Florida’s increased support for career and technical education is a great thing. But we should be increasing support for students who are preparing for college STEM majors as well.

One of the most important challenges facing Florida’s educational system (as well as the nation’s) is to provide students who are not well-suited for a four-year college a way to achieve middle-class lives.

That is – or should be – the mission of our state’s career and technical education (CTE) program.

Insofar as this is the intent of our state’s educational and political leaders in expanding support to CTE programs, I wish them well.

Equally important is to provide students from all backgrounds the opportunity to take on the challenge of earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering and the physical, computing and mathematical sciences. We have to work harder at providing that opportunity to students from low income backgrounds than we do for the children of (say) university physics professors. And we should provide that extra support for those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. That’s why I’m such a fan of the Orange County Public Schools Calculus Project, which provides extra support to low income students (and their families) who are willing to work hard to pass Algebra 1 while still in middle school, which then leads to taking a calculus course in high school. Taking calculus in high school gives those students a head start if they choose college majors in math-intensive majors like engineering.

Taking chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus, which are recommended by college faculty and professional organizations in math-intensive STEM fields like engineering, is career-focused education just like CTE is. And that makes it just as worthy of support.

However, at the same time that support for CTE in Florida is being ramped up, preparation for college STEM majors is declining. The number of students taking physics in Florida’s public high schools has declined by 20%. Yes, there are school districts in which physics-taking has increased (notably Hillsborough and Orange Counties) and districts in which physics course-taking has been consistently high for years (Seminole and Brevard Counties). But on the whole, the rates at which Florida students take the chemistry, physics and calculus courses necessary to properly prepare for college STEM majors have been poor for years and are getting worse.

What can be done?

First of all, we must agree that the purpose of education is to give every student the opportunity to fulfill their potential. For some students, that is making a great living as a plumber. For others, doing web design at the associate degree level. For yet others, earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering and becoming a valuable member of a team designing bridges or airplanes or biofuel production plants. And we’d better hope there are some who have the innate ability to earn the Ph.D.’s in materials science necessary to staff our nation’s new production plants for advanced computer chips. Right now we mostly have to import these scientists from places like China.

Second, we have to stop treating preparation for college STEM majors as if it’s just a less important piece of our K-12 schools’ core academic programs. The purpose of these core academic programs, as understood in Florida, is to make sure that every student has basic skills in math and English language arts. I know that because that is what the state tests. The primary metric on which high school principals are evaluated is graduation rate. How many students are taking calculus or physics isn’t on the evaluation form.

We really should start saying that CTE and preparation for college STEM majors are two sides of the same coin. The Florida Department of Education has a Senior Chancellor who handles CTE. He should add preparation for college STEM majors to his portfolio. CTE initiatives should be coupled to initiatives to improve student readiness for bachelor’s degree-level STEM majors.

What would such an initiative look like? One of the big obstacles to improving preparation of Florida’s high school students for college STEM majors is the lack of strong teachers in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus. One way to attack that problem is implementing the OnRamps model that the University of Texas has pioneered. In that model, a university professor leads a large-scale online course in a subject like physics. But the students aren’t just listening to a university professor talk. Instead, the OnRamps program trains teachers who are already on the staffs of participating schools to act as sort of teaching assistants and to interact with students in person. These courses earn dual enrollment credits for the students, which parents really like.

Another obstacle to improving college STEM readiness is the fact that most parents don’t understand how important chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus are for preparing their students for bachelor’s degree programs in engineering and other science and technology fields. A study conducted in Wisconsin demonstrated the value of reaching out to parents on a large scale. We could do that here in Florida, too.

But it all starts with making a commitment to helping each student reach their potential. It’s time to refocus Florida’s educational system on that.

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The number of large public high schools in Florida that do not teach physics is growing quickly – to 68 this year. What should be done?

In the fall of 2017, there were 31 large (more than 1,000 students) public high schools in Florida that did not teach physics, and at the time that seemed scandalous. Students at those schools had no chance to prepare properly for college STEM majors that require taking physics at the college level. Students who do not take high school physics are more likely to fail their college physics classes than those who have high school physics. And students without high school physics earn, on the average, a full letter grade lower in college physics than students who have had high school physics – so says a national study published in 2007. A more recent study from West Virginia University shows that taking high school physics is the single most important factor in predicting success in college physics.

