to active learning. Comparing passive lectures with active learning using a randomized experimental approach and identical course materials, we find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning. Faculty who adopt active learning are encouraged to intervene and address this misperception, and we describe a successful example of such an intervention.

We run into this in our Studio Physics Program here at FSU. Despite the fact that we have been the university’s leaders in evidence-based teaching reform for more than a decade (and have the learning gain measurements to back that up) no faculty member has been even nominated for a university teaching award for working in the Studio Physics Program in the 11-year history of the program. And it turns out that when it comes to trying to find the resources necessary to expand the program to serve more students, that lack of recognition hurts.

A Studio Physics class at FSU.
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Heroic effort gets Studio Physics classes and others back into their places in stricken Carothers Hall

Carothers Hall a few days after an electrical fire that shut the building through the first week of classes.

Heroic efforts by FSU’s facilities and information technology staff have gotten Studio Physics classes, staff for the FSU-Teach math and science teacher preparation program and others back into the 60-year-old Carothers Hall only two and a half weeks after the facility was damaged by an electrical fire.

Originally built as a home for FSU’s College of Education (which is now based in the Stone Building) the facility is now home to classrooms, faculty offices, IT staff and even FSU’s Environmental Health and Safety unit.

Damage from the fire, which cost about half a million dollars to repair, drove many classes – including many studio physics classes – out to lecture and seminar halls in other buildings for the first week of classes, which began August 26.

IT staff were working in Carothers Hall on Sunday of Labor Day week to make sure that internet and other computing services were available for the resumption of classes in the building this morning.

FSU has three SCALE-UP classrooms capable of hosting studio physics classes. The first (HCB 308) was opened in 2008 in a large new classroom building that opened at the same time. It has a capacity of 72 students. As the Studio Physics Program grew and demand for the SCALE-UP classroom design it uses also grew among faculty from other disciplines, the university renovated two classrooms in Carothers Hall into the SCALE-UP design. The older of those classrooms holds 63 students, while the newer one holds 81 students.

Classes scheduled for both of the Carothers studio science classrooms were rescheduled for the first week of classes into lecture and seminar spaces that were not designed for the highly interactive studio physics classes. All but one of the studio physics classes scheduled for Carothers were actually held in the lecture and seminar spaces during the first week of class. The one that did not meet (by decision of the instructor – me) will hold its first day of class tomorrow morning.

A Studio Physics class being held during the Fall 2018 semester in Carothers 315, the newer and larger (81 students) of the two SCALE-UP classrooms in Carothers Hall.
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We all want students from all backgrounds to have the opportunity to succeed in college majors in engineering and the physical sciences. But whose responsibility is it to make that possible?

Everybody wants students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences to have the opportunity to succeed in college majors like engineering and the physical sciences.

But whose responsibility is it to make it so?

It’s mine. My colleagues in university physics, engineering, math and other departments also have a share of the responsibility.

But it’s also the responsibility of high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs.

And parents.

I have two responsibilities, one of which I share with my university-level colleagues and another that most of my colleagues cannot and will not share.

The responsibility my colleagues share with me is to adopt teaching practices that provide the best chance for every student majoring in engineering or the physical sciences (or computer science or biology) who walks through the door of our classrooms to learn physics with the understanding required to be an innovative engineer or successful scientist.

I do that by teaching my introductory physics classes in the SCALE-UP format developed at North Carolina State University. At FSU, we call our SCALE-UP classes the Studio Physics Program. FSU has provided the tools necessary (the classroom spaces purpose-built for collaborative learning experiences and the hands-on lab equipment necessary to supply those experiences) to provide that instruction for the university’s students. In the Studio Physics Program’s 11 years of existence, we have demonstrated through careful assessment of student learning and through the experiences we’ve had with students that the program has “worked” to dramatically improve student learning over traditional lecture models. We have given probably 2,500 students this superior learning experience and the deeper science understanding that enables engineers and scientists to have higher innovation potential.

One of FSU’s three SCALE-UP classrooms for learning physics.

I’ll get back to my second responsibility later.

But before that I’ll discuss the responsibility that high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs and parents have – giving their students who are considering engineering and physical science careers the best possible opportunity to succeed in those majors in college.

The formula for providing the best opportunity to succeed in engineering and physics majors in college is simple enough in principle – take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in high school. That’s what the American Society for Engineering Education says. And it’s common sense. There is also a growing body of research that backs that statement up. I list three research references below, just in case a reader is interested.

