Florida is behind most states in high school physics course-taking, and that is not OK.

Physics-taking rates by state for the 2015-16 school year. From Michael Marder’s November 2019 APS News Back Page commentary.

Physics is the high school science course that is the gateway to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. A student who decides to major in engineering, the physical sciences, computer science or the life and health sciences but shows up at college without having taken a high school physics course is at a significant disadvantage. Some students overcome that disadvantage, but many more do not.

As the map above (produced at the University of Texas and presented in a recent commentary by University of Texas-Austin physics professor Michael Marder) shows, Florida has one of the lower high school physics-taking rates in the nation – or at least did during the 2015-16 school year. Since that year, high school physics enrollment in Florida has dropped by about one-tenth – so things are even worse now.

There are some notable pathologies in Florida’s high schools that go beyond the statewide decline of physics. In Fall 2018, 36 high schools of 1,000 or more students didn’t teach physics. There are high school engineering academies in schools that do not teach physics. A school choice advocacy blog recently gushed movingly about a STEM-focused school in South Florida that is populated largely by low-income students. Unfortunately, that school didn’t teach physics last year (we will know whether they are teaching physics this year when the Florida Department of Education releases course enrollment statistics in February 2020). My own university’s lab school isn’t teaching physics.

The experts on what students need to be well-prepared for success as majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computer sciences, and the life and health sciences are the university faculty in those fields. What do they say? The American Society for Engineering Education wants high school students who are considering majoring in engineering to take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus). The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering has produced a very nice poster saying exactly that (and you can see that poster below). In an Orlando Sentinel article on the rise of computer science courses in Florida high schools, the chair of the UCF Computer Science Department said he would prefer if high school students who aspire to major in computer science would take calculus and physics in high school. To be admitted to professional schools in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy, students must take two semesters of physics. And students are likely to perform better in college physics courses (and therefore have stronger grades to put on their applications to professional schools) if they have taken a physics course in high school.

And yet most of Florida is backsliding when it comes to high school physics course-taking – or even providing physics courses in high schools. There are exceptions. Brevard, Seminole and Monroe Counties exceed the national physics enrollment rate. Bay County’s high school physics enrollment grew by a factor of five from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019.

But often there are excuses or just plain contempt for the advice of university faculty to take physics in Florida. In Texas – with a high school physics-taking rate about four times Florida’s – the situation is quite different. Why? There are deep differences in the educational cultures of the two states. Texas has K-12 challenges that are comparable to Florida’s. Yet at the high school level, Texas students are choosing more challenging courses in math and science than Florida students are – including physics.

It is not OK that Florida students are told they are well-prepared for college STEM majors without a high school physics course. Yet it happens all the time. In other states like Texas, teachers, counselors and school and district leaders think differently and give their students different – and better – advice. It’s long past time for Florida to start emulating Texas in this regard.

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Future Physicists of Florida to induct 227 Bay County middle school students on Monday as program resumes a year after Hurricane Michael

The Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook FSU-Panama City chapter of the Future Physicists of Florida will induct 227 students from Bay District middle schools this coming Monday, November 18.  The ceremony will begin at 6:00 pm at FSU-PC’s Holley Center.

The 227 inductees will be the largest number inducted at a single Future Physicists of Florida ceremony since the program’s inception in 2012. The first Bay County induction ceremony was held at FSU’s Panama City campus in 2015, and induction ceremonies were subsequently held in 2016 and 2017. There was no Bay County ceremony held in 2018 because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael.

The Scientific Keynote Speaker for Monday’s ceremony will be Dr. Jorge Piekarewicz, Distinguished Research Professor in the FSU Physics Department and an expert on neutron stars and other exotic phenomena observed in atomic nuclei.

The Future Physicists of Florida chapter at FSU-PC was endowed by Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook in 2017. Dr. Cook, a cardiologist, will speak to the induction ceremony audience on Monday, along with FSU-PC Dean Randy Hanna, Future Physicists of Florida founder (and FSU Physics Professor) Paul Cottle, and FSU-PC STEM Institute Director Ginger Littleton, who has also been a member of the Bay County School Board since 2006.

The audience at the 2017 Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony at FSU’s Panama City campus.

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An argument for a large teacher raise package: What it would do for students in math and science

In September – out of sheer desperation – I wrote to Governor DeSantis to plead for a large teacher raise package. It worked its way through the letter-to-governor pipeline and came out the other end a few weeks ago when Audrey Walden of the Florida Department of Education wrote a friendly note thanking me for my letter and describing the governor’s $600 million teacher raise proposal. (Audrey is an important part of the FLDOE public information operation that provides in a nation-leading way easy access to lots of data about the state’s K-12 system – including course-taking – that is this blog’s bread and butter. I thanked her for this work.) But there is no evidence that this letter had any impact whatsoever on the policy-making apparatus or that it was even read beginning to end. Dear Reader, if you read this letter beginning to end, you might be the first person other than me to do so.