But despite all of this, the number of large Florida public high schools not teaching physics has grown to 68 this school year – more than doubling since the 2017-18 school year. Now, almost one in every five large public Florida high schools is not teaching physics (there are 372 public high schools in Florida with 1,000 or more students). The 68 no-physics high schools are listed below, sorted by school district. The data on which this is based was released by the Florida Department of Education last week.

What should college physics professors like me do about this? “Teach better”, some might say, presumably so that not having a high school physics class isn’t a handicap. But I am arguably doing as well as I can in this regard. Back in 2008, my physics department (at Florida State) started offering “studio physics” classes based on the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University. I was one of the founders of FSU’s Studio Physics Program and I have been teaching this fairly intense (for students, professors and TA’s) version of calculus-based introductory physics since the program began. Even in my studio physics classroom, the disparity in average grades between students with and without high school physics persists at one full letter grade. The only way to make that disparity disappear would be to lower my expectations for physics understanding at the end of my course to zero. And I can’t do that – it is important for (for example) engineers to understand the physics that forms the foundation of their discipline.

I’ve done the best I can to coax more high schools into teaching physics, with the results that you see – things are getting worse. I talk with parents of middle and high school students. I talk with school boards, district and school administrators and teachers. I’ve even written op-eds about this issue. I will not even get into the myriad factors that seem to be inexorably pushing public high schools away from teaching challenging math and science courses like physics. During the last few years, I’ve watched helplessly as a few high schools that seemed to be physics success stories have been forced into retreat.

And of course the 68 large high schools that do not teach physics are not the whole problem. Many smaller high schools, including high schools in rural communities, don’t teach physics, either. And their students start at a serious disadvantage if they choose to major in fields like engineering and the physical and computing sciences. The students at all of these high schools deserve the same chance to succeed in college STEM majors as students coming from schools in Seminole County, which is state’s STEM superpower.

So what can be done?

The University of Texas has a program called OnRamps that could be a model for a constructive approach to addressing the Florida high school physics crisis (the first semester OnRamps physics course is linked here). The OnRamps program is a dual enrollment program in which a course is led via the internet by a professor at a university and teachers at the individual schools work with the students at their school in concert with the professor. The teachers are prepared for this through a summer professional development program, and they do not have to be certified in the subject of the course since the professor is the instructor of record. All of the preparation the teachers need is provided during the summer professional development – so they don’t have to be strong in physics before they engage in the professional development.

A Florida OnRamps initiative in physics would require likely require a collaborative proposal to the FLDOE by a university physics department and several high schools that would like to offer their students physics but are not presently doing so. I cannot promise that my physics department would be interested – but I challenge interested high schools to give me the opportunity to persuade my colleagues and our campus leaders to give it a try. And I know of at least 68 high schools that should be interested in collaborating with us – the ones that are listed below. In addition, there are plenty of rural and otherwise smaller high schools that do not teach physics that should be interested. We wouldn’t need all of these high schools to be interested – just a few to get started on a pilot.

So contact me. Let’s give it a shot.

Broward County (6 schools): Coral Glades High School, J.P. Taravella High School, McArthur High School, Boyd H. Anderson High School, Dillard 6-12, Hallandale High School

Clay County (2 schools): Middleburg High School, Orange Park High School

Collier County (2 schools): Immokalee High School, Lely High School

Miami-Dade (9 schools): Hialeah Gardens Senior High School, G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School, Felix Varela Senior High School, Homestead Senior High School, Miami Norland Senior High School, Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School, Miami Jackson Senior High School, Westland Hialeah Senior High School, Booker T. Washington Senior High School

Duval County (6 schools): Atlantic Coast High School, Englewood High School, Westside High School, Edward H. White High School, Jean Ribault High School, Terry Parker High School

Flagler County (1 school): Matanzas High School

Gadsden County (1 school): Gadsden County High School

Hardee County (1 school): Hardee Senior High School

Hernando County (3 schools): Weeki Wachee High School, Hernando High School, Nature Coast Technical High School

Hillsborough County (2 schools): Gaither High School, Spoto High School

Indian River County (1 school): Sebastian River High School

Lake County (3 schools): Lake Minneola High School, South Lake High School, Mt. Dora High School

Lee County (5 schools): Lehigh Senior High School, Mariner High School, Island Coast High School, Bonita Springs High School, Estero High School

