Rutherford High School and Bozeman School opening new STEM horizons for their students

On Friday night, Rutherford High School defeated the Bozeman School 20-7 in the football season opener for both teams.

But when I visited both schools on Friday – before the football game – I saw that students are winning at both schools because teachers and administrators have opened new opportunities for students to prepare for STEM careers.

I started Friday morning at 7:15 am – Zero Hour – with the IB Physics 2 class at Rutherford High School and its charismatic teacher, Rachel Morris.  Rutherford is a diverse school of more than a thousand students located in the built-up southern part of the county not far from Tyndall Air Force Base and the Gulf of Mexico.  The school houses the Bay County school district’s International Baccalaureate Program.

Rachel, who is a former Rutherford Teacher of the Year and a winner of Governor Scott’s Shine Award, also teaches math.  She has been a Bay County leader in implementing interactive teaching strategies for physics.  Rachel earned her bachelor’s degree in Math Education at FSU in 2008 and taught briefly in Gulf County before joining the Rutherford faculty.

Rutherford’s IB Physics 2 course is the first second-year physics course the school has offered in memory.  In fact, the second-year class is only part of the expansion of the physics program at Rutherford.  Two years ago, during the 2015-16 school year, Mrs. Morris had a single 14-student class that combined AP Physics 1 and Honors Physics.  This fall, she has two AP Physics 1 classes and the second-year IB Physics 2 class that I visited.  In total, about four times as many students are taking physics at Rutherford this year as two years ago.

Rutherford’s physics growth is a significant contributor to the growth in physics courses district-wide.  In 2015-16, only 100 students took physics at Bay District’s high schools.  This year, the number is about 300 – a factor of three increase in only two years.

On Friday afternoon, I visited a 17-student Honors Physics class at Bozeman – the first time physics has been offered there.  Bozeman is located in the rural northern part of Bay County and draws students from a large and sparsely populated geographical area (most of the county’s residents are concentrated along the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of the county).  Bozeman covers all grades K-12, and is best known for an award-winning agricultural program.  The school graduates about a hundred students each year, so the 17 students taking physics represent a reasonably large percentage of a graduating class.

Bozeman’s physics teacher is Denise Newsome, who grew up not far from Bozeman and who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from FSU in 2008.  She is an experienced chemistry teacher but only joined the Bozeman faculty last year.  This summer, Denise collaborated in leading a summer camp on the physics of dance at FSU’s Panama City campus.  As part of the preparation for the camp, Denise unearthed electronic sensors and computer interfaces purchased for Bozeman years before but never used (nor even unpacked from their original boxes) and deployed them so that the camp’s dancers could quantify their motion.  That long-lost equipment will be used extensively in Bozeman’s physics class this year.

Bozeman students are aiming high.  Even though physics was being offered at Bozeman for the first time, several were planning to pursue careers in engineering and meteorology.  After I finished my discussion with the class about how the Sun produces its energy with nuclear reactions, one of the students asked about how difficult it would be to power a home or a city with solar power.  We made some estimates and found that with 10% efficient solar panels we could power a medium-sized city – requiring about 100 MW of power – by covering a square about 1 km on a side.  And we noted for the benefit of the half-dozen physics students wearing their football jerseys that 1 km is about ten football fields strung end-to-end.

Both Rutherford and Bozeman – located worlds apart despite being in the same school district – are bursting with promise.  This year, both schools are making substantial progress in unleashing that promise.


Rutherford High School’s Rachel Morris (middle) and Bozeman School’s Denise Newsome (right) with Bay High School’s Sean O’Donnell (left) during a workshop on thermodynamics earlier this month.




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Will the 2018 Florida Legislature address the math and science teacher crisis? Almost certainly not.

I have already lost hope that the 2018 Florida Legislature will address the math and science teacher crisis.

Instead, it seems almost certain that on K-12 education the Legislature will be completely occupied with the dueling efforts to repeal some or all of the provisions in HB 7069 and to consolidate the new parts of Florida law from that bill.

The number of new Math 6-12 teachers may very well continue to plunge (see below), but no one in Tallahassee will notice (except for me and a few of my colleagues and friends).

The shortages of teachers in other math and science fields will continue, mostly unnoticed.

The decline in the number of new physics teachers? Who cares? Enrollment in high school physics is falling in Florida so that solves the physics teacher shortage, right?

And the burden of finding the math and science teachers that Florida’s students need will continue to fall to the school districts. Some districts care a lot and work hard at it (as described in my Orlando Sentinel op-ed). Some seem, um, less interested.

So a shout-out to districts like Bay, Duval and Seminole that are working hard to recruit (and mentor) the math and science teachers their students need. Keep it up! Because it looks like you are going to be on your own for a long time.



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Purdue University is serious about active learning: The new 164,000 square foot $79 million Wilmuth Active Learning Center

Purdue did what you do when you are serious about improving the learning of your students.  Here is a report on the new building from the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

And below is the floor plan for the new facility.  You can see for yourself what is inside the building.  Note well the abundant round tables for hosting classes in SCALE-UP format.  The pdf of the floor plan is below the pictures.





The pdf (so you can take a closer look) is here:


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What is the best way to recruit and prepare teachers?

