A response for Richard Olexa: Yes, online courses can be better than traditional lecture courses. But we can do so much better than either.

Dr. Richard Olexa responded via twitter to my Orlando Sentinel op-ed on the perils of the State University System’s emphasis on online instruction.  He said this:  “As an alum and someone who took Physics at FSU, I say this very respectfully: I have a lot of students who wouldn’t even be able to give it the old college try without online (blended) courses….IMHO, we need to do our part to ensure that the online experience and rigor mirrors the traditional course. I think it can be done.”  He also said that he had taken a traditional lecture physics course at FSU and had not taken a studio physics course, which I described in the op-ed.  

Dr. Olexa teaches at the State College of Florida Manatee/Sarasota and St. Petersburg College.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at FSU in 2005, a master’s degree in biomedical sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2007, and an M.D. at Ross University School of Medicine in 2010. 

Dear Richard,

To start with:  If you are saying that we can teach a fully online physics course that is at least as effective for promoting student learning as a traditional lecture class, then you are 100% correct.

The graph below shows “normalized learning gains” in Newtonian mechanics from three types of introductory physics courses, as reported by a team from MIT (Colvin et al.) in the September 2014 issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning.  The normalized learning gains are measured by pre-testing and post-testing using the Force Concept Inventory.  The bar on the left side of the graph was measured by Hake et al. (1998) in traditional lecture classes.  The center bar is from the online course developed at MIT and is reported by Colvin et al.  Not only is the online course as good as the traditional lecture course you took at FSU, it is better.  


But the traditional lecture course wasn’t what I was defending in my Orlando Sentinel op-ed.  I was defending the type of course that is shown on the right side of the graph – the interactive engagement course.  While interactive engagement courses come in various shapes and sizes, the model that first UCF and then FSU (which was inspired by UCF) implemented is called SCALE-UP.  SCALE-UP was developed at North Carolina State University by a team led by Robert Beichner and has been implemented at more than 250 institutions, including MIT (the New York Times article on the MIT implementation is here).  Our first SCALE-UP classroom (we call it Studio Physics at FSU), built into FSU’s large classroom building in 2008, is shown below.  Two more have been renovated in the Carothers Building since then.

Class Panorama

Here are some questions you might have about SCALE-UP/Studio Physics:

Is it more expensive to run than a traditional lecture class?  No.  The normal staffing model in our 60-80 student Studio Physics classes is one professor, two graduate TA’s and one undergraduate “learning assistant”.  It turns out that the personnel cost per student is about the same as it is for a big lecture class, which includes not just lectures but also recitations and labs – all of which need to be staffed.

Does it require more physical space than a traditional lecture class?  No.  Yes, the SCALE-UP/Studio room you are looking at above requires more square feet per student than a lecture hall.  But a lecture class also requires a recitation space and a lab facility.  Add those up, and once again the SCALE-UP/Studio room is equivalent.

Does anybody actually achieve those learning gains you show in the graph?  Well, we do.  The graph below shows our Force Concept Inventory normalized learning gains in our calculus-based first-semester introductory classes (PHY 2048C) from 2015 to spring 2017 (you probably don’t want to see all the data since we started in 2008).  We are consistently in the interactive engagement sweet spot.  If the Board of Governors was in a good mood, they’d congratulate us for measuring student learning every semester.  But they haven’t noticed.


Now the really big question you raised:

Can you deliver a SCALE-UP/Studio learning environment online?  Not yet.

There are two key elements in a SCALE-UP/Studio environment.  One is face-to-face conversations among students.  In our classroom, we set students in collaborative learning groups of three, and seat three such groups at a round table of nine.  Our three SCALE-UP/Studio rooms seat 63, 72 and 81 students.  Another popular format for smaller classes is D-shaped tables each seating two groups of three students each.  A 30-seat classroom at FSU’s lab school is shown below.

studioThe other key element is face-to-face conversations between students and instructors.