Manatee County (2 schools): Palmetto High School, Parrish Community High School

Marion County (3 schools): Forest High School, Belleview High School, Lake Weir High School

Okeechobee County (1 school): Okeechobee High School

Palm Beach County (4 schools): Palm Beach Lakes High School, Lake Worth High School, Boynton Beach Community High School, South Tech Academy

Pasco County (5 schools): James W. Mitchell High School, River Ridge High School, Pasco High School, Hudson High School, Anclote High School

Pinellas County (2 schools): Clearwater High School, Gibbs High School

Polk County (3 schools): Auburndale Senior High School, Lake Region High School, Tenoroc High School

Putnam County (1 school): Palatka Junior-Senior High School

St. Lucie County (2 schools): Treasure Coast High School, Port St. Lucie High School

Sarasota County (1 school): Booker High School

Volusia County (1 school): Pine Ridge High School

Wakulla County (1 school): Wakulla High School

If your school doesn’t have someone like this physics teacher (Connor Oswald, who is now Senior Administrator for Research and Evaluation at Orange County Public Schools), then perhaps you’d be interested in collaborating with us on a proposal to start an OnRamps physics program in Florida.
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Which school district is best preparing students for college STEM majors this school year? It’s no surprise that it’s Seminole County. Parents there wouldn’t have it any other way.

When it comes to establishing a culture of STEM excellence in a school district, there is no substitute for great math and science teachers and excellent leadership at the school and district levels.

But that statement neglects the critical role that parents play in establishing such a culture. In the spring of 2022, I had a powerful lesson in the parent culture that forms the foundation of STEM excellence in Seminole County, which is Florida’s STEM superpower.

In July of 2022, I worked with a team including Teague Middle School science teacher Chelsea Holloway and Bay County high school science educator Denise Newsome to present a four-day Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp at Seminole County’s Crooms Academy of Information Technology in Sanford. We had space for twenty middle school students. We advertised the camp in March, and I decided to conduct registration by having parents at the four middle schools closest to Crooms email me directly. Once the announcement of the camp was distributed by the school district to parents at the targeted middle schools on a Friday afternoon I was overrun with emails from parents. The camp was full with twenty students by Monday morning, and I also had a waiting list of another twenty students. The emails kept pouring in, but I stopped counting and just responded “I’m sorry but the camp is full and we have a long waiting list”. In all, I probably heard from eighty parents in the first week after the announcement.

We had run these camps elsewhere and always had trouble attracting twenty students. At first, the intense response of Seminole County parents to the camp opportunity surprised me, but once I gave it some thought I realized I should not have been surprised. By themselves, teachers and administrators can only do so much. The Seminole County STEM phenomenon (and that’s what it is) could not happen without broad support from parents.

So of course Seminole County is still #1 on this year’s STEM Career Prep Index, which is intended to indicate how well each school district does in preparing high school students for college STEM majors. Seminole County has been #1 every year I’ve posted the index. The index is determined by calculating the percentage of students in each district’s public high schools that are enrolled in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus courses and adding those percentages. Taking physics, chemistry, precalculus and calculus in high school is recommended by university faculty members and professional organizations in a wide variety of STEM fields ranging from engineering to architecture. This year, Seminole County is highest ranked for calculus enrollment rate, second in physics and is highly ranked in chemistry and precalculus.

As was the case last year, Brevard County (home of Kennedy Space Center) is ranked second.

The course enrollment and high school membership numbers for Fall 2022 used here were posted by the Florida Department of Education last week.

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Number of Florida public high school students taking physics drops 6.6% from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022

The number of students taking physics in Florida public high schools declined sharply in the fall of 2022, reflecting a general long-term trend in which the state’s high school graduates are becoming more poorly prepared for college STEM majors.

The number of public high school students was 6.6% lower in the fall of 2022 than it had been in the fall of 2021. The fall 2022 physics course enrollment was also 19.7% lower than it was in the fall of 2014. The physics course enrollment number rose 5% in the fall of 2021 – the only yearly increase since 2014 – but that increase was more than wiped out by this school year’s steep decline.

The physics course that was hit hardest was the standard Honors Physics course (Honors Physics 1), in which enrollment declined by a stunning 14.0%, from 22,556 in fall 2021 to 19,401 in fall 2022. Enrollment in AP Physics 1, with which many teachers are dissatisfied because of the low AP exam passing rate, surprisingly rose 8%, from 5,653 in fall 2021 to 6,103 in fall 2022. However, the increase in AP Physics 1 was swamped by the huge decrease in Honors Physics 1.

