Why scientists and mathematicians should invest effort in reaching out to middle school students

Last week, I told a group of nuclear physics colleagues that reaching out to middle school students would be a good investment of our effort.  Why?  Because we need to reach these students before they arrive in high school, where girls and minority students start to fall out of the pipeline that leads to careers in physics, engineering, computing and mathematics.

In my field, physics, only about one-fifth of the bachelors’ degrees are awarded to women.  Less than 5% of bachelors’ degrees in physics are earned by black students.  While women and minority students face specific obstacles at the college level that can discourage them from earning degrees in physics and other mathematical fields, the underrepresentation of these students begins in high school and can be seen in Advanced Placement courses in calculus, physics and computer science, as shown below.

The first plot shows the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in earning bachelors’ degrees in mathematical fields in Florida’s State University System (SUS).  The red bars show the percentages of black and Hispanic students among Florida’s public K-12 students (22% black, 33% Hispanic).  The bachelor’s degree numbers are given for the major CIP codes (14 for Engineering, 11 for Computing, 27 for Math and Statistics), except for physics, which is CIP code 40.0801.  The numbers of degrees are taken from the Florida Board of Governors’ Interactive University Database.  The most notable number is that in the 2015-16 academic year only 4.2% of the bachelors’ degrees in physics in the SUS were awarded to black students.

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However, a similar plot for 2017 AP exam takers in Florida for calculus, physics and computer science shows that the road to the severe underrepresentation of black students in the mathematical fields doesn’t begin in college.  The situations in these high school courses are simply awful.

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The next plot shows the situation for women in these same fields, both at the bachelor’s degree level and for AP exams in calculus, physics and computer science.  The underrepresentation of women certainly intensifies in college – and that is something that every science and math professor should be working on (especially the professors who are men).  But the sorting of women out of the mathematical fields clearly begins in high school.

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College is clearly too late to begin addressing these issues.  High school is too late as well.  Middle school is where those of us in the scientific community should be starting.  If you are a science or math professor and you think this is not your problem, you need to take a look in the mirror and think again – the pipeline in your field is your responsibility and not somebody else’s.

I’ll close with several pictures from the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp for rising 9th graders held on the campus of FSU’s Panama City campus at the end of July.

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Attracting talented young people to teaching careers: Instead of spitballing, Florida SBOE members should propose reactivating the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program

According to Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeff Solochek, much of this past week’s State Board of Education meeting concerned Florida’s teacher shortage, which is growing,  according to the Florida Education Association’s Cathy Boehme.

Jeff reported that SBOE chair Marva Johnson was particularly concerned about finding enough teachers in critical shortage areas like math and science, while SBOE member and former chair Gary Chartrand suggested a scholarship program for students who know they want to be teachers before they start college.

At least in my field, physics, the problem with the idea of a scholarship program for students who start college knowing that they want to be teachers is that there are almost no such students.  I know of one recent physics graduate who knew on the day he arrived at FSU that he wanted to be a teacher (he is now teaching at Orange County’s Apopka High School).  The majority of FSU graduates now teaching physics had no idea they wanted to teach physics when they first arrived on campus – they only decided to pursue teaching careers well after they had started their undergraduate studies.

Florida once had a program of financial incentives for teachers in critical shortage subject areas that rewarded all teachers in these fields – and not just the ones that knew on their first day of college that they wanted to teach.  The program, called the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program, was effective according to a 2015 study by CALDER Center researchers.  The program included a student loan forgiveness component and a component in which practicing teachers received tuition reimbursement for college courses that helped them prepare for a new certification in a critical needs subject.  In addition, for a time the program included a component in which teachers in high-needs subject would receive bonuses.  The entire program was terminated in 2009-10.