One leader of the Physics Education Research community told me during my two years as chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education (2013-14) that physical face-to-face conversations are “high bandwidth” because of all the non-verbal channels that are in play during such conversations.  If we could figure out a way to completely reproduce that same bandwidth with a remote conversation, then we could stop making Florida’s legislators all travel to Tallahassee – they could have their sessions remotely.  Such an arrangement would eliminate an entire class of problems.

So what’s the best we can do to serve students remotely instead?  That was the subject of a master’s thesis written (or rather, designed) by a Harvard architecture student – who happens to be my daughter Allison.  She is employed by Overland Partners in San Antonio.  Here was her idea:  Instead of having all of the tables at which students are seated at a central location, put one (or two) tables at each of several remote locations.  If each of the tables had six or nine students seated, you’d still have the face-to-face bandwidth among student peers in the room.  And if you wired the room in which the table is located with lots of audio and video pickups and gave the students in the room video/audio access to other student table locations and the instructor location as shown below, you’d still have some of the contact that characterizes a physical SCALE-UP/Studio room.


So in principle, this could be done.  But it’s not cheap, and it would require staff at the remote locations to maintain both lab equipment and the audio/visual connections.

And that, Richard, is the best response I can come up with.


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“State’s push for online studies will hurt STEM students”: an Orlando Sentinel op-ed

The Sentinel published my op-ed comparing online and studio-style classes in this morning’s edition.

The bottom line?  Online college science courses that isolate students make it harder for women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become engineers and scientists. But that’s what the Board of Governors seems to want.

Here are pictures of the two alternatives.  Take your pick.

Class Panorama


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2017 Florida Teacher Certification Exam results show supply of new high school math teachers continues to decline; Chemistry, Biology, Earth/Space Science decline as well.

The Florida Department Education report on 2017 FTCE results was posted earlier this week, and the 2014-2017 results are taken from that report.  The 2013 results (which are not included in the new report) are taken from last year’s report, which is no longer available on the FLDOE site.

Of course, there are results for many other exams in the FLDOE report.  For example, while the total number of teaching candidates taking the General Knowledge exam for the first time is about the same as it was in 2014, an overhaul of the exam for the 2015 testing year resulted in a drop in the passing rate for three of the four sections from 80-90% to 50-60%.






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If you are a professor in a college or university physics department (or chemistry, computer science or math department), then you have a responsibility to help recruit high school teachers – even if you aren’t getting any help from your College of Education colleagues.

If you are a professor in a physics department (or chemistry, computer science or math department) that has a wonderful working relationship with your university’s College of Education so that your students find the idea of becoming teachers attractive and they can smoothly transition into a teacher education program and earn a permanent certification, then you should stop reading now. This post isn’t for you.

For those readers who are still with me because the physics teacher education program on your campus isn’t running like a well-oiled machine, I’m going to start with some tough talk:  You’re not off the hook.  You can’t just throw up your hands, say “Our College of Education sucks!” and give up. That’s not good enough.

There are things you can do to introduce your students to the teaching profession, familiarize them with evidence-based instruction and give them access to school districts even without the help of your fine colleagues in the College of Education.

Start with this: Tell your students that high school teaching is an important and noble profession. If that sounds too simple to help, consider that the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs made that their very first recommendation in January 2017 report “Recruiting Teachers in High-Needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates”:

Impress upon university faculty and advisors in STEM disciplinary departments the importance of promoting middle and high school teaching with their undergraduate majors and graduate students, and of providing them accurate information about the actual salary and positive features of teaching.

Second, start a learning assistantship program. Here at FSU, learning assistants are undergraduates who serve as paid instructional staff in our SCALE-UP introductory physics classes. They attend the two three-hour class periods per week and attend the weekly TA preparation meeting. Learning assistants tend to become interested in teaching as a vocation because they begin to understand that the design of the SCALE-UP class and the exercises we use are based on research on how students learn – and generally physics majors are intrinsically interested in approaching challenges through research. In addition, they usually enjoy the interactions they have with students in the SCALE-UP classes.

Class Panorama

A SCALE-UP physics class at FSU

Our Learning Assistant program is modest – four students per semester. Our Dean graciously picks up the $10K/year cost.