High school physics enrollments in Leon County, which was once one of Florida’s leaders in preparing students for college STEM majors, declined 23% from fall 2021 to fall 2022. Leon County physics enrollments are down about 40% from their peak in 2016 and 2017.

These data were released by the Florida Department of Education late this week.

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Which professor has the most influence over the moral development of an undergraduate majoring in a STEM field? Probably the student’s research advisor. (And yes, many STEM undergraduates are doing research)

Undergraduates majoring in STEM fields are working hard.

A mechanical engineering professor I work with on webinars for parents of future college STEM majors tells those parents that students in her field and others like hers should expect to spend three hours on homework and studying for their courses for every hour they spend in a classroom. Engineering majors average 16 hours per week in classes, so that means that they should be spending 48 hours per week on homework and studying – making 64 hours per week spend on school.

Undergraduates in my field – physics – have similar demands on their time.

None of this is new. I heard the same speech when I was preparing to start college in the fall of 1978.

The course schedules of students majoring in engineering and physics are crammed with foundational math and science classes as well as classes specific to their majors. You can see a sample schedule for mechanical engineering majors at my university here, and a sample schedule for physics majors below. During their four years as undergraduates, physics majors take only between seven and nine courses that are general education courses or electives outside of the major. Their focus is on becoming professional physicists.

It is quite unlikely that a student in a major like engineering or physics will be influenced morally by one of the general education courses, which almost all of these students regard as speed bumps on the way to their high-powered careers.

But there is one professor in the academic lives of each of these students who might significant influence on their beliefs – their research advisors.

Every engineering major completes a senior project, and most physics majors (at least at my university) join a research group led by a professor. Many of those physics majors complete an Honors thesis or a senior thesis. Undergraduates can spend hundreds of hours with their advising professors and their graduate students, who are people that the undergraduates admire (or else these undergraduates wouldn’t have chosen to work with them). These are the circumstances under which undergraduates might absorb the values and beliefs of of a mentor – much more than they would as one of 100 students in a general education class that the undergraduate regards as an annoying obstacle to getting where she or he wants.

It seems certain to me that HB 999, the lightning rod higher education reform bill that will be considered by the Postsecondary Education and Workforce Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives next week, will prompt significant changes in the general education requirements of the state’s public colleges and universities. Those changes will be framed as an effort to nudge each of the state’s college students into becoming a “well-educated, virtuous citizen”, in the words tweeted out this week by Florida Department of Education Senior Chancellor Henry Mack III.

But while most of the work done to make a student a well-educated and virtuous citizen was done by the student’s family (and perhaps by her or his church), it is possible that a student’s research mentor can have a measurable influence as well. In fact, there are other agents at a university that can influence a student significantly, including fraternities, sororities and other student organizations with which students spend a great deal of time.

But general education courses do not belong in that list – students spend a minimum amount of time on general education coursework and generally regard these courses as boxes to check off on the way to graduation. If the supporters of HB 999 see general education course reform as a way to form more virtuous citizens, they are bound to be disappointed in the long run.

Sample schedule for physics majors at FSU during the first two semesters.

Sample schedule for FSU physics majors the summer after the first academic year
Sample schedule for FSU physics majors for the 3rd and 4th semesters.
Sample schedule for FSU physics majors for the 5th and 6th semesters.
Sample schedule for FSU physics majors during the final two semesters.
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Shouldn’t we just pack all of a district’s math and science teachers and the students interested in STEM careers into a single magnet high school like the “Florida School for Competitive Academics” proposed for Alachua County?

Every student in a Florida public school should have the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential.

And every school should offer students the tools necessary to achieve at the highest level in every subject area. That means that every high school should teach courses in precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics so that a student who aspires to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field can be prepared for success when she or he arrives on a college campus.

Of course there are small schools that for one reason or another are unable to offer all of those science and math opportunities. But those should be exceptional cases.

A student should not have to attend a magnet high school to have access to high quality learning opportunities in upper level math and science. There are several problems with concentrating science and math learning opportunities in magnet STEM schools, but I’ll just focus on one here: Sometimes kids change their minds.

