Adam LaMee’s departure leaves huge hole at Rickards High School and in Leon County high school physics teaching community

Adam LaMee has announced that he is leaving Tallahassee’s Rickards High School to become the Teacher-in-Residence for the PhysTEC physics teacher education program at the University of Central Florida.  Adam’s departure will leave a huge hole both at Rickards and in the Leon County high school physics teaching community.

Adam holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from FSU and taught for many years at Tallahassee’s Lincoln High School, where he was held in high regard by his colleagues.  In those years, Lincoln was the strongest high school for science in Leon County, and Adam was a very important member of the Lincoln science faculty.

Adam came back to FSU as a student in 2011.  During this time, he interacted to a considerable degree with our physics undergraduates, encouraging them to consider teaching careers.

In the fall of 2013, Adam took a teaching job at Rickards.  Rickards is a particularly interesting school, since it is both Leon County’s International Baccalaureate site and home to some of Tallahassee’s most impoverished students.  Rickards was a physics wasteland – the school didn’t even offer IB Physics, and its regular, honors and AP physics courses were very lightly enrolled.  Upon his arrival at Rickards, Adam started working his magic.  Adam convinced the administration to make the new AP Physics 1 class the standard IB 9th grade science class.  IB Physics was revived and its enrollment grew.  Adam was so successful that Rickards had to bring another former Lincoln physics teacher – Lance King – back to the classroom after a decade’s absence.  Physics is now a hot thing at Rickards.

Adam’s influence extended far beyond the walls of Rickards High School.  His enthusiasm helped build Leon County’s physics teachers into a community.  Leon County’s high school physics enrollment grew 70% this year over last year – an achievement that is absolutely unheard-of – and Adam is one of the individuals most responsible for this miracle.  Leon County’s physics-taking rate is now higher than that of every school district in Florida except Seminole and Brevard Counties.

When it comes to high school physics, UCF is in an interesting region.  Seminole County is probably the strongest school district in Florida for science, including (and especially) physics.  In physics, Orange County is more or less average.  But Orange County has an important high school – Jones – that is very much like Rickards was before Adam arrived.  Jones is the only high school in Orange County that doesn’t offer physics, despite the fact that one of its graduates – Presidential Medal of Science-winning particle theorist Jim Gates – is a highly visible physicist.  Osceola County needs a great deal of help, as does Volusia County.

Given all this, Adam faces a significant challenge.  But he seems to be well-suited to help, both with UCF undergraduates and with the local school districts.  Adam is a great hire for UCF.  His loss will be difficult to overcome here.

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Have design talent and want to be an architect? Here’s an example of why you should take math and physics seriously.

Most students who are considering a career in architecture think only in terms of the artistic aspects.

If you are thinking like that, think again.

Last fall, I shared a bit of the homework that students in Harvard’s graduate program in architecture had in their Structures 1 class.  Those same students just finished their Structures 2 course.  One of the projects in that class was to build a bridge and test whether the bridge could hold a substantial amount of weight.  The professor made a video of the tests, which you can view here.  It’s entertaining, perhaps especially for those of us without a single fiber of artistic ability.

As I’ve mentioned before, calculus and a calculus-based physics course are required for admission to strong graduate programs in architecture, which (given the competitiveness of the field) are the only ones worth attending.  So if you’re a high school student with talent in design who is considering a career in architecture, make sure you take precalculus (or better yet, calculus) and a physics course before you head for college.

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What would it take to steer Florida’s black students toward the most lucrative college majors?

Of the 25 most lucrative bachelor’s degree fields listed in this year’s edition of the report “The Economic Value of College Majors” released last week by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 17 have the word “engineering” in them.  Among the remaining eight are physics, computer science, applied mathematics, statistics and decision science, and pharmacy.  You can check out the list yourself on page 19 of the report.

As I posted on Tuesday, the Florida’s black students are severely underrepresented in those fields (at least in the State University System), and this underrepresentation is actually getting worse.  That is, somehow Florida’s black students are increasingly being steered away from the most lucrative college majors.  And this steering doesn’t start in college.  As I reported several weeks ago, only 3-5% of the Florida students who pass the AP exams in math and science are black – so the underrepresentation of black students in the science and engineering pipeline has its origin in high school or even before.

In fact, one can look at NAEP math data to trace the science and math achievement gap between black students and other students in Florida back to 4th grade.

But what is clear is that the underrepresentation of Florida’s black students in science and engineering fields is not going to solve itself.  It will require a concentration of effort on the problem, beginning well before these students go to college.  We will need not just reading coaches in elementary schools, but also math and science coaches.  We’ll need middle school math and science teachers who are good at math and science themselves (which is much less common than we’d like to think).  And we’ll need strong high school teachers in calculus, chemistry and physics.  We will need these teachers in schools with high concentrations of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, where the temptation for administrators is to focus exclusively on reading and writing skills and to neglect upper level math and science courses that are not necessary to meet the minimum graduation requirements.

For now, our state’s leaders have decided that the present situation is good enough.  To prompt change, somebody with a personal stake in the state’s African-American students will have to step up and say that it’s not alright that these students aren’t being prepared for the leadership roles in this century’s technological society.