A commenter named Laurie Bartlett shared this a few days ago:

Is it true that if you have a college degree, are part of a teacher certification program, or pass a certification exam (ESE,ESOL or other), that you can be hired as a teacher in Florida? Do schools or districts have to report how many teachers are part of these programs? Parents assume that the teachers in the class room are teachers, Highly qualified ones as is often stated. It sounds similar to asking, would you want an first year surgical intern operating on your child, or a board certified surgeon w/wo much experience.

While these are all great ways to become a teacher, they do not seem to help make it a profession held in high esteem. I know good teachers of a typical route, college ed program, and alt cert plans.

Which is best for students?

As far as I can tell as an amateur observer of K-12 education, a strong teacher has these four characteristics:

  • A deep understanding of the subject that she or he is teaching
  • A deep understanding of how students learn the subject being taught
  • Well-learned and well-practiced classroom management skills
  • The “it” factor – a sort of classroom charisma that I can recognize but that I will never have myself nor understand

Is there a single scheme for recruiting and preparing teachers that works best for making teachers with those characteristics?

As far as I can tell, the answer is “no”.

The high school physics teachers I know have come through the following routes, and probably more that I don’t know about:

  • Through an undergraduate program that was based in a Physics Department but which was run in collaboration with a College of Education so that new graduates were awarded professional certification by the State of Florida
  • Through an undergraduate program that was based in a Physics Department and funded by the National Science Foundation but with which a College of Education refused to collaborate so that new graduates initially taught with a temporary certification
  • Through the Jacksonville Teacher Residence Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and which takes new bachelor’s degree grads in STEM fields and gives them a one-year paid “residency” prior to placement in a classroom
  • Through a College of Education-based teacher education program that was not in physics
  • Straight from a bachelor’s degree in physics into a classroom without any educator preparation (and teaching initially on a temporary certificate)
  • Straight from a bachelor’s degree in a field other than physics into a classroom without any educator preparation
  • Straight from a doctoral program in physics into a classroom without any educator preparation

I know at least one teacher who has gone through each of these routes who has turned out to be fantastic – eventually.  (Almost nobody is terrific on Day One, no matter what their preparation.)

And I know of teachers who went through the “right” university-based teacher preparation route who turned out to be duds – even though they had excellent “content knowledge” and excellent formal training in teaching.  They just didn’t have that “it” factor – the classroom charisma it takes to succeed.  And no amount of College of Education-based training could cure that.

The bottom line is that every individual who decides to enter the teaching profession is different, bringing different strengths and gaps to their preparation and their classrooms.  Having a myriad of recruiting and preparation paths is the best way to attract the diverse workforce our schools need.


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So which high school students should take physics? (And chemistry, precalculus and calculus…)

Every high school student who will be attending a four-year college should take physics.  And chemistry, precalculus and calculus (if possible).

Why?  Because every student attending a four-year college should be equipped by her or his high school background to choose any college major.  That includes the most lucrative college majors – those in engineering, physics, computer science and mathematical fields.  It also includes the undergraduate programs that prepare students for professional school in health fields.

Those majors require students to take college courses in chemistry, physics and advanced mathematics.  Studying those courses for the first time in high school makes success in the college-level courses much more likely.  The American Society for Engineering Education recommends all of these courses for high school students who might major in engineering in college.

High school students who decide not to take physics or who exit the standard math pipeline are all but giving up on their chances of being successful in STEM fields at the college level.  Parents who enable those decisions are taking some of their children’s best career options off the table.

This is important to keep in mind as Florida’s leading school district for physics, Brevard County, prepares to deemphasize that subject.  And as the physics enrollment rate for the state as a whole – already only about half the national rate – continues to decline.

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The top 25 college majors by salary from the 2015 Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce report “The Economic Value of College Majors”



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Florida’s high school physics leader Brevard County considers dropping physics from standard science sequence

The Brevard County School Board is considering a plan that is intended to raise the “national prominence” of its high schools but that would drop physics from its standard science sequence in 2018-19, according to the Space Coast Daily and school board records.

Brevard is presently Florida’s leader in physics enrollment rate, with a rate of 84 enrollments per 100 12th graders.  Brevard’s rate is roughly double the national rate and leads Florida runner-up Seminole by 25 points.


While Brevard leads the state in physics enrollment rate, its calculus-taking rate is about half those of the state’s leaders, Seminole and St. Johns Counties.

Brevard makes heavy use of the non-honors Physics course, Physics 1.  Nearly half of Brevard’s 4074 physics enrollments in Fall 2016 were in Physics 1.  In contrast, fewer than one-third of Seminole County’s physics enrollments were in Physics 1.

If Brevard’s physics enrollment drops as dramatically as expected after the subject is dropped from the district’s standard science sequence, it will provide another downward push on the state’s physics enrollment, which has already dropped by 5% over the last two years.

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How teacher salaries in Florida compare to other states and to STEM salaries


The salaries shown by jurisdiction are from the National Center for Education Statistics.  The salaries shown include the national average, the top five states, and Florida and its neighboring states Alabama and Georgia.

The STEM field salaries are from the 2015 report “Economic Value of College Majors” published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.  The salaries shown from that report are in 2013 dollars.

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