A student might change her or his mind in high school. She (or he) might not be thrilled about science and math in middle school, and so might decide not to attend the local STEM magnet high school. But she (or he) might get excited in high school about medical advances, or the effort to return to the Moon, or robotics or one of a zillion other STEM things. That student should have access to the precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics courses needed to prepare for careers in those fields in whatever high school she (or he) is attending.

Or imagine this: A high school student who is a very high level pianist decides for the sake of prudence to take precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics in high school, just in case things don’t quite work out professionally on the piano. She auditions to get into Florida’s strongest music school (at FSU), succeeds and then spends a year grinding away on the path to a concert career. At the end of that year, she realizes that the career of a professional pianist isn’t for her and decides (get this) to switch her major to physics. She succeeds in earning a bachelor’s degree in physics because she understands what hard work is (every high level musician understands that), she is smart and she is (because of her prudence in high school) well-prepared for success in college STEM majors. She continues on to a successful and lucrative career working for a tech startup after she graduates with her bachelor’s degree. And yes, that really happened. I was privileged that she was a student in my class in the year after she switched to physics, and a few years later she was one of my learning assistants – an undergraduate version of a teaching assistant.

That story couldn’t have happened in a school district that places all of its STEM eggs in a single magnet high school basket. And that could happen in Alachua County if the “Florida School for Competitive Academics”, which is proposed in Senate Bill 1386, becomes a reality. Alachua County is undistinguished in preparing students for college STEM majors. In the fall of 2021, only 3.8% of students in the Alachua school district’s high schools were taking physics (compared to a national norm of about 11%), and chemistry and calculus course-taking rates were well below national norms, too. If the Alachua County school district leadership becomes convinced that they no longer need to worry about providing physics and calculus in their other high schools because the School for Competitive Academics (to which admission will be via competitive examination) has it covered, that will be bad for Alachua County.

Of course, Alachua County wouldn’t be the only Florida school district to lean too much on a magnet STEM school. Palm Beach County has the celebrated Suncoast Community High School, but overall the Palm Beach County school district is the weakest of Florida’s megadistricts in preparing high school students for college STEM majors. Duval County features magnets Stanton Prep and Paxon School for Advanced Studies, but during the 2021-22 school year four of the district’s high schools (Parker, Ribault, Westside and Atlantic Coast) didn’t teach physics at all.

Florida’s STEM superpower school districts, Brevard and Seminole Counties, don’t have flagship STEM magnet schools. They just do a good or great job in every one of their large high schools.

That’s how it should be done.

Underneath the cartoonish name for the proposed school, the Florida School for Competitive Academics is a genuinely bad idea. Florida is prioritizing career education – but seemingly only for careers that do not require any education past the associate’s degree. It’s time for the state to understand that earning bachelor’s degrees in fields like engineering and the physical and computing sciences is just as important, and that means providing high quality opportunities for students to prepare for those bachelor’s degree programs in every public high school.

Palm Beach County’s Suncoast Community High School, which host STEM magnet programs.
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A bachelor’s degree program in engineering or science is a very different enterprise than much of what happens on a university campus. Those debating “the purpose of public higher education in a democratic society” in Florida should become informed and then keep that in mind.

Here is a brief excerpt from an interview of Florida Department of Education Senior Chancellor Henry Mack III by the Manhattan Institute City Journal about the purpose of a university. Mack holds a doctorate in education administration and the philosophy of education from the University of Miami and has become a leading advocate for the higher education reforms being advanced by Governor DeSantis:

[Interviewer]: What is the purpose of public higher education in a democratic society?

[Mack]: Principally, it’s to help students acquire the habits of mind and heart necessary to live as informed, virtuous citizens. I say “principally” because there are other educational aims, or purposes, to a university, such as the cultivation of intellectual autonomy or “universal knowledge,” as John Henry Newman once argued. A university should also aim at career preparation, skill acquisition, and other learning objectives specific to one’s “major.” But United States higher education should primarily be concerned with helping to guarantee the successes associated with the American Experiment; it should educate in view of the Common Good.

Not so fast, Chancellor Mack.

What is the education of a mechanical engineer at FSU primarily concerned with? Let’s take a look at the “sample schedule” posted on FSU’s Academic Program Guide for a typical “first time in college” student (FTIC – we used to call them “freshmen” before AP courses changed everything) majoring in mechanical engineering.

