Florida’s university physics departments should prepare for a future of increasingly unprepared students

Florida’s university physics departments are responsible for providing students majoring in engineering, sciences, computing and health professions with the scientific background that educational leaders in those fields have decided their students need.

In turn, university physics faculty have relied on high schools to give their students a head start on learning physics.  Nobody believes that a broad population of students can learn the physics that engineering education leaders want their undergraduate majors to know in two short university semesters without a head start.  As the syllabus for the University of Florida’s first course in calculus-based physics says, “Although we start at the beginning of physics, the speed with which we cover the material is often too fast for those who have not seen any of it before.”

But as a decreasing percentage of Florida high school students take a physics course, and an increasing number of large high schools don’t offer physics at all, Florida’s university physics faculty must prepare for a future in which their students are even less prepared than they are now.

How will physics departments do this?

The most responsible way to prepare for an increasingly unprepared student population is to shift to interactive engagement learning environments, like FSU’s Studio Physics Program and UCF’s SCALE-UP program.  Even that doesn’t level the playing field between prepared and unprepared students, but at least it gives instructors a conversation channel with individual students.  And that helps.

Class Panorama

A Studio Physics class at FSU.

Unfortunately, most university physics faculty members in Florida – and even most physics departments – have no interest in interactive engagement pedagogies.  At the University of Florida, where there are no studio-style physics course offerings and even many of the students enrolled in the department’s traditional lecture classes are relegated to attending lectures via computer screen, the syllabus for the first-semester calculus-based course says this:  High school physics is a prerequisite.  And if you haven’t had a high school physics course, you “must” (in so far as it is enforceable) take an online course – PHY 2020 – first.


From the PHY 2048C syllabus at the University of Florida

I recently heard a personal testimonial about UF’s PHY 2020.  It wasn’t pretty, and this course is likely to be a particular barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Furthermore, Florida’s policy-makers seem to have little interest in improving teaching practices at the university level.  After I published an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel arguing that the State University System’s goal should be to expand access to evidence-based teaching practices instead of blindly lurching toward unproven online courses, the Chair of the Board of Governors responded, saying that the State University System will “ensure online programs are of comparable quality to their classroom counterparts.”  I am not aware of a single Physics Education Researcher who believes we are anywhere near achieving an online learning environment that can replicate the quality social interactions among students and between students and instructors that occur in a physical interactive engagement classroom.

I fear that the ultimate resolution of this problem will be that university physics departments decide to lower the bar on learning and make a commitment to low-level didactic physics instruction that can be gamed by “services” like Chegg and which gives stellar results on student evaluations of teaching.  Students are happy because they earn stress-free passing grades.  Faculty are happy because conflicts with students are minimized.  Administrators are happy because students are happy.  Learning gets lost in all of this happiness.  I’ve already seen this happen at one site where an attempt was made to start an interactive engagement program and administrators insisted on abandoning the attempt and returning to a didactic model to drive up student evaluation scores.  It made me ill.

Maybe I have it all wrong.  Maybe Florida’s high school physics enrollment rates will turn upward and our universities will be flooded with well-prepared students.  Maybe my university colleagues around the state will see the light en masse and demand the expansion of evidence-based teaching practices.

But you’ll have to excuse me if I’m skeptical after a decade of unsuccessfully trying to make these things happen.

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Calculus enrollment rates in Florida’s school districts and socioeconomic status: Decisions that school and district leaders make are crucial in determining access and enrollment

The data are taken from the Florida Department of Education web site.  The department does not compile dual enrollment credits, so dual enrollment is not included here.

calc rate vs frl


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Chemistry enrollment rates in Florida’s school districts and socioeconomic status: a summary

It was only recently that Orange County Public Schools Secondary Science Senior Administrator Rebecca Ray pointed out to me that chemistry enrollments are in decline.  I’d been so fixated on physics that I was surprised to learn that in Florida high school chemistry enrollments are declining more quickly than physics enrollments.