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Underrepresentation of black engineers and scientists among Florida SUS grads intensifies

Newly posted 2013-2014 graduation numbers from Florida’s public universities show that the underrepresentation of black scientists and engineers among the State University System’s bachelor’s degree graduates continues to intensify.  The percentage of women among the system’s bachelors’ grads in engineering, computer science and physics is stagnant near 20%, while the underrepresentation of Hispanics among graduates in science and engineering fields has all but disappeared.

The results shown in the plots below are from the Interactive University Database at the Florida Board of Governors web site.







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Another reason we need differential pay for math and science teachers

The new 2015 edition of the report “The Economic Value of College Majors” from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce includes a listing of the highest and lowest “Median annual wages of college-educated workers (ages 25-59)” by major.  The list of the 25 highest-paying majors (see page 19 of the report) includes Petroleum Engineering (1st at $136,000), Chemical Engineering (5th at $96,000), Electrical Engineering (6th at $93,000), Computer Science (11th at $83,000), Applied Mathematics (13th at $83,000), Physics (15th at $81,000) and Statistics and Decision Science (20th at $78,000).  Eighteen of the top 25 paying majors have the word “engineering” in them.  Computer Science, Applied Mathematics and Physics are three of the seven majors on the top 25 majors list that do not have the word “engineering” in them.

The bottom 25 majors include “Science and Computer Teacher Education” (19th at $48,000) and “Mathematics Teacher Education” (22nd at $49,000).

As I’ve said many times (and most recently here), we need to do something about the salaries we pay to math and science teachers.  This is just another reason why.

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When will policy-makers admit that higher education in science and engineering is fundamentally different than in other disciplines?

The Lumina Foundation recently released the 2015 edition of its Stronger Nation report on the status of higher education in the US.  The word “science” did not appear in the report.  Not once.  Nor “engineering”.  Nor “math”.

It is as if the high school preparation and work required to earn degrees in mechanical engineering and, say, interdisciplinary social science (our favorite degree to denigrate at FSU) are the same.

They are obviously not.  And neither are the economic opportunities afforded by the two degrees.

Let’s start with high school preparation.  Here’s what the American Society for Engineering Education has to say on their eGFI website about the high school courses needed to prepare for a college major in engineering:

Most engineering schools require four years of math, including Pre-Calculus, although Calculus or AP Calculus is strongly encouraged. Engineering schools are also looking for at least three years of science, including Physics and Chemistry.

That seems clear enough.  The high school preparation necessary for a college major in interdisciplinary social science, and a zillion other majors?  Graduating from high school, which in Florida includes Algebra 1, Geometry, and Biology 1.

And once students are in college, the differences continue.

According to the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), senior engineering majors report spending more time per week “preparing for class” than any other major (item 15a here).  The difference between the mean hours spent preparing for class in a 7-day week between engineering (18.63 hours) and social sciences (13.67 hours) is five hours (my reaction – are you sure that’s all it is??) and between engineering and business (13.10 hours) is 5.5 hours.  Engineering seniors report that they are also spending 1.5 hours more than majors in physical science, math and computer science (16.90 hours).  But physical science/engineering/math/computer science majors are near the top of the scale, with the average for all majors being 14.82 hours.

If we want more students to earn bachelors’ degrees in the physical sciences, engineering, math and computer science, then we need to start acting on it.  Provide incentives for students to take higher level math and more physical science in high school – perhaps by requiring them for Bright Futures eligibility.  Look for ways to relieve the pressure many engineering majors feel to work at McDonald’s to make ends meet so that they can spend those hours on studying (or sleeping, which is often the first casualty of an over-busy schedule).

But mostly, stop making believe that science and engineering are just the same as every other college major.  They aren’t.

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My new op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat: Great teachers will be the key to improving K-12 math and science in Florida – at all levels

You will not understand what I’m talking about in this post if you don’t read my new op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat first.

But now that you’ve read it, here’s some details that don’t fit into the op-ed’s 500 words:

Florida’s 4th and 8th graders are only average on NAEP math and science tests.  I’ve plotted these results in this post.

The state’s results in Advanced Placement courses in everything but math and science are really quite impressive.  But again, in AP math and science our students are only average.  I show results in this post.

Leon County’s high school physics miracle is described in this Democrat op-ed and detailed in this post.

My assertion about the importance of elementary specialists in reading, math and science is based on Sherman Dorn’s recent conversation with Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss in her Answer Sheet blog.

The Florida Legislature showed in this spring’s aborted session that they are willing to consider differential pay for teachers.  Their particular proposal – basing $10,000 annual bonuses in part on the SAT/ACT scores the teachers earned themselves when they were 17-year-olds in high school – was an eye-roll special.  But if somehow they could redirect the differential pay impulse to something that makes a little more sense (like having a bachelor’s degree in math or science) then we might have something really useful going.

My allusion to “instructional constraints that restrict science and math departments from offering the hands-on instruction such specialists need” is necessarily a bit mysterious.  You can read about my frustrations on this count at FSU here.

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