The typical mechanical engineering major starts her or his first semester at FSU (“Term 1”) by taking a first freshman composition class, a first STEM major chemistry class, Calculus 1 and the first year engineering lab course that is intended to help a new student figure out whether she or he really wants to be an engineer or not. In addition, the student takes the first of a series of general education courses. While FSU has general education requirements in natural science and math in addition to social science and history, at present the natural science and math general education requirements are met for science majors by taking their required courses.

During the spring semester of the first year in college, the typical mechanical engineering major takes the required English course that cannot be replaced by an AP or dual enrollment credit (guaranteeing an income stream for the English Department) as well as Calculus 2, the first calculus-based introductory physics class (perhaps in my studio classroom) and a course in computer programming, which is an important skill for all engineers and scientists.

The summer after the first year in college, this typical mechanical engineering major stays on campus to complete the second semester physics course, Calculus 3 and another general education course. If you want the aspiring mechanical engineering major you are raising to be able to skip the summer semester, make sure she or he takes a calculus course in high school (preferably AP Calculus AB or BC) and passes the exam that provides college credit.

During the fall semester of this student’s second year at university, she or he takes three courses in mechanical engineering, a course in differential equations and one more general education class.

The spring of this mechanical engineering major’s second year at FSU includes four courses in mechanical engineering and one in electrical engineering – a sort of engineering distribution requirement.

The last two years that this typical mechanical engineering student spends at FSU are spent on a steady drumbeat of mechanical engineering courses and the senior design project, which is a requirement for every engineering major everywhere. In addition, during the last two years the student takes two (yes, only two) general education classes in history, social science or the humanities.

In total, the bachelor’s degree program in mechanical engineering is 128 credit hours, which is 8 credit hours more than the standard 120 that a bachelor’s degree takes.

By the time this typical student graduates with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she or he has taken: nine courses in foundational math, science and computing; 22 courses in mechanical engineering; 2 courses in other engineering disciplines; and only seven general education and writing courses.

The bachelor’s degree program in mechanical engineering is, by any reasonable measure, primarily designed to educate a well-prepared professional mechanical engineer. Certainly, well-prepared professional mechanical engineers are important for the American Experiment. But to say that the university education of a mechanical engineer is intended to shape the moral and ethical foundation of the individual in the name of the Common Good is to seriously underestimate how challenging it is to help a student learn the skills and analytical habits of a strong engineer – and how difficult it is to change the basic worldview of an individual that is developed during the first eighteen years of life before arriving at the university campus.

The intensity of the bachelor’s degree program in mechanical engineering is typical of other engineering programs and of programs in the life, health, physical, computational and mathematical sciences. These bachelor’s degree programs focus on building very high level analytical skills in their disciplines. For students in these fields, the general education requirements are boxes to check off, not occasions for reshaping their destinies.

So what would the harm be of reshaping the general education requirements in an image preferred by our governor? That remains to be seen. But if general education credits (and the budget resources that go with them) are swept into the “Florida Institute for Governance and Civics” proposed for FSU in House Bill 999, that will shake up the economics of the College of Arts and Sciences, perhaps causing problems in science departments like Biological Sciences and Physics that are also members of that college. Collateral damage. The shaking out of general education courses proposed in the bill will also cause some budget pain as general education courses are cancelled.

But for the students in engineering and the sciences, this will all be transparent because general education courses barely register on their radar screens at all. Their bachelor’s degree programs are primarily about learning the skills and habits of mind to become professionals in their fields and not about becoming virtuous citizens. We will have to continue to rely on students’ families and churches for that.

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Bay County Future Physicists, the first post-pandemic Future Physicists of Florida, tour research sites in Tallahassee.

Future Physicists of Florida members from Bay County’s induction ceremony in November came to Tallahassee on Monday to visit the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and the FSU Physics Department.

In all, there were 124 students and 13 chaperones packed into three coach buses. Each bus took a turn at each of the three sites.

At the Physics Department, students toured the John D. Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory and took in a show in the department’s planetarium. Professors Sergio Almaraz-Calderon, Vandana Tripathi and Mark Spieker conducted the tours around the lab. The planetarium shows were led by FSU Physics Professor Peter Hoeflich.

[Yes, I was there directing traffic.]

Future Physicists of Florida was founded in 2012 to recognize middle school students who have shown aptitude and interest in math and science. The Bay County induction ceremony, held November 1, 2022 at FSU’s Panama City Campus, was the first held since the pandemic.