In 2010, the University of Colorado – where the learning assistantship idea was hatched – reported that their learning assistantship program had tripled the number of “well-qualified” high school physics teachers they were producing.  In fact, it is not unusual for a few of the students in our SCALE-UP classes to become interested in the idea that teaching strategies can be based on how students learn. At least two alumni of FSU’s SCALE-UP program are now teaching physics in Florida high schools. So is one of the former graduate teaching assistants in our SCALE-UP program – and he is now teaching physics in a SCALE-UP format at his school (much to the delight of the U.S. Secretary of Education).

Third, invite school district or school leaders to campus and let them talk with your students about teaching careers. Last year, I invited the Chair of the Bay County School Board, Ginger Littleton, and the school district’s then-Human Resources Director, Sharon Michalik, to visit our SCALE-UP physics classes, and they did a nice job talking about the profession.


Sharon Michalik, then Bay District Schools Director of Human Resources, talking with students in a Studio Physics class about teaching careers in March of 2017.

This spring, I was contacted by staff at Orange County Public Schools and asked about the possibility of a visit with undergraduate majors in chemistry, computer science, math and physics, and that presentation is scheduled for next week. The OCPS folks didn’t ask specifically about students who are already in FSU’s teacher preparation program, although I’m sure they would be glad if such students showed up. Instead, they asked for an opportunity to talk with students who haven’t decided on teaching as a career to see if they can make the sale.

None of the strategies we have adopted had anything to do with our College of Education. We did these things on our own, with considerable support (monetary and otherwise) from our Dean and other members of the university leadership.

You can do these things, too, starting with encouraging your students to consider high school teaching careers. You don’t need anyone from a College of Education to tell you that is the right thing to do.

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Addressing the shortages of teachers in chemistry, computer science, math and physics: The report of the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs

Here is the Executive Summary of the report “Recruiting Teachers in High-needs STEM Fields: A Survey of Current Majors and Recent STEM Graduates”, which was released by the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs in January, 2017.  The Executive Summary concludes with a call to professional societies of STEM professionals and academic departments in those fields to get involved by sharing the importance of middle and high school teaching with their students and advocating for financial incentives to attract more strong students into high-needs subjects.

The United States faces persistent shortages of appropriately trained middle and high school STEM teachers in high-needs fields, particularly physics, chemistry, and computer science. The American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, Computing Research Association, and Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership surveyed over 6,000 current and recent majors in our disciplines.

Our goals were to:

  • Investigate the attitudes and opinions of undergraduate majors and recent graduates from high-needs STEM fields towards teaching.
  • Identify incentives that are both feasible and likely to be effective based on the responses of students showing some interest in teaching.
  • Develop recommendations for the professional societies and disciplinary departments.

Our main findings were:

  • Around half of STEM majors indicate some interest in teaching, suggesting a significant pool from which more STEM teachers could be recruited.
  • For STEM majors with some interest in teaching, 80% say that various financial incentives would increase their interest. They report the most powerful incentive would be an increase of teacher salary.
  • Undergraduate STEM majors underestimate teacher compensation, and the salaries they report would interest them in teaching are close to actual salaries.
  • Students are most inclined to consider teaching in departments where the faculty discuss teaching as a career option.
  • Mathematics majors indicate the most interest in teaching and respond most strongly to incentives. Chemistry and physics majors show less interest and physics majors respond less strongly to incentives. Computer science majors show the least interest.
  • The aspects of teaching that most worry STEM undergraduates are substantially different from the aspects of teaching that worry practicing teachers.

Our recommendations to professional societies and disciplinary departments are to:

  • Impress upon university faculty and advisors in STEM disciplinary departments the importance of promoting middle and high school teaching with their undergraduate majors and graduate students, and of providing them accurate information about the actual salary and positive features of teaching.
  • Support high-quality academic programs that prepare students for STEM teaching, and expand good models to more universities. Strong programs provide improved coursework, prevent certification from requiring extra time, and support their students and graduates financially and academically.
  • Support financial and other support for students pursuing STEM teaching.
  • Advocate for increases in annual compensation, including summer stipends, on the order of $5,000 – $25,000 for teachers in the hardest to staff STEM disciplines.
  • Support programs that improve the professional life and community of STEM teachers.
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To reverse Florida’s decline in high school physics, college and university faculty should step up

Florida was a weak state for high school physics even before enrollments declined 8% over the last three years.

