I spent last week becoming more hopeful for the future of Florida’s post-Michael Panhandle.
Nineteen campers attended last week’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp for middle and high school students at Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Every one of them demonstrated scientific insight during the week. They were an impressive group of young people.
I assisted the camp’s lead teacher, Rutherford High School physics and math teacher Rachel Morris. The camp was supported by CENTAUR, a consortium of universities (including FSU) and national laboratories based at Texas A&M University and funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The camp was heavy with hands-on experiences using equipment like radiation monitors, sodium iodide gamma-ray detectors and atomic spectrometers. Quantum physics, the supply chain for medical isotopes and mass-energy equivalence were on the agenda along with many other topics. We also pushed hard on foundational skills like algebra and graphing.
The campers came from a broad range of backgrounds, and if the Panama City region has a future in science and technology then these students should be among the region’s leaders. And educators like Rachel Morris will be the unsung heroes of the region’s recovery.
That is something that the region’s economic leaders must keep in mind. In fact, while our camp group was convening on the second floor of FSU-PC’s Holley Center on Friday morning, the Bay County Chamber of Commerce was convening its monthly First Friday meeting in the meeting hall on the first floor (the real first Friday was the week before, but it was part of a holiday weekend). The Chamber has been holding their First Friday meetings since 1957, and they have become more urgent since the hurricane struck last October. In fact, Friday morning’s event featured Bay County’s Chief of Emergency Operations, Mark Bowen.
Seeing the impressively large group of Chamber members convening a floor before, I couldn’t help thinking that a truly forward-looking group would want to know about our campers one floor above and would be asking how to provide them – and other talented young people like them – with the opportunities necessary to fulfill their considerable potential. Bay District Schools has made impressive progress during the last several years providing those opportunities, but there is more work to do in the very challenging circumstances of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
Taking Algebra 1 in middle school is a key milestone for students in the pipeline for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. So it’s disturbing that the percentage of black students reaching that milestone is so much smaller than the corresponding percentage for the whole student population.
Of Florida’s 220,975 public school 7th graders, 10.1% (22,390) passed the Algebra 1 end of course exam this spring, according to the Florida Department of Education EdStats portal. But of the state’s 47,926 black public school 7th graders, only 5.2% (2,750) did so.
The 8th grade picture is similar. Of Florida’s 213,672 public school 8th graders, 29.0% (61,871) passed the Algebra 1 EOC this spring. The corresponding numbers for the state’s black students? Of 45,684 black 8th graders, only 18.0% (8,209) passed the Algebra 1 EOC.
The situation varies dramatically among school districts. In the plots below, forty-five districts – those with enough black students in middle school Algebra 1 classes (more than 10 in either 7th or 8th grade) to show up in the Florida Department of Education’s statistics posted on the department’s EdStats portal – are ranked according to a methodology recently used here to rank districts on middle school Algebra 1. We calculated the numbers of 7th and 8th graders that passed the Algebra 1 EOC as percentages of the total 7th and 8th grade membership in each district. Then we added those two percentages up to calculate the middle school Algebra 1 index and ranked the districts. In the right side panel, these 45 districts are ranked for all students. In the left side panel, the districts are ranked the same way, but for black students only.
There are several features of the graph that are clear from a first glance. First, Collier County has a remarkable degree of success with black students – and far outpaces all other school districts in this regard. Second, nearly all of the state’s biggest urban school districts (Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Orange, Palm Beach and Hillsborough) are having more success with black students than nearly all of the state’s less populous districts (Collier, Taylor and St. Lucie being the exceptions). Among the state’s big urban districts, only Pinellas seems to fall short.
A closer look reveals that several districts rank significantly worse for black students than they do in the ranking for all students. The most remarkable case of this seems to be Martin County, which is ranked 8th for all students among the 45 districts examined here, but which is ranked 43rd when only black students are tabulated.
During the school year that just ended, Lafayette County High School (which houses grades 6-12) had 96 8th graders – and 71 of them took Algebra 1 and the state’s end-of-course exam in that subject this spring. Fifty-six of those students passed the exam, making little Lafayette County (the US Census Bureau estimated a population of 8,732 on July 1, 2018) the number one district in Florida for middle school Algebra 1 this year.
To rank the districts, we used the results of the state’s Algebra 1 EOC (which were posted on Friday by the Florida Department of Education) and the numbers of 7th and 8th graders in each district to calculate the numbers of 7th and 8th graders that passed the exam as percentages of the total 7th and 8th grade membership in each district. Then we added those two percentages up to calculate the middle school Algebra 1 index and ranked the districts, as can be seen below.
Lafayette County didn’t offer Algebra 1 to its 7th graders, but 56 of its 96 8th graders (or 58%) passed the end-of-course exam. So the district’s index is 58 – Florida’s top score. Collier County was last year’s number one district and was second this year. Sarasota, Seminole and Brevard Counties round out the top five. The ranking of all of Florida’s school districts is shown below.
In addition to being rural, Lafayette County (which is located east of Perry and west of Lake City and Alachua) has economic challenges. Nearly all (92%) of the district’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Lafayette County demonstrates that socioeconomic challenges don’t doom a district to poor math performance.
In fact, Lafayette isn’t the only district with a high lunch eligibility rate in which middle schoolers performed well on the Algebra 1 EOC, as the plot of the middle school Algebra 1 index vs. the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate below shows.
Students who take Algebra 1 in middle school are on track to take a calculus course in high school. The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that students who might choose a college major in engineering take a calculus course in high school.
This spring, 22,400 7th graders passed the exam – an increase of 41% since 2016 when the numbers of middle school students taking and passing the exam hit a minimum. The number of 8th graders passing the exam rose 31% during the same period.