FSU Physics Professor Sergio Almaraz-Calderon shows Future Physicists the Fox Laboratory’s Superconducting Linear Accelerator. Photo by Scott Baxter.
FSU Physics Professor Mark Spieker guides Future Physicists next to the Fox Laboratory’s Tandem Van de Graaff accelerator.
FSU Physics Professor Vandana Tripathi with new Future Physicists fans outside the Fox Laboratory.
Future Physicists prepare for liftoff in the FSU Physics Department planetarium. Picture from Scott Baxter.
Future Physicists visiting the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. Picture from Denise Newsome.
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If AP physics courses were banned from Florida’s public high schools, would anybody miss them?

Florida’s governor is in an artillery duel with the College Board, the organization that provides AP course materials and the AP exams that so many Florida students have taken during the last twenty years.

Arguing that Florida could walk away from both the AP program and the College Board’s college entrance exam, the SAT, the governor said “there are probably other vendors who may be able to do that job as good or maybe even a lot better”. (Tampa Bay Times article here)

Are there? Would Florida’s high school physics teachers and students and even the professors at the state’s universities be just as happy without AP physics courses?

Whenever I say something nice about the AP Physics 1 and 2 courses, I am bombarded with tweets arguing that the College Board is a corrupt organization that pays its CEO too much, that the passing rates on the AP Physics 1 exam are too low and that AP Physics 1 is a terrible first-year physics course. Even though I agree with those folks somewhat – AP Physics 1 is a terrible first-year physics course – I would urge them to curb their schadenfreude.

AP Physics 1 was invented with an identity crisis. It is supposed to be equivalent to a rigorous version of an algebra-based first-semester college physics class, which only poorly advised students take as a first physics course (although about half of the students taking the first-semester algebra-based class here at FSU haven’t had a previous physics class in high school or elsewhere). It was also supposed to be a replacement for Honors Physics. When you have a physics course torn between being a first physics class and a college physics class for STEM majors, what do you get? You get a 40% passing rate, which is too low.

[Hint: Best if a student takes AP Physics 1 as a second high school physics course.]

I’m going to step back here and start from the basics. In the fall of 2021, 5,653 students in Florida’s public high schools were enrolled in AP Physics 1. From this, we can see that AP Physics 1 never put a big dent in the Honors Physics enrollment (22,556 in Honors Physics 1). In addition, 649 students were enrolled in AP Physics 2 (equivalent to a second-semester algebra-based college physics course), 1,136 were enrolled in AP Physics C Mechanics (equivalent to a first-semester calculus-based college physics course) and 183 in AP Physics C Electricity and Magnetism (second-semester calculus-based college physics course). The total, 7,621, is still a relatively low percentage of the roughly 40,000 public high school students who were taking some sort of physics course in the fall of 2021.

Are IB and AICE physics courses reasonable replacements for AP physics courses? Would they even be available to the majority of students in Florida?

Let’s start with IB. One problem inherent to the design of IB is that it encourages students to concentrate on one or two sciences and ignore everything else. Here is one practical consequence of that design: There are 76 IB public high schools in Florida. In the spring of 2022 (the latest for which data have been released by the FLDOE), only 18 offered IB Physics 1. I’m going to list those 18 public IB high schools here, as a way of signaling to school board members and others the problem that most IB programs have. Remember, these are IB public schools that DID offer IB Physics 1, so they deserve a pat on the back:

Bay County: Rutherford High School

Citrus County: Lecanto High School

Duval County: Paxon School for Advanced Studies

Flagler County: Flagler Palm Coast High School

Hillsborough County: Hillsborough High School, King High School, Robinson High School, Strawberry Crest High School

Lee County: Dunbar High School

Martin County: South Fork High School

Orange County: Cypress Creek High School, Evans High School, Jones High School

Osceola County: Gateway High School

Pinellas County: Palm Harbor University High School, St. Petersburg High School

Sarasota County: Venice High School

St. Johns County: Menendez High School

The bottom line is that while IB Physics 1 might be intrinsically equal to (or better than) AP Physics 1, IB systematically discourages its students from preparing properly for college STEM majors.