The CALDER Center authors, Li Feng (Texas State University) and Tim Sass (Georgia State University), found

…that the LF [loan forgiveness] component did have substantial positive effects on the likelihood an individual would remain in teaching. The effects vary across subjects and depend in part on the magnitude of payments. Positive effects were found for four of seven subject areas (science, math, foreign languages, and ESOL). Positive effects were also found for the largest shortage-area category, special education/gifted teachers, although only when payments were relatively large. We also found that the $1,200 one-time retention bonus offered to high school teachers in designated subject areas decreased teacher attrition in the targeted areas by as much as 25%.

Instead of spitballing, the SBOE should recommend to the Florida Legislature the reactivation of the Florida Critical Teacher Shortage Program.  Redirecting the money spent last year on the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program (about $230 million) – or even just the controversial $70 million part of the Best and Brightest program that is dependent on the teachers’ own ACT/SAT scores – into the resurrected Critical Teacher Shortage Program would provide substantial incentives for all new college graduates in critical shortage subjects like math, chemistry, computer science and physics to consider teaching careers.  The incentives would not be limited just to those individuals who had committed to teaching four years before when they were just starting college.

There is another anomaly in the teacher supply situation that I am unable to understand – elementary education.  As the figure below shows (with numbers taken from the 2018-19 Critical Teacher Shortage Area Report assembled by the Florida Department of Education for the State Board of Education) there are many subjects in which the numbers of graduates from the state’s college- and university-based teacher preparation programs are less than 50% of the demand for such teachers.  There are even several subjects in which the number of graduates is less than 10% of the demand.  Those subjects are Spanish, General Science, Physical Sciences (which includes both chemistry and physics) and Earth/Space Science.

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But the number of teacher preparation program graduates in elementary education is 20% greater than demand.  I am aware of at least one school district that was still looking for elementary teachers only a few weeks before the start of classes this fall.  How could this be?  Somebody should ask the new elementary ed graduates who are not taking teaching jobs why they aren’t.  Perhaps that should be done before the SBOE recommends a new scholarship program for students who declare elementary education as a major on the first day of college.

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In high school physics classrooms, modern lab equipment demonstrates commitment by school and district leadership to improving STEM readiness

To have the best chance to succeed, high school students in a tough physics course like AP Physics 1 that demands a hands-on pedagogy must have access to modern lab equipment like the Vernier equipment recommended by the National Math and Science Initiative or its Pasco equivalent.

With the passing rate on the AP Physics 1 exam stuck near 40% and students, parents and teachers wondering whether the course is worth the effort, making sure that classrooms are well-equipped is an urgent issue.

Just to be clear – AP Physics 1 is worth the effort. The pre-testing I do in my calculus-based studio-style introductory physics classes as well as my own observations show that AP Physics 1 alumni are better prepared for my course than other students.

During the last few years, FSU has provided about $50,000 worth of physics teaching lab equipment for Bay District high schools. It has been an excellent investment. In 2015-16, the 28,000-student Bay District had about 100 high school students enrolled in physics classes. This fall, the district has about 500 high school physics students – and about 90% of them will be using lab equipment provided by FSU.

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A story on the FSU physics teaching lab equipment loan to Bay District Schools in the October 18, 2016 edition of the Panama City News-Herald.

During my visit with Orange County Public Schools teachers last week, I learned that this summer the district worked with Pasco to provide new state-of-the-art teaching lab equipment for every high school.  It is an investment that demonstrates the commitment to further improving students’ preparation for college STEM majors.

While high school physics is being deemphasized statewide, Bay and Orange Counties are bucking the trend.  Properly equipping their physics classrooms is an important part of the effort.

There are many reasons that high school physics teachers decide to leave the profession.  But one talented individual who left teaching at the end of the 2017-18 school year told me he left because of the lack of proper lab equipment.  A one-time expenditure of about $10,000 would have caused him to stay in his high-needs school.

Of course, I am arguing for significant expenditures on lab equipment at a time when teachers are paying for classroom supplies out of their own pockets and parents are asked to contribute paper towels and other items.  It is ridiculous that teachers and parents have to provide basic classroom needs.