I am writing to ask you to improve the opportunity that Florida’s public school students have to enter math-intensive fields of computer science, engineering and the physical sciences by ensuring that they have access to the high school teachers in math and science that they need to succeed.

Last spring, a record number of Florida public middle school students – 84,000 – passed the state’s Algebra 1 end of course exam. By succeeding in Algebra 1 in middle school, these students have placed themselves in the pipeline to mathematically intensive careers in fields like computer science, engineering and the physical sciences.

However, Florida’s teacher shortage threatens these students’ career prospects. To be well-prepared for college majors in computer science, engineering and the physical sciences, these students should take Geometry, Algebra 2, Precalculus and Calculus in high school as well as natural science courses in Chemistry and Physics. But the numbers of individuals entering Florida’s teaching corps in these subjects have dropped dramatically during the last several years. The number of teaching candidates taking the exam for the state’s Math 6-12 certification (required to teach math courses Algebra 2 and above) for the first time dropped 42% from 2013 to 2018. The numbers of first-time exam takers in Chemistry and Physics dropped precipitously as well.

The large number of students who passed Algebra 1 in middle school last year (and who will do so this year and in future years) can be a tidal wave of new professionals in computer science, engineering and the physical sciences eight years from now (when they would graduate with bachelors’ degrees), but only if the calculus, chemistry and physics courses they need in their high schools are available. Last school year, 36 medium and large public high schools (more than 1,000 students) didn’t even offer physics – in part because of the shortage of physics teachers.

The teacher salary situation in Florida is affecting the supply of teachers in nearly all subjects. But the situation in math and science subjects is particularly challenging because of the lucrative career options that individuals with strong math and science skills have in other sectors of the economy. Converting the present $285 million Best and Brightest bonus pool into a teacher raise package will result in average teacher raises of less than $2,000 – not enough to significantly increase the supply of teachers in math and science subjects. A much larger commitment – perhaps of a billion dollars – is necessary to make teaching careers much more attractive and to ensure that the tidal wave of middle school students who are poised to become computer scientists, engineers and physical scientists have the great high school teachers they need to continue on to those career goals.

Thank you for your consideration.

From left: Bay County School Board member Ginger Littleton, three middle and high school students who (we hope) are future scientists or engineers, and Rutherford High School’s Rachel Morris, one of the finest math and physics (yes, both) teachers in Florida.
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Florida’s black students on the road to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers: Underrepresentation in STEM-track math courses intensifies in high school

Taking Algebra 1 in middle school and a first calculus course in high school are two of the mile markers on the road to entering college well-prepared to major in fields like engineering, computer science and the physical, life and health sciences.

In Florida, black students are significantly underrepresented in middle school Algebra 1 courses. But the underrepresentation among students taking the first Advanced Placement calculus course is much more severe, signalling that the high school years are a nearly insurmountable barrier for black students who might otherwise be interested in and successful at careers in engineering and the sciences. This is an issue that has attracted little attention among policy-makers and educators.

A record 84,000 Florida public middle school students passed the state’s Algebra 1 end of course exam this past spring (of 95,000 middle school students who took the exam). While 22% of the state’s public K-12 students are black, only 12.7% of those who passed the exam (and only 13.9% of those who took the exam) were black.

As bad as the middle school situation is, the situation four years farther down the road in the first Advanced Placement calculus course (Calculus AB) is much, much worse. Only 4.1% of Florida students who passed the AP Calculus AB exam in May of 2019 (and 6.2% of those who took the exam) were black. [Note: The middle school algebra numbers include only public school students. The AP Calculus numbers include private school and homeschooled students as well as public school students.]

As the plot of underrepresentation among Florida State University System bachelor’s degree graduates in engineering, computer science, mathematics and statistics, and physics farther down shows, the issue in AP courses in high school propogates through to the bachelor’s degree level. To solve the bachelor’s degree problem, we must solve the middle and high school problems.

Why am I only focusing on AP calculus here and not including IB, dual enrollment and non-honors calculus courses here? In part because I do not have the data by race for those other categories. However, in Spring 2019 AP Calculus courses (including the second-year course Calculus BC) accounted for 72% of all calculus enrollments in Florida’s public schools.

Percentages of black and Hispanic students among middle school takers and passers of Florida’s Algebra 1 end of course exam and takers and passers of the AP Calculus AB exam in the Spring of 2019. Those percentages (shown in blue) are compared to the percentages of black and Hispanic students among Florida’s public school population, which are shown in red. Algebra 1 EOC and K-12 population numbers are from the Florida Department of Education. The AP numbers are from the College Board’s Participation and Performance page.
Percentages of black and Hispanic graduates among those receiving bachelors’ degrees in engineering, computing, mathematics and statistics and physics in Florida’s State University System during the 2016-17 academic year. From IPEDS.