I’m afraid I don’t have such damning data on AICE Physics. All I have is this: Weirdly, the AICE Physics alumni in my classes generally perform horribly. I don’t know why. The best theory I can come up with is that the AICE Physics course teaches a set of skills that doesn’t help students prepare for a calculus-based college physics class. But the students who pass the AICE exam are convinced they are going to be among the best students in my classroom – and then reality hits about a month into the first semester. I’ve referred to this in weak moments as a self-efficacy crisis, and I don’t even know if I’m using that compound word properly.

[My regular readers – all four of them – already know that I’m really not very nice. At all.]

What does that leave? That leaves a great Honors Physics class taught by a strong high school physics teacher. There is absolutely no reason why a student coming out of an Honors Physics class can’t have the skills (including, but not limited to, an FCI score >15) that sets the student up for success in college physics classrooms like mine.

Oh, I forgot something. Yes, I can hear you. You’re saying, “What about dual enrollment?” My personal experience is that dual enrollment physics alumni don’t perform better in my class than students with no high school physics at all. Fortunately, there is some real data to back up my personal impression. A study of student success in the introductory calculus-based introductory physics course at West Virginia University shows that the correlation coefficient between having physics credit from another college (like dual enrollment) and performance in the West Virginia University class is a little bit negative. That is we can expect that on the average a student who dual enrolls their first physics class in high school will do a tiny bit worse in an introductory calculus-based classroom than a student without any physics in high school at all.

By the way, that same West Virginia University study said that the single strongest predictor for student success in introductory calculus-based college physics is taking an AP physics class in high school and passing the exam. The correlation coefficient is 0.65.

Friends, watch out what you wish for.

In case you were wondering, Dr. Capstick (shown here) is recovering nicely from his accident.
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What does the Florida debate about the purpose of a university have to do with my students?

Imagine being a physics professor while political big shots are debating the purpose of a university education.

Of course, the debate has nothing whatsoever to do with learning science or math. That’s particularly disturbing because Florida students arriving on university campuses have, on the average, weaker preparation for succeeding in college STEM majors than students in the rest of the nation. When I tell my colleagues from other states that one-third of the students in my calculus-based introductory physics classes (taken by students majoring in fields like engineering, computer science and the physical sciences) didn’t take a physics course in high school, they are aghast. When I compare my students’ beginning-of-the-course scores (that is, pretesting scores) on the Force Concept Inventory to those from Ohio and Maryland, I have to choke down the temptation to be discouraged. To educate an engineer or a physicist here at my university (and likely at others in the state), we have to work harder to bring that student up to the professional standard that is taken for granted in many other states.

Instead, the political debate about the purpose of a university is about virtue. I’m all for virtue. That’s why my wife and I worked so hard to instill virtue in our children as we were raising them (before they departed for their college educations in private institutions in other states). That’s why I’m a supporter of FSU’s Catholic Student Union. That’s one of the reasons I invest so much emotional effort in my studio-style physics class and the students who inhabit it while maybe helping them to learn a little about working in teams (all of our in-class exercises – both labs and problem-solving – are done in groups of three).

I’ll admit that the effort I invest in my classroom can make me a bit narrow-minded. A colleague from another college at my university (I will not name it, but perhaps the careful reader will be able to guess it) once told me that my classroom should not be just about improving physics knowledge but should also be about tearing down racism and misogyny in my students. I boorishly responded that I was struggling enough to get my students to learn some physics with understanding, and that I would likely have no success deprogramming my students from a lifetime of parental and peer influence on core beliefs. I further responded that it was my job to protect, as much as possible, my students (and particularly the women and Black students in my classroom) from being harmed by the obnoxious beliefs that other students might hold. My studio-style class gives me an opportunity to do that, and I do it with more or less success. But curing students of misogyny and racism? No. Even if I stopped trying to teach physics altogether and spent the entire semester in a perpetual anti-bias exercise, I would fail. At least, that’s what the research says.

So…why don’t I just ignore all of the noise about using Florida’s public universities to instill virtue in the state’s young people? Because every time we get zeroed in on some shiny new goal our leaders get distracted from the hard work we actually have to do in our classrooms. Great Books? Does that list include Randy Knight’s “Physics for Scientists and Engineers: A Strategic Approach”? If so, I’m in! Oh – you say I’m missing the point? I do that often, I’m afraid. After all, I’m trying to do my job as a physics professor to the best of my ability, and that means having a bit of tunnel vision sometimes. I guess you’re right. I’m just going to have to ignore the debate and hope my university doesn’t get knocked too far off-course.

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