But I think it’s fair to say that a school district that doesn’t provide the proper tools for their physics teachers and students isn’t serious about improving the preparation of its students for college majors like engineering and health professions.

That’s something for physics teaching candidates to keep in mind as they evaluate job offers.  Parents should also look at this issue as they decide whether a high school is right for their children.

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High school physics teachers: What are you doing to boost physics enrollments? Are you expanding or restarting Honors Physics? Recruiting students from Honors Physics for AP Physics 1?

It appears that AP Physics 1 did not quite work out the way we hoped it would.  It’s a fine course, but enrollments in Florida public high schools have plateaued at about 7,500 per year and passing rates are stuck near 40%.

Recently, I’ve talked with some teachers who are restarting Honors Physics or are expanding their Honors Physics offerings.  Some are also planning to use Honors Physics to recruit students into AP Physics 1 – effectively making AP Physics 1 a second year course.

If you are a high school physics teacher, let me know how you are coping with the challenges posed by AP Physics 1 enrollments.  Write to me at my FSU e-mail address or send me a tweet.  If you’d like, I’ll post your ideas on this blog.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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Is Florida doing STEM yet? CareerSource Florida says “yes!” I’m not so sure.

In a Naples Daily News op-ed, CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard talked about the strategies that our state is adopting to address the “talent gap” that occurs in many STEM fields and the national recognition the state is receiving for its efforts.

Ms. Dennard’s account of Florida’s efforts is impressively long:

Here in Florida, employers are collaborating with workforce development, economic development and educational entities to bridge skills gaps through the expansion of apprenticeships in STEM-related fields. Florida is among 36 states recently selected to help the National Office of Apprenticeship within the U.S. Department of Labor meet its goal of doubling and diversifying the number of apprenticeships by 2019.

CareerSource Florida is integrating apprenticeships into our statewide sector strategies initiative to enable us to meet the talent demands of tomorrow and support state and local economic growth today. A strong focus on STEM-related education and career pathways, including expanded apprenticeship opportunities, will help ensure our next generation of employees is motivated and ready to meet current and future business needs.

Individual initiatives have formed around the state to develop new apprenticeship programs that will grow our STEM talent. In Collier County, CareerSource Southwest Florida, Immokalee Technical College (iTech), Arthrex and FutureMakers Coalition are currently collaborating on a machining program to strengthen education/business partnerships as well as establish career pathways with a road to self-sufficiency for job seekers.

I am all for apprenticeships, especially for those STEM careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree.  But according to Burning Glass (among others), 75% of STEM jobs require a bachelor’s degree.  And STEM bachelors’ degrees generally require lots of math (often including calculus and differential equations) and lots of science, including chemistry and physics.  It is important to note – especially for policy-level people like Ms. Dennard – that enrollments in chemistry and physics courses in Florida’s public high schools are declining.  As of 2015, Florida enrolled public high school students in physics at a rate approximately half the national rate, and our state’s physics numbers have declined since then.  Florida’s calculus enrollment numbers are unimpressive compared to national rates, even though the state provides financial incentives to schools and teachers that have students pass Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge exams in those subjects (as well as in science subjects).

So what Ms. Dennard needs to add to her agenda is a program to attract many, many more strong math and science teachers to Florida’s public high schools.  Apprenticeships are lovely – except when they are used as excuses to avoid addressing the hard questions about the health of the state’s instructional programs in math and science.

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As the new school year begins, where are Florida’s bright spots for STEM career preparation?

It would be easy for me to dwell on Florida’s declining interest in the high school science necessary to prepare for college majors in fields like engineering, chemistry, meteorology, computer science and physics and even health professions. Enrollments in high school chemistry and physics courses are declining in the state. Last year, there were 31 public high schools each housing 1,000 or more students that didn’t even offer physics. That number is increasing.

But readers generally like good news better than bad, and I want to hang on to both of my regular readers. Also, sharing good news is better for my health than moaning about bad news.