The plots below show where high school chemistry stands in Florida’s school districts as of Fall 2017.  The state’s leaders in chemistry enrollment rate are the usual suspects, with Seminole County on top.  The plot of chemistry enrollment rate vs. free and reduced-price eligibility rate may show a little stronger correlation than the physics plot, but I haven’t actually done the calculation so perhaps my eyes are fooling me.

But as in the case of physics, decisions made by adults have a strong impact on how many students take chemistry in Florida’s high schools.

The data are available on the FLDOE web site, which really is an amazing resource.

chem rate vs frl


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High school physics enrollment rates and socioeconomic status in Florida’s school districts: The correlation is weak.

The physics enrollment data are taken from the course enrollment spreadsheets for Fall 2017 available on the FLDOE web site.  The free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates are available on the same web page, but I have attached that spreadsheet at the bottom of this post so that interested readers have easy access to the FRL data.

The bottom line is this:  The priority that school leaders and parents place on high school physics matters at least as much as socioeconomics in determining whether students take physics in high school and therefore arrive at college well-prepared for majors in STEM fields.

physics rate vs frl



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Access to high school physics in Florida: 32 public high schools with 1,000 or more students do not offer physics

Thirty-two Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students are not teaching physics this school year, according to Fall 2017 enrollment data available from the Florida Department of Education web site.

Fourteen of the schools are located in four Central Florida school districts – Hernando, Lake, Pasco and Polk Counties.  Ironically, two other Central Florida districts – Brevard and Seminole Counties – are the state’s leaders in physics enrollment rate.

The high schools with 1,000 or more students that are not offering physics this year are listed below by school district:

Broward:  Henry D. Perry Educational Center

Clay:  Orange Park High School

DeSoto:  DeSoto County High School

Duval:  Englewood High School, Westside High School

Hardee:  Hardee Senior High School

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

Highlands:  Avon Park High School

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

Lee:  Lehigh Senior High School, Estero High School

Manatee:  Bayshore High School

Marion:  North Marion High School, Lake Weir High School

Miami-Dade:  Miami Jackson High School, North Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami Southridge Senior High School

Palm Beach:  South Tech Academy, Palm Beach Lakes High School

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

Polk:  Auburndale High School, Mulberry High School, Lake Gibson High School, Lake Region High School

Putnam:  Palatka High School

The number of Florida public high schools having 1,000 or more students and not offering physics has grown from 24 in Fall 2015 to 32 in Fall 2017.  This is not the only indicator that physics is in decline in Florida’s high schools.  Physics enrollment in the state’s high schools has declined by 8% during the last three years. 

The lack of access to physics courses is often associated with high schools that have large populations of students from low income families.  Indeed – as shown below – many of the large Florida high schools that do not offer physics have free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates that are higher than Florida’s statewide 63% rate.  However, several large schools with relatively affluent student populations do not offer physics.  As the chart below shows, that includes DeSoto County High School, Lake County’s Lake Minneola High School and Lee County’s Estero High School.

Physics is the gateway high school science course for bachelor’s-level STEM careers and should be taken by all college-bound high school students so that they have the option to choose majors in those fields once they arrive at college.



Map of Florida’s counties, from the web site of the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles

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School Choice and Competition: Indeed, A Good Thing (A response from Bay Haven Charter Academy)

After my post comparing Lynn Haven’s Mosley High School with North Bay Haven Career Academy was published, I received word that the Bay Haven Charter Academy administration had some concerns with it.  I offered to post a response and to visit North Bay Haven to learn more about their programs.  Here is the response from Bay Haven’s Chief Academic Officer, Larry Bolinger.  I am looking forward to visiting with Mr. Bolinger and others soon. 

I want to thank Dr. Cottle for his offer to allow me to respond to his recent post comparing two high schools in Bay County: Mosley and North Bay Haven. Being the third principal of Mosley High School (1994-96), I can certainly agree with Dr. Cottle’s assessment of Mosley’s many successful academic programs.

I can also say the same of North Bay Haven and respectfully disagree with his view on North Bay Haven, for it offers many equally successful academic programs.

