Are Florida’s K-12 schools heading for another “Christian faith vs. science” confrontation? If so, everyone involved should be required to read about the Catholic priest who was the first to figure out there was a Big Bang.

Challenges to the teaching of the science of evolution and cosmology seem to be gaining momentum in Florida’s K-12 schools a decade after evolution made its first highly contested appearance in the state’s science standards.

Now, as then, some opponents of evolution and cosmology education argue that this is a broad conflict between Christian faith and science.  While it’s true that several Christian denominations have doctrinal conflicts with modern understandings of cosmology and biological evolution, it is entirely incorrect to argue that such science is not acceptable to all Christians – or that Christians cannot be excellent scientists.  A vote last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to recognize that a Belgian Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître, was the first scientist to come up with the Big Bang theory provides a dramatic illustration of that.

For many years, the quantitative statement that the universe is expanding was named Hubble’s Law in recognition of Edwin Hubble’s 1929 paper on the subject.  However, Father Lemaître published a similar paper in an obscure Belgian journal in 1927 – two years before Hubble’s publication.  To recognize Lemaître’s contribution, the IAU voted last month to recommend a change in the name of Hubble’s Law to the Hubble-Lemaître Law.

All 11,072 members of the IAU were eligible to vote, and 4,060 chose to do so.  Of those 4,060 voters, 78% voted for the recommendation to change the name of the law.

The press release from the IAU is here, and the article on this event from the National Catholic Register is here.

This isn’t to say that the Catholic Church has always been squeaky clean in its acceptance of modern science.  Another Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a paleontologist who participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1925.  But in 1962, seven years after his death, Rome issued a warning about “dangerous ambiguities and grave errors” in Father Teilhard’s work.

Nevertheless, the Vatican Observatory has an active research program – including its own telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in Arizona – and runs conferences and summer schools for space scientists.

And the Pontifical Academy of Sciences includes many members who are not Catholic to make sure the flow of science through the church remains robust.  Avowed atheist Stephen Hawking was a member of the academy.

Difficult and important questions about the role of religion in schooling will be debated and addressed in Florida during the next several years.  To best serve the needs of the state’s students, those discussions will have to be clear-eyed and charitable in spirit.  Being honest about the scope of the concerns raised will be central to keeping the debate constructive.

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The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (from Wikipedia)

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Florida is doing poorly in awarding bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering fields. Why? Because we’re doing a lousy job preparing high school students for college STEM majors.

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If the rate at which Florida is awarding new bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering fields (which is shown in the plot above in orange) is good enough for your taste you can stop reading now.

Otherwise, continue on.

The National Science Foundation tracks the rate at which each state graduates new bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering (S&E) fields per 1,000 18-24 year olds in the state’s population.  Those numbers from 2016 are shown as the y-axis in the plot.  Florida’s rate of 18.7 S&E bachelors’ degrees per 1,000 18-24 year olds is significantly below the national rate of 21.4 and ranks 35th among the states plus DC (51 jurisdictions total).

Of course, the socioeconomic status of the state’s students affects this rate, so in the graph I’ve plotted the S&E rate against the percentage of each state’s K-12 students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch – an imperfect but nevertheless useful measure of the socioeconomic status of each state’s student population.

Florida is that orange dot (sorry, Seminoles) in the lower right hand region of the graph.  That means that our state’s students are relatively low-income compared to many other states, and also that we are not making bachelor’s degree graduates in S&E fields at a high rate.  In fact, Florida is fairly typical for relatively poor states.

Florida is doing a lousy job preparing high school students for college STEM majors – and that is why we are awarding a relatively small number of bachelors’ degrees in S&E fields.  If we want to do better in awarding S&E bachelors’ degrees, we will have to keep more students in the STEM pipeline in middle and high school.  That means we have to especially work on bringing more black, Hispanic and women students into our middle school algebra programs and get more of those students to take chemistry, physics and calculus in high school.

Florida is not doing well at this right now, with a low and declining rate of high school physics course enrollment, declining high school chemistry enrollments and average calculus enrollment rates.  And state policymakers seem uninterested (or worse).

But it’s clear from this graph that there are consequences for Florida’s neglect of math and science at the middle and high school levels.

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Parents play a key role in preparing their high school students for college STEM majors. Is that message getting to Florida’s parents? Mostly not.

Florida’s parents need to know that the most financially secure bachelor’s degree-level careers are those that require a high level of education in mathematics and the physical sciences. Sixteen of the top 25 college majors ranked by salary involve engineering (see plot below). Physics, mathematics, economics and computing are in the top 25 as well.