So as my back-to-school offering, I share here my Florida STEM career preparation bright spots heading into the 2018-19 school year.  I am going to turn this into a page on this blog, so if you have any bright spots I should add, let me know.

Seminole County: Seminole County has been Florida’s STEM career prep superpower ever since I started tracking enrollment rates in the key high school courses – precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics. A high powered academic environment likes Seminole’s doesn’t maintain itself. It takes sustained effort and collaboration at all levels from the Superintendent to school leadership to teachers to parents. (Or maybe instead I should say “from parents to teachers to school leadership to the Superintendent”). At the beginning of every semester, I ask my own physics students at FSU where they went to high school. Whenever a student shares that she or he came from a Seminole County high school, I have 100% confidence that student is as well prepared as possible. And I haven’t been disappointed yet. That’s how good Seminole County is.

Brevard County: Year after year, Brevard County has maintained Florida’s highest high school physics enrollment rate – higher even than that of Massachusetts. Perhaps this should be expected. After all, Brevard is the home of the Kennedy Space Center. Yet it is never that easy, and as in the case of Seminole it takes a sustained effort by parents, teachers, school leaders and district leaders to make that happen. Brevard falls short of Seminole’s course-taking rates in higher level math, perhaps in part because of Seminole’s district-wide policy that every student take a math course every year. But Brevard is clearly in the runner-up position in the ranking of Florida’s top STEM career prep districts.

Bay County: If you simply look at last year’s STEM career prep rankings, Bay County seems average. But if I calculated a rate of change, Bay County would have a large positive number. In 2015-16, the district had the lowest physics enrollment rate of any non-rural district in Florida, with 100 physics students (the district enrolls about 28,000 students overall). In 2017-18, that number had grown to 270. Preliminary information I have indicates that the district will have about 500 physics students this fall. If that is indeed the case, it will likely push the district into Florida’s top ten for physics enrollment rate. And it’s not just that the district has more physics students – it’s the way it has gotten there, which is a story for another day (although you can see part of it here).

Orange County: Orange County’s Calculus Project, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds into Algebra 1 classes and thus sets those students on the path to STEM careers at the bachelor’s degree level or above, is the state’s most important STEM recruiting initiative. Period. They rank 2nd in the state for middle school Algebra 1, both for all students and for black students. They are trailing only Collier County (which is next in this list).  In addition, Orange County has decided to take control of its math/science teacher recruiting process by working with “content” departments (like the UCF Physics Department and the FSU Physics Department) directly.  It’s paying off for them.

Collier County: Collier is ranked first in the state for middle school Algebra 1, both for all students and for black students. Collier’s enrollment rates in high school chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus have historically been fairly weak, but the district’s astonishing success in middle school Algebra 1 may indicate that Collier’s STEM pipeline is about to experience a surge.

Marathon Middle High School: Monroe County’s lowest income high school is also its strongest in physics. In fact, this small school (100 or fewer students per grade) last year had what was perhaps Florida’s highest physics enrollment rate for a school that was not a STEM-oriented charter – 97 physics enrollments (summed over all grades) per 100 12th graders. There is only one reason this has happened – Marathon’s fabulous physics teacher, Mr. Hayes.

Orlando Science Middle/High School: This is the STEM-oriented charter I was referring to above. The folks at OSS are doing everything right, including bringing in students from the nearby impoverished Pine Hills neighborhood. They also have spectacular national-level victories in math and science competitions.

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The crowd of students and parents attending the 2017 Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony on FSU’s Panama City campus on November 27, 2017.  FSU Physics Professor Susan Blessing (below) was the ceremony’s scientific keynote speaker.

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Hechinger Report article that praised engineering internships at Silicon Valley high schools but neglected James Lick High School physics controversy ignored the importance of high school math and science preparation

In early June, the Hechinger Report published an article about programs like internships that Silicon Valley high schools are using to interest their lower-income students about careers in fields like engineering (“How Silicon Valley schools are trying to boost lower-income students into high-tech jobs”, June 7, 2018).