Dr. Cottle has graciously offered to visit North Bay and meet with us, so that we may share with him firsthand our many successes. We look forward to his visit!


Larry R. Bolinger

Chief Education Officer
Bay Haven Charter Academy, Inc.


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School choice and competition: In Bay County’s Lynn Haven, Mosley High School beats the charter competition hands down.

Like it or not, competition between traditional district schools and charter schools is a feature of education life in many Florida communities.

Bay County’s City of Lynn Haven is one of those communities.  The city’s traditional district high school, Mosley High School, is in a duel with North Bay Haven Career Academy, located five miles to the northeast.  North Bay Haven opened its school in 2010 and graduated its first class in 2014.

But when it comes to preparing students for college, there is no competition:  Mosley is a better choice because it prepares its college-bound students to choose any major once they arrive at college.

In contrast, North Bay Haven doesn’t even properly prepare students in its engineering, health science and marine science academies for college majors in those fields.

On Tuesday evening, I met with a group of rising 9th graders (and their parents) who will be attending Mosley High School and entering the school’s MAPPS (Mosley AP Program for Success) program to talk about preparing for college.  Nearly all of these students attended one of the Bay Haven system’s middle schools.  Some chose to attend Mosley instead of North Bay Haven.  Others would have preferred to attend North Bay Haven but “lost” in the lottery that determines which students will attend the charter high school – there are many more 8th graders in the Bay Haven middle schools than there are spots for 9th graders in the North Bay Haven high school.

The irony is that the students I saw on Tuesday evening who “lost” the Bay Haven lottery actually won for their academic futures.

The members of the Mosley community who spoke before me on Tuesday evening are totally dialed into the goal of preparing every college-bound student to choose any major once they arrive in college.  That included not just the Mosley counselors and administrators who spoke, but even the President of the MAPPS parent advisory council, Joanna Taylor.

What does preparing to choose any major mean?   In science and math, it means taking high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and – if possible – calculus.

The American Society for Engineering Education says that proper preparation for a college major in engineering includes all of those courses.

Undergraduate preparation for professional schools in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy includes lots of chemistry and two semesters of physics, as well as “college-level” math.

Requirements for a bachelor of science degree in computer science generally include lots of mathematics and two semesters of physics.

Even a student who wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology – including marine science – is required to take calculus, physics and lots of chemistry as an undergraduate.

How is Mosley doing in preparing its students for these majors?  The school’s chemistry enrollment has tripled in the last two years, and it is now one of Northwest Florida’s leaders in chemistry enrollment rate.  Its physics enrollment has increased by a factor of ten in the last two years.  Calculus enrollments are up as well.

And the competition at North Bay Haven?  According to the school’s curriculum guide, physics isn’t even offered.  So the students in the school’s engineering academy aren’t being prepared properly for college majors in engineering.  And the same can be said for students in the school’s health and marine science academies.

In fact, if a North Bay Haven graduate arrives at the University of Florida intending to major in engineering, the student will be told that she or he has not met the high school physics prerequisite for the first introductory physics course required for engineering majors.  As the excerpt from syllabus for that course at UF shown below demonstrates, the student will be directed to take a “liberal studies” physics course first – and the student will lose a semester.


North Bay Haven is not the only school to mislead its students with an engineering-without-physics program.  Last fall, the Superintendent of Schools in a large southwest Florida district stated during a public school board meeting that her district’s engineering academy students don’t have room in their schedules for physics and calculus.  But that is no excuse.  North Bay Haven is harming its students’ futures by its inattention to the challenges its students will face in college.

I need to make a clarification about my own point of view here.  I am not anti-charter school.  I’ve maintained a working relationship with a charter school in Orlando since 2012.  One of the state’s leading school choice advocates once called me a “school choice agnostic” because I really don’t care if a school is a traditional public school, a charter school or even a private school – all I care about is whether a school is preparing its students properly for college.  Mosley is doing an excellent job.  North Bay Haven is not.

There really is no competition here – Mosley wins hands down.




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