*Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend and I are continuing a dialogue about how Florida’s K-12 system would best serve the state’s kids. This is a response to Billy’s most recent response, “What is Algebra? And is it memorable and useful enough to justify doing lasting harm to kids’ lives over it?”*

Hi Billy,

There was a lot in your post that I could (and maybe should) respond to. But instead, I’m going to strategically retreat and open with something on which I’m sure we can both agree:

*Our central responsibility as educators is to provide each student with the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential.*

As you pointed out, my primary focus as a college physics professor is on providing opportunities to as many students as possible to careers at the bachelor’s degree level (or above) that require math and science skills. Traditionally, we’ve regarded these careers as being reserved for a special few who have – through some mysterious process – become gifted with rare intuitive understandings of math and science. There is now a great deal of research to support the assertion that many more students can be successful in those careers if we provide evidence-based learning environments for them at all educational levels – starting in elementary school and continuing through graduate school – and encourage them (and their parents) to persevere by taking advantage of those high quality math and science learning opportunities.

What kind of career opportunities open up to students who persist in studying math and science? Of course, we all know about careers in fields like engineering, computer science and the natural and health sciences.

But a student who has strong artistic skills and who manages to gain an understanding of introductory physics and calculus has access to a career in architecture.

An attorney with strong number sense and an understanding of the mathematical skills used in finance can have a tremendous impact in a legal proceeding that involves monetary issues or statistics.

During a conversation with an undergraduate majoring in international relations, I talked about my son-in-law’s work in microfinance – work that lifts the poor out of poverty. The undergraduate I was talking with asked how he could get involved in that kind of work, and I explained how the powerful mathematical and statistical tools that my son-in-law had learned as an undergraduate in economics made it possible for him to marshal private-sector resources for microfinance projects. I noticed that the student’s face fell, and I asked what was wrong. He replied that he wasn’t a math person and that his college-level math training had stopped at College Algebra.

Having said all that, I realized after reading your post that if I had been taught math and science the way you talked about the teaching of math – as a nearly infinite series of disconnected factoids and prescriptions – I would have hated those subjects, too, despite the opportunities they open up. I was fortunate to have terrific math and science teachers at South Windsor (Connecticut) High School who taught me to focus on understanding the foundational basics of those disciplines really well.

I try to teach my own students the same way. I ask them – no, plead with them – to first look at a laboratory exercise or problem without any equations. I ask them, “How do you think this works? What do you think is going to happen?” And then maybe to come up with some numerical estimate as a prediction about the outcome. I tell them they should look for the right equation to apply only after they’ve done this conceptual analysis. And sometimes I don’t even ask them to memorize the equation. During our AC circuit lessons last week, I posted an “AC Circuit Cheat Sheet” and told them to use it all week, including on the quiz. I explained that “I never memorize this crap, and neither should you.” But what I want them to take away from the week is how in a general sense components like capacitors and inductors work in an electronic circuit.

In fact, I’ll share a confession with you if you promise to just keep it between you and me: I googled the quadratic equation recently. I wanted to make sure I had the signs right, and that “2” in the denominator. Please don’t tell anyone else.

As for the issue of retention that you raised: Students who are taught in a hands-on learning environment can retain the conceptual foundations of a subject. In my Studio Physics classes, I pre-test and post-test my students using well-validated assessment instruments called conceptual inventories. I want to make sure that my courses are building the deep understanding that professional engineers and scientists need to drive innovation. The conceptual inventories I use don’t involve any equations or calculations – all the questions address foundational concepts. My pre-tests tell me about each student’s high school physics experience. Some of my students took the new AP Physics 1 course in high school. That course is designed to be taught using a hands-on pedagogy similar to what I use in my Studio Physics classes. As a result, most of the AP Physics 1 alumni in my classes pre-test well on the Force Concept Inventory, which is considered the gold standard of conceptual inventories. That isn’t to say that they ace the thing – they still have plenty to learn. But they have a solid foundation from which to begin and they understand the value of the hands-on pedagogy I use (unlike students who have come up through the K-12 system with a steady diet of traditional lecture classes). And they start the course well ahead of many of their peers who took a lecture-based high school physics class – or no high school physics class at all.

So what are our responsibilities as educators and leaders? That is, how can we meet our central responsibility to provide each student with the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential?

We have a responsibility to provide the best possible evidence-based learning environments in math and science for our students.

We have a responsibility to explain to students and parents why they should continue learning math and science even after it becomes uncomfortable and perhaps even unpleasant – because it will open opportunities later on. The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work provided one successful model for doing this – via brochures and the internet. Bay County’s Mosley High School is doing the same thing successfully – but they are focusing on in-person conversations with parents and students.

What happens if we don’t talk with parents and students and simply settle for what we always have – allowing comfort level to determine which students continue learning math and science? For one thing, you’ll lose a lot of girls with strong math skills. FSU Sociology and Education Professor Lara Perez-Felkner found that if you ask a group of 10th grade girls with strong math skills (as measured by a well-validated assessment) if they are good at math, they will mostly say no. An identically selected group of boys mostly says yes. The same thing happens to students from working class homes. We will mostly lose these kids if we don’t intervene.

Which brings us to the issue of priorities. For our state to succeed in giving each student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential in math and science, we will have to make building a uniformly strong math and science teaching corps a high priority along with reaching out to parents and students. If reading is the exclusive number one priority, then math and science will be neglected. We did the “Just Read, Florida!” experiment, and that’s what happened.

Billy, I had to chuckle at your characterization of Florida’s education system as “STEM-based”. High school physics enrollment is down 8% over the last three years – and that’s after the state was already at half the national physics enrollment rate. High school chemistry enrollments are down 9% over the last two years. If this is what victory looks like…

The bottom line is that if we are going to indeed give each student the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential in math and science, we have a great deal of work to do.