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When Hidden Brain commentator Shankar Vedantam said “many things” in STEM “are probably going to be obsolete within five or ten years of your graduation” on Florida Public Radio’s Capitol Report, what did he really mean?

The teaser for the November 4 edition of Capitol Report produced by Florida Public Radio got my attention when I heard a familiar voice say, “things that you are learning in science, technology, engineering and math that are probably going to be obsolete within five or ten years of your graduation”. Really? Another anti-STEM screed? And now on Florida Public Radio? First, I was (as I tweeted) “incensed”. Then I just seethed. Then on the following Monday I saw that the show (which I’d missed on Friday evening) was posted on the show’s web site. So I listened.

What I had heard was a sound bite from an interview by WFSU radio reporter Gina Jordan of Hidden Brain podcast host and NPR social science reporter Shankar Vedantam. It was Vedantum’s voice that said “things that you are learning in science, technology, engineering and math that are probably going to be obsolete within five or ten years of your graduation.” But of course, context is everything. You can read what Vedantum really said below, or listen to it on the WFSU web site here. It is actually perfect.

Beware sound bites.

Jordan: There’s been a push in Florida for more college graduates with STEM degrees – the science, technology, engineering and math. Do you think that’s a good path, or do you think there is a better alternative?

SV: I am a science journalist and have been a science journalist for many years. So I certainly think that studying science, technology, engineering and math is a wonderful thing. I think these are skills that many people should have even if you’re not pursuing STEM careers. I think sort of a working knowledge of science and a working knowledge of mathematics is actually really useful because these are incredibly powerful tools to understand and control the world that we live in every day. Where I think I part ways with some of the people who are STEM advocates is in whether you should also be doing other things as well. And I think it really is important when you’re in college and in high school to try to get a broad-based education because there are many things that you are learning in science, technology, engineering and math that are probably going to be obsolete within five or ten years of your graduation. I certainly would advise everyone who is in college to take classes in the humanities, take classes in the arts, learn a musical instrument. Take writing classes – learn to be a better writer – because being a better writer forces you to become a better thinker. But I don’t see this as being a zero-sum game where you are choosing between science, technology, engineering and math on one side and the humanities on the other. In many ways, these are artificial distinctions that we have created in our society, and to be a well-rounded person in some ways requires you to know a little bit of both.

Above and below: Scenes from a workshop on using dance to teach physics held at FSU’s Panama City campus in June.
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2019 Florida AP results: How severely are Black, Hispanic and Female students underrepresented in Calculus, Computer Science and Physics courses?

Of Florida’s public school students during the 2018-19 school year, 22% were Black, 34% were Hispanic, and 50% were female. The plot below answers the question of whether the percentages of Black, Hispanic and female students among AP exam passers in Calculus, Computer Science and Physics reflect the general public school population in Florida (Note: The AP results include students from private schools and those who are homeschooled in addition to public school students).

The degree of underrepresentation among Black students is severe to the point of being tragic. Females are significantly underrepresented in Computer Science and Physics.

The plot below shows all students who took the exam instead of just those who passed. The results do not change very much from the above plot of exam passers.

The AP exam data are from the College Board, and the K-12 population data are from the Florida Department of Education.

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2019 Florida AP results: Computer science trending upward, Physics 1 and 2 trending downward

The numbers of Florida students taking and passing the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles exam and the more advanced Computer Science A exam are trending upward – rapidly in the case of the Principles course – according to 2019 AP Program Participation and Performance data released on Friday by the College Board.

The sharp increases in the AP computer science courses contrast sharply with the decreases occurring in the algebra-based Physics 1 and 2 courses. The numbers of students taking and passing the Physics 2 exam dropped precipitously this year. The numbers of takers and passers for the calculus-based AP Physics C exams rose this year, perhaps as teachers, parents and students chose to take the Physics C instead of Physics 2. As algebra-based courses, Physics 1 and 2 do not satisfy the physics requirements for college majors in fields like engineering, computer science, chemistry, mathematics, meteorology and (of course) physics because those majors require calculus-based physics courses.

While dual enrollment – an alternative to AP for earning college credits in high school – has become increasingly popular in Florida’s public high schools, competition from dual enrollment does not appear to be responsible for the decline in Physics 1 and Physics 2 course-taking. While the number of Florida students taking the Physics 1 exam dropped by 703 from 2018 to 2019, only 55 students statewide dual enrolled in the equivalent college course, PHY 2053C (including PHY 1053C and PHY C053) in the Spring of 2019. The number of students taking the Physics 2 exam declined by 297 from 2018 to 2019, but only 27 Florida high school students dual enrolled in the corresponding college course, PHY 2054C (and PHY 1054C and PHY C054) in the spring semester. (Dual enrollment data are from the Florida Department of Education)

Among the other AP courses in math and science subjects, only Calculus BC seems to be trending upward. Calculus AB, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science were all approximately flat.

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