The Hechinger article appeared shortly after a social media blitz by the Northern California physics education community sparked by the cancellation of physics at one of Silicon Valley’s low-income high schools, James Lick High School. Ultimately, the physics educators’ blitz was successful, and a section of physics was scheduled at James Lick for the 2018-19 school year.

But the possibility of physics being cancelled at a high school in Silicon Valley – whose international preeminence is built on a foundation of physical science – was a chilling indicator that perhaps Florida is not the only state in which fundamental science is in decline at the high school level.

In any event, the Hechinger Report article didn’t acknowledge the James Lick High School physics controversy at all. It was a startling and grievous omission.

What the Hechinger Report editors and staff refused to acknowledge through this omission was that interest-building activities like internships are only half of what is necessary to provide these students with access to lucrative high-tech careers.

The other half is this: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds need educators and leaders in their high schools to encourage them to take the challenging courses in chemistry, physics and calculus necessary to be properly prepared for college majors in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. Yes – that includes the physics offering that James Lick came within a whisker of canceling.

Too often, K-12 educational leaders focus on interest-building activities and neglect the hard work of convincing students and their parents to persevere in upper level math and science courses. Reporting on internships separately from the high school course preparation necessary to be successful in the fields in which students are interning, as the Hechinger Report did, perpetuates the problem of students showing up at college unprepared for their chosen majors.

In three weeks, I’ll meet my fall first-semester calculus-based introductory physics class for the first time. The students in the class will be majoring in fields like engineering, meteorology, chemistry, computer science and (of course) physics. It’s likely that about one-third of them will not have taken a physics class in high school. Those students who neglected to take a physics class in high school will be at a significant disadvantage, even in a classroom like mine that is designed to give all students – including those who are underprepared – the best possible chance to learn. My colleagues and I have concluded that students who arrive in our hands-on “studio” physics classes earn, on the average, grades a full letter grade lower than those who arrive well-prepared.

How does this happen? Many high school leaders and educators fail to tell students interested in fields like engineering (and their parents) that it is important to take high school courses in physics, chemistry and calculus.

I look for high schools to partner with on turning this around, but I am seldom successful. One high school where I’ve been successful is Mosley High School (in Panama City, 100 miles from my home in Tallahassee), where counselors who were determined to address this issue invited me to meet with parents in evening meetings two years ago. As a result of these meetings and the counselors’ conversations with students and parents, Mosley will have nearly 200 students taking physics this fall. Three years ago, that number was six.

High school educators who have convinced themselves (and their students, and their students’ parents) that high school courses like physics are not important should listen to what my former student Alexander Gonzalez has to say. Alexander came to FSU to major in engineering without a high school physics class. He was nevertheless successful, and developed into one of my best students by the end of the year (While it might be more powerful to share testimony from an unprepared student who did poorly in my class, I cannot bring myself to do it). But even Alexander encountered severe difficulties due to his lack of preparation early in his first semester with me. He recently shared with me that when the first semester course began, “I was introduced to concepts and ideas that weren’t familiar to my understanding of the world….This level of thinking was challenging and daunting at first, and required me to change my overall methods of learning the material.” Alexander succeeded because he had a level of maturity – both emotional and intellectual – that is quite unusual for a 19-year-old. Several of his classmates who were also handicapped by the lack of a high school physics background did poorly in the course and had their dreams of engineering careers set back or even lost altogether.

The solution to the problem of students who are motivated to pursue engineering and similar fields by internships and academies but who leave high school academically underprepared begins with educators and school leaders. In some cases, the same educators and leaders who are willing to soak up the love they receive for arranging interest-building activities like internships and academies are unwilling to take on the difficult task of talking with students and parents about persevering through courses in physics and calculus. These educators are presently responsible for many broken hearts in college science and engineering classes. If these educators change their minds and become willing to take on the hard work of preparing their students properly, they will become the heroes of their students’ fulfilled dreams.

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The University of California’s Lick Observatory, located near James Lick High School

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