Everybody knows somebody who earned a degree in engineering or physics who didn’t take either calculus or physics in high school. I know lots of them because they have succeeded in my classroom despite their underpreparation in high school. But many more underprepared students who arrive in my classroom (which is the best possible learning environment for underprepared students) struggle or even fail. On the average, a student without a high school physics course earns a full letter grade lower than one who took physics in high school. Altogether, one-third of my students have not had a high school physics class – so my sample size of underprepared students is really big.

[It’s worth inserting here that the University of Florida doesn’t even allow students without a high school physics course to take their version of the course I teach until they take a one-semester online course first. This is likely a particular problem for low income students who are hurt the most by the additional semester of college this requires.]

At present, my biggest point of frustration is this: Some high schools offer their students “engineering academies” that consist of specialized engineering courses but do not require students in those academies to take physics or calculus (or even precalculus). The administrators and teachers in those schools tell their engineering academy students that they are well-prepared to major in engineering in college. And of course that statement is dishonest. I once publicly called out a district school superintendent who said during a public school board meeting that I (yes, she used my name) should be told that her engineering academy students don’t have time in their schedules to take calculus and physics.

The metric for the success of a high school engineering academy should be how many of its students complete physics and calculus courses. And an engineering academy whose students mostly do not take physics and calculus should be shut down. An engineering academy in a high school that doesn’t offer physics and/or calculus should also be shut down, and the teaching positions used for the engineering academy should be repurposed to teaching physics and calculus.

Now that I have that out of the way, what’s my second responsibility that I was talking about above? It’s to make sure that high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs and parents know that high school courses in chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) are important for giving students the best chance to succeed in college engineering and physics majors.

The audience at a Future Physicists of Florida ceremony to honor middle school students who have demonstrated math and science ability. The ceremony was held at the Panama City campus of FSU in November of 2017. This event is used to inform parents about the courses their students should take in high school to be well-prepared for college majors in fields like engineering and physics.

I’ll talk with almost any Florida audience that invites me – even when the probability of success is low. I’ve been involved in some successes – Bay County high school physics enrollments have increased by a factor of five over the last four years. But mostly Florida is going backwards. High school physics enrollments in Florida are down 12% over the last four years. In the fall of 2018 there were 36 Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students that didn’t offer physics – and some of them housed engineering academies. Florida enrollments in AP math and science courses are only average for the nation despite the financial incentives to schools and teachers that make the state a national leader in AP social science classes. The state has a booming dual enrollment program, but the dual enrollment credits in math are concentrated in courses like College Algebra that cover topics traditionally covered in high school courses. There are few students dual enrolled in physics courses.

Despite the overall lack of progress, I feel an obligation to keep trying. Perhaps I can convince others to do the same.

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller with a poster illustrating the importance of high school math and science courses in preparing for college engineering majors at a school board meeting I addressed on July 23. (And yes, the name plate belongs to another board member who did not attend the meeting.)

Three articles about research on high school preparation for college engineering and physical science majors:

“Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Pathways: High School Science and Math Coursework and Postsecondary Degree Attainment”, Will Tyson et al., Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, Vol. 12, No. 3, pgs. 243-270 (2007). [Summarized in “Preparing Your Students for Careers in Science and Engineering: How Is Your State Doing?, Susan White and Paul Cottle, The Physics Teacher 49, 418 (2011).]

“The Two High-School Pillars Supporting College Science”, Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai, Science,Vol. 317, Issue 5837, pp. 457-458 (2007).

“Demographic gaps or preparation gaps?: The large impact of incoming preparation on performance of students in introductory physics”, Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15, 020114 (2019).

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If you’ve wondered what we do during the Nuclear Medicine and Science Summer Camp at FSU’s Panama City campus, here is your chance to find out.

If you’re one of my regular readers, you know about the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp (NMSC) for middle and high school students held during the last two summers at FSU’s Panama City campus.

Thanks to FSU-PC’s STEM Institute, you can now get a better look at the activities in which the campers engage.

The Institute has posted a web site describing the activities, including a list of the equipment needed to perform them.

The NMSC web site is linked from the STEM Institute’s main page.

The camp was held in July of both 2018 and 2019 and was funded by a grant to the CENTAUR consortium (which includes FSU) from the National Nuclear Security Administration. The grant continues for another three years.

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