A survey of state departments of education we performed in the summer of 2015 showed that Florida ranked 23rd among the 30 states plus DC that responded to our survey with an enrollment rate (total number of high school physics enrollments divided by the number of 12th graders) about half of the average rate we measured for all thirty-one responding jurisdictions.


If physics is the gateway high school science course for college STEM majors, then this is a serious problem.

Who is responsible for fixing this Florida problem?

I can tell you who is not going to fix it.

The people leading the high schools where physics is considered a luxury specialty for the elite few students aren’t going to fix it.  They are perfectly happy with the way things are.  In fact, I can tell you from personal experience that they can get very upset if you point out that what they are doing is not OK.

The parents in those schools and districts where physics is considered an extra – even for students in engineering academies – aren’t going to fix it.  They don’t know any better.  They don’t know their kids are either at high risk for failure if they declare engineering or a physical science as a college major or are (as at UF) unwelcome in a physics classroom altogether.

Florida’s educational policy-makers are not going to fix it.  Almost a decade ago, they decided that the state’s high school science curriculum should be focused exclusively on biology.  A recent Florida Department of Education Economic Security Report showed that among college majors with large enrollments in the State University System, Biology has the lowest median first-year earnings – even lower than Psychology and English (figure from the report is shown below).  The state’s policy-makers are unmoved.

economic security

So who’s left?

Who’s left is the state’s college and university faculty in physics and other science and technology fields that require physics.  We have to do something about it.

Over the years, I’ve heard lots of excuses from my colleagues at FSU and elsewhere why we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about the problems that high school physics has in Florida or in other states.

One excuse is that the culture of the K-12 schools is vastly different from that of the universities in which we are comfortable.  As an observation, this is valid.  As an excuse, it’s not.  The correct way to respond to this observation is to look for opportunities – K-12 educators and leaders who want to improve the preparation their students are getting for college STEM majors – and then to just ask, “What can I do to help?”

One west coast colleague told me once during a meeting several years ago that our professional society should not assist such efforts because he didn’t have the personality necessary to cooperate with middle and high school teachers.  I would have burst out laughing except that several others in the meeting seemed to be nodding along – they didn’t think they had the necessary personality traits, either, and they figured that was a good enough reason for our professional society to decline to help.

Another colleague from the mid-Atlantic region who was actually very active in K-12 affairs in his state told me that Florida is culturally beyond help and that I am wasting my time.  I responded that giving up on Florida was not an option for me.

Here is another of my favorite excuses:  “I can’t get a grant for that.”  No, you probably can’t.  And never mind, I’ll find someone else to talk with.  (By the way, among the National Science Foundation’s merit review criteria for grant proposals is “broader impacts”, which can include work with the K-12 schools.  And yes, it’s helped me in the review process for nuclear physics grants.)

My own experience with the K-12 world is that I can help in modest ways if I find K-12 educators who really want to do better and collaborate with them.  I think I’m being realistic in saying that there are hundreds of students around the state who are (or were) better prepared for college STEM majors because I helped an educator – teacher, counselor or administrator – with what that educator knew needed to be done.

My batting average with state-level policy advocacy is probably zero, and if I measured my self-worth by that I’d be very discouraged.  But as an educator myself, I know that the extra work I invest in my studio classroom every semester probably really helps perhaps only a few dozen students learn more than they would have in a lecture hall.  That’s the scale of success that I’m accustomed to, so improving the lives of hundreds of kids in the K-12 schools over a period of years seems pretty good – and sufficiently rewarding.

I only wish more of my colleagues felt the same way.

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Orange County Public Schools to FSU science and math students: Think about a career teaching with us!


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