Parents also need to know that preparation for those careers must start in high school, or even before. They also need to know that deciding to pass on high school courses like precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics can cripple a student’s ability to pursue careers in engineering and the physical sciences in college. Those same decisions also make it much more difficult to pursue careers in the health sciences and computing.

Are those messages getting out to Florida’s parents? Mostly not. A survey of state departments of education three years ago showed that our state’s high school students take physics at a rate about half that of the nation as a whole. Since then, Florida’s high school physics enrollment has declined further – by 8%. The state’s chemistry enrollment has declined by 9% in only the last two years. Florida’s aggressive program of high school financial incentives for student success in Advanced Placement courses has resulted in the state being a national leader in AP social science courses. But in AP math and science courses, Florida remains average despite the incentives.

When parents get these messages about what it takes to prepare in high school for college STEM majors, they react as you’d expect them to when their children’s futures are on the line. In Bay County’s Mosley High School, counselors Laura Evans and Sharon Hofer organized meetings during which I was able to talk with parents. Laura and Sharon did the heavy lifting – coaxing students and parents into actually signing up for courses in calculus, chemistry and physics. The results were remarkable. In two years (from 2015-16 to 2017-18), physics enrollments increased from six to 60, chemistry enrollments tripled, and calculus enrollments increased by 50%. This fall, 200 students were enrolled at Mosley for physics.

The Wisconsin Study of Families and Work performed a more rigorous study of the impact of parent outreach on students using brochures and a website. The results were spectacular. Not only did many more students sign up for upper level high school courses in math and science, but the effect continued through the selection of college majors and first jobs: The rate at which the studied students ended up in STEM careers was much higher than would have been expected otherwise.

Of course, parents aren’t the only important stakeholders. The STEM preparation message will not even get to parents unless a school’s administration and counselors buy in.

But at a time when Florida’s educational policies are increasingly focused on the role of parents as educational deciders, the importance of parents in preparing their children for economically secure careers is often overlooked. It’s time to change that.

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From the 2015 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report “Economic Value of College Majors”

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Florida’s SAT results are significant because Florida’s educational leaders refuse to make a commitment to secondary-level math achievement.

Florida’s educational leaders frequently brag about how well the state’s elementary school students achieve in reading and math, and how they do so despite the state’s demographic challenges.

Those brags are justified, as shown by results from 4th grade results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

But in math at the middle and high school levels, the state has nothing to brag about.  The glow of exemplary achievement that surrounds Florida elementary students fades out by 8th grade, as shown in the 2017 NAEP 8th grade math results.  And the 2018 SAT results released recently show that the 8th grade math results are not a fluke – our high school students are weak in math as well.

The same educational leaders who are so happy to brag about how Florida’s elementary students defeat their demographic disadvantages fall back to a disappointing defense of the state’s lackluster math results at the middle and high school levels – that Florida should be excused for its lousy math results at the secondary level because of its demographics.  Those are the same demographics that our elementary students (and their teachers) defeat.

Patrick Gibbons’s recent defense of the state’s SAT results on redefinedonline.org provides a frustrating example of this defense of mathematical mediocrity at the middle and high school levels.  Patrick starts by arguing that instead of comparing Florida’s SAT results to all states, our results should only be compared with nine other states where more than 95% of high school graduates take the SAT.  I agree.  So below, I show results from the Gibbons Ten – the ten states with SAT-taking rates higher than 95% – for the 2017 NAEP 4th grade math exam, the 2017 NAEP 8th grade math exam, and the 2018 SAT math exam.  The metric Patrick discussed was the percentage of students from a state earning a high enough SAT math score to be considered “college-ready” by the College Board (for Florida that was 37%).  So I choose to show the closest NAEP metric to that – the percentage of students who are deemed either “proficient” or “advanced”.  And I show that metric for 4th grade and 8th grade.

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Florida’s 4th graders are stars in math.

By 8th grade, they are goats.  And that continues in high school.

How do we explain the steep drop in math achievement that Florida’s students experience in middle school?  That’s easy to answer:  Florida’s elementary students are stars in both reading and math at the elementary level because the state’s educational leaders have made it a priority.  Middle school math achievement is not a priority.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter what kids can do in 4th grade if they can’t compete at a national level by the time they graduate from high school.  That’s why it’s so important for Florida to make the same commitment to middle and high school math achievement that the state has made at the elementary level.

What would it look like if Florida’s educational leaders made middle and high school math achievement a priority?

For one thing, the state would do whatever it takes to reverse the decline in the supply of new Math 6-12 teachers, which is shown below.

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Perhaps the state would also replicate Orange County’s Calculus Project, which recruits low-income rising 7th graders into Algebra 1 and provides the support these students need to succeed.

