The campers who attended FSU-PC’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp should make the leaders of Florida’s post-Michael Panhandle hopeful

Campers measuring the dependence of radiation intensity on distance from a source on the first day of the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp at FSU-PC.

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.

Ironically, we lost a day-long field trip to Tallahassee to see the Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory because of the threat of Tropical Storm Barry. But we did have an outstanding field trip on Monday afternoon to HCA’s Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center to learn about nuclear medicine. Dr. Bob Bain spent a solid hour with the group explaining how he uses radioactive isotopes in his practice and answering questions from the campers.

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.

Hunting for radiation sources on the FSU-PC campus on the first day of the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp.
Rutherford High School physics and math teacher and Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp lead teacher Rachel Morris leading a group of campers through a gamma-ray spectroscopy exercise on the second day of the camp.
Campers using diffraction gratings to see the discrete line spectrum emitted from a neon plasma lamp on the fourth day of the camp.
Campers in their diffraction glasses on the fourth day of camp.
Magnetic fields in solenoids on the fourth day of camp.
More atomic spectroscopy of neon – this time with an electronic spectrometer on the fifth day of camp.
Rutherford HS physics and math teacher and camp lead teacher Rachel Morris teaches the quark model on the fifth day of camp.
The Bay County Chamber of Commerce convenes its First Friday gathering one floor below the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp on the fifth day of camp. If they only knew what was going on one floor above!
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Black students in Florida’s STEM pipeline: Among middle school students who passed Florida’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam this spring, black students are significantly underrepresented. But some districts are doing better on this issue than others.

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.

The underrepresentation of black students among middle school Algebra 1 EOC passers is not even close to being the end of the story about black students in Florida’s STEM pipeline. The underrepresentation of black students among Florida students who pass Advanced Placement exams in calculus, physics and computer science is much more severe than that among middle school Algebra 1 EOC exam passers. That severe underpresentation of black students is evident in the statistics of who earns degrees in engineering, the physical and mathematical sciences and computing from Florida’s public universities as well.

But solving the problem of the racial disparity in middle school Algebra 1 classrooms will be a necessary step on the road to STEM equity in Florida schools, colleges and universities.

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How many middle school students are taking (and succeeding at) Algebra 1 in your school district? In little Lafayette County, it’s a lot.

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.

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Number of Florida middle school students passing the state’s Algebra 1 exam continues to increase, putting more students in position to prepare for college majors in engineering and other STEM fields.

The numbers of Florida 7th and 8th graders passing the state’s Algebra 1 end of course exam in the spring testing period continued their sharp increases this year, according to figures released by the Florida Department of Education on Friday.

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.

By passing Algebra 1 in middle school, students put themselves in position to take one or two years’ worth of calculus in high school (the standard high school math sequence is Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus). Taking calculus in high school is recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education for students who might choose to major in engineering in college.

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.

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Can dance help us invite K-12 students to the study of physics and careers in engineering, the physical sciences and computing? In Bay County, teachers are giving it a try.

David Popalisky of the Santa Clara University Department of Theater and Dance leads participants through leaps at the Physics of Dance teacher workshop held at Florida State University’s Panama City Campus Holley Lecture Hall on Saturday, June 22.
Richard Barber of the Santa Clara University Department of Physics discusses a measurement of the height of a jumping workshop participant at the Physics of Dance teacher workshop.
Richard Barber (left center) and David Popalisky (right center) discuss science and art during their keynote address on Friday evening at the Physics of Dance teacher workshop.

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.

David Popalisky demonstrates a movement for workshop participants to try on Friday evening.
David Popalisky leads workshop participants through a warmup on Saturday morning.
A workshop participant jumps on a PASCO force plate while two other participants watch data from the force plate being recorded on a computer.
Richard Barber explains force and position data to workshop participants.
A student from the Bobbie Massey School of Dance in Panama City dances while workshop participants watch data coming in from the goniometer that the student is wearing.
A student from the Bobbie Massey School of Dance dances in a goniometer while workshop participants watch the data come in.
Workshop participants dance while being recorded for later video analysis.
Richard Barber (left) and David Popalisky (sitting foreground) assist workshop participants with an analysis of a video recording of their dance.
A workshop participant (foreground right) explains the analysis of a video recording of a dance movement in which she participated.
Workshop participants explain the force and motion data on a dance movement their group executed.
The printed program for the workshop.

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Preparing students for college STEM majors: FLDOE improved its course enrollment report in Spring 2019 by including dual enrollment. But the improved numbers still say that Seminole and Brevard Counties are best.

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.

But adding dual enrollment courses into the now-traditional Bridge to Tomorrow analysis of district course enrollment rates for the high school subjects recommended by the American Society for Engineering Education (chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus) didn’t change this – Seminole and Brevard Counties are still the best districts in Florida at preparing students for college STEM majors.

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.

It’s worth noting that in 2015 we contacted state departments of education around the nation to determine physics enrollment rates for other states. Thirty-one jurisdictions (thirty states plus DC) responded. The “national” physics course enrollment rate determined in that survey was 40 enrollments per 100 12th graders, which was close to the national physics-taking rate of 39% determined by the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Group for the national high school graduating class of 2013. Only three school districts in Florida – Brevard, Seminole and Monroe – have physics enrollment rates that exceed the “national” 40 students per 100 12th graders rate.

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Orange County Public Schools desperately wants to give every student access to careers in engineering, physics and computer science. Here’s how I know.

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.

The investment is in some sense risky. Not all of the 7th graders in the Calculus Project succeed on the state’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam at the end of the following year. But enough of the Calculus Project 7th graders succeeded on that exam in the Spring of 2018 to make Orange County one of the state’s leaders in Algebra 1 success among black middle school students.

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.

Five middle school students who participated in the April field trip to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine share their reflections about the experience with the Orange County School Board. (Picture from Rebecca Ray)

Middle school students, teachers and staff who participated in the April field trip to FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and College of Medicine gather at the Orange County School Board meeting on June 11. (Picture from Rebecca Ray)

School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs took the opportunity to thank me, including presenting me with a plaque – the first time that has happened to me in a K-12 setting. In turn, I applauded the Board for their work to provide access to careers in engineering, physics and computer science for all of their students. Black students in particular are severely underrepresented among bachelor’s degree graduates in these fields in Florida (and in the rest of the nation).

I also begged the parents of the students on the field trip to send their students to FSU – and to my classroom. I need them. We need them.

In addition to the field trip, I am working with OCPS district staff and teachers on several other projects. This past school year, I met with the district’s high school principals and many of the district’s physics teachers to discuss the importance of high school courses in calculus, chemistry and physics to prepare for college majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computing and the health professions. I am working with FSU Physics colleague Simon Capstick to build relationships with teachers in the school district’s North Area, including Apopka. Simon will spend two weeks this summer with elementary and middle school teachers in the North Area. I am planning visits with Apopka-area teachers during the 2019-20 school year.

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.

Some of my Central Florida friends and collaborators. From left: UCF Physics-Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee, OCPS Director of Talent Acquisition Bonnie Toffoli, OCPS Chief of Staff Bridget Williams, OCPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Pam Villalba, OCPS Secondary Science and Social Studies Senior Administrator Rebecca Ray, and me (with the plaque I was awarded by the Orange County School Board). Picture from Rebecca Ray.
I address the Orange County School Board on June 11. Picture from Bonnie Toffoli.

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