The numbers of Florida students taking and passing the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course, the first AP calculus course, have been flat for the last several years. However, the tidal wave of middle school Algebra 1 students that began in the 2016-17 school year could arrive in AP Calculus AB in the 2020-21 school year, driving up enrollment. Such an increase would further stress the supply of high school math teachers in Florida, which has been under increasing pressure with the rapid decline of the number of new teachers in that subject area.
To teach Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus courses, a Florida educator must have a Math 6-12 certification. The lower level Math 5-9 certification is sufficient for Algebra 1 and Geometry.
Can dance be used to invite K-12 students into the study of physics if they might not have been willing to study the subject otherwise?
Teachers from Bay and Walton Counties who teach at levels from first grade to high school are ready to find out after spending Friday evening and Saturday (June 21-22) at a workshop on the Physics of Dance at Florida State University’s Panama City campus.
The workshop was led by two professors who teach a course on the physics of dance to students at Santa Clara University – David Popalisky of the Department of Theater and Dance and Richard Barber of the Department of Physics. Their course was described in a 2008 article in Physics World. (The article can be read on the Santa Clara University Scholar Commons here.)
Workshop participants danced, and then used several measurement techniques to analyze forces and the rotational and linear motion involved in dancing. The participants used PASCO force plates, motion sensors and goniometers. In addition, some of the dance movements were video recorded and analyzed using software that allows measurements on a frame-by-frame basis.
The same grant from the office of FSU President John Thrasher that covered expenses for the workshop also purchased the PASCO equipment used in the workshop. The equipment will be kept in FSU-PC’s “STEM Closet” for loan to teachers who participated in the workshop.
The efforts of the participating teachers to bring the physics of dance to their students will be coordinated by Bozeman School Physics and Chemistry teacher Denise Newsome, who was herself a dancer in Panama City before going to FSU’s Tallahassee campus to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Denise’s own dance teacher, Bobbie Massey, brought two of her present students to the workshop on Saturday afternoon.
The fields of engineering, physics and computer science continue to struggle to attract women to their fields. In each field, only about 20% of those earning bachelors’ degrees are women. During a discussion on Friday evening, the workshop participants – all but one of whom were women – wondered out loud whether using dance to invite students into the study of physics might result in more girls taking the subject in middle and high school. Students who take physics in high school are much better prepared to succeed in engineering, physics and computer science in college.
The Florida Department of Education was already the best in the nation for reporting on K-12 course enrollments at the state, district and school levels. This spring they even improved upon that by adding dual enrollment courses to their course enrollment spreadsheets.
The course enrollment rate for a district in a particular subject (chemistry, physics, precalculus or calculus) is given by the number of students in all high school grades (9-12) enrolled in the subject divided by the number of 12th graders in the district, multiplied by 100. This way of calculating a course enrollment rate is intended to approximate the course-taking rate, which can only be determined by examining transcripts.
While the plots below use Spring 2019 course enrollments, the numbers of 12th graders (used as the denominator in calculating course enrollment rates) are those measured in the Fall of 2018.
The “STEM Career Prep Index” is the sum of the course enrollment rates for chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus. Seminole and Brevard Counties top the STEM Career Prep Index ranking again for Spring 2019.
Orange County Public Schools desperately wants to give every student access to careers in fields like engineering, physics, computer science and the health professions.
How do I know this? Exhibit A is the district’s Calculus Project, in which it identifies low-income students who earn a score of 3 (out of 5) on the 6th grade state math test and then invites those students into a 7th grade Algebra 1 class – a privilege usually reserved for students earning the maximum score of 5 on the 6th grade state math exam. The district then makes a significant investment in each student who accepts that invitation in the form of a summer math boot camp and extra afterschool math tutoring.
Orange County now also offers physics and calculus in every one of its regular district high schools – even the low income schools that nationally tend to neglect those subjects. In a few cases, those courses are being offered despite small enrollments of a dozen or so students. In other districts, such low enrollments are often used to justify course cancellation.
There is more to making these high level courses available to every student than just flipping a switch. Recruiting the teachers necessary to provide calculus and physics courses in every school is an enormous challenge in Florida. One of the ways in which the Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) talent recruiting staff is addressing this challenge is by going directly to science departments and their students at UCF and FSU – a strategy that no other school district in Florida has adopted, to my knowledge. Other school districts recruit only by working through Colleges of Education – where science and math students are quite scarce – or by holding open job fairs (which amounts to waiting for the fish to jump into the boat on their own).
I was reminded on Tuesday evening about all of these initiatives when the Orange County School Board recognized me for my very small contribution to several of the district’s efforts to encourage their teachers and students in physics and related subjects. The project that the OCPS district staff featured on Tuesday evening was a field trip taken in April to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine by 50 middle school students – 10 from each of Orange County’s lowest-income middle schools – and five of the schools’ educators. Five of the students who participated in the field trip read reflections about the experience to the school board. Many more came to be recognized, along with their parents.
All of these efforts are focused on building one-on-one relationships, and I sometimes question myself about their significance in a 200,000-student school district. But these intensely interpersonal efforts are the only way forward, and I am taking my inspiration from the district staff and teachers with whom I am working. Some of them have worked for years in the district’s lowest income schools, and they know to keep going forward, one student and one teacher at a time.
As much as I appreciate the plaque that I was awarded on Tuesday night by the school board, my greatest reward has been the friendships I’ve been fortunate to make with the teachers and district staff I work with. The plaque will occupy a place of honor in my office, but I’ll carry those friendships with me forever.