But doing nothing about improving middle and high school math achievement, which is what Florida is doing now, isn’t good enough.

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Apopka High School grad Cody Smith returns to teach physics after improving instruction in FSU’s Studio Physics Program

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Cody, in the blue shirt, introduces me to students who were learning about centripetal force in his classroom at Apopka High School on November 1.  (Picture by Bonnie Toffoli)

This fall, Apopka High School grad Cody Smith returned to his home high school to teach the subject he loves after earning a bachelor’s degree in physics with honors at FSU in just three years.

Despite the speed with which Cody earned his degree, he found time to make an important mark at FSU.  Cody’s honors thesis was a careful study of how a group of three students in the Physics Department’s hands-on Studio Physics Program navigated the program’s laboratory exercise on kinetic and potential energy, which involves measuring the motion of a vertically bouncing playground ball (see photo below).  The experiment had been yielding disappointing learning gains for several years.  Cody’s detailed analysis of the conversation among the students while they worked on the experiment revealed several obstacles to learning that we had not previously recognized.  He made several recommendations about changes to the experiment – including expanding it from one to two weeks and including a new two-dimensional exercise – that were implemented this fall.

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Two FSU Studio Physics students performing the experiment on the motion of a vertically bouncing playground ball that was evaluated in Cody Smith’s honors thesis.

One of the recommendations that Cody made was simply to change the way that the data taken by the ultrasonic motion sensor used to measure the ball’s motion are displayed on the computer screen, which is shown below.  The top graph in the picture is the height of the ball, and the lower graph shows the velocity.  Prior to Cody’s study, the height graph was shown upside down on the computer screen – which some students found confusing.

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Data from the FSU playground ball energy experiment analyzed by Cody Smith in his honors thesis.  The top graph is of the height of the ball, and reflects changes Cody recommended in his thesis.  Previously, that graph was displayed upside down.  The lower graph shows the velocity of the ball.

Cody also found that students were not making the connection between the one-dimensional motion in the playground ball experiment and the role of kinetic and potential energy in two dimensional motion.  To help students make that connection, we implemented an experiment in which students make a video recording of a tennis ball after it is thrown and then analyze the motion using free software developed by the National Institutes for Health.  The picture below shows the graduate and undergraduate instructors in my class this fall preparing the tennis ball measurement for class.

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Graduate teaching assistant Danielle Simmons analyzes a video recording of graduate teaching assistant Cole Hensley throwing a tennis ball to undergraduate learning assistant Ben Gibson.  The webcam used for the recording can be seen on the right side of the top of the computer screen.

In principle, the two energy experiments described here can be performed in an algebra-based high school physics class – calculus is not required to understand the results of either measurement.  In fact, the Apopka High School physics classroom in which Cody is now teaching is equipped with new versions of the Pasco equipment we use for motion, force and energy experiments – including the playground ball experiment – in FSU’s Studio Physics Program.  The district staff at Orange County Public Schools made a farsighted decision to purchase that equipment for every district high school this past summer.

However, prior to last week Apopka High School lacked the webcams necessary to implement the two-dimensional tennis ball motion experiment that we developed in response to a recommendation by Cody.  We solved that problem during my visit to Cody’s classroom in Apopka on Thursday, when I delivered a gift-wrapped package containing eight webcams.  (To be strictly correct here:  The webcams are being loaned to Apopka High School by FSU.)

Cody is teaching three preps this year – AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and a non-honors physics class that includes several 9th graders.  All of his students can benefit from the hands-on pedagogy that Cody worked to improve at FSU.

Apopka High School did a great job preparing Cody for success in FSU’s bachelor’s degree program in physics.  Now Cody is set to return the favor.

Cody’s honors thesis is linked here:

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This box with garnet (more or less) wrapping and a gold bow contained eight webcams for Apopka High School.

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These 5th graders at Apopka’s Dream Lake Elementary School understand electric current and circuits better than some college engineering majors – and even graduates. What can we do to give every Florida 5th grader that opportunity?

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Dream Lake Elementary School’s Lanie Clowers leads her amazing 5th grade science class (photo by Bonnie Toffoli)

Every 5th grader who was in Lanie Clowers’s classroom at Apopka’s Dream Lake Elementary School when I visited today understood the nature of electric current and that electrons can flow through a circuit only if it is closed. They demonstrated that by building working circuits involving batteries, wires, incandescent bulbs, buzzers and fans.

In contrast, when I start my second semester calculus-based introductory physics course for engineers and physical scientists, only about half the students understand that a circuit has to be closed to operate an electrical device.

There were other things about the 5th grade class I visited today that were worth seeing: the light show and procession of students as class started; the remarkable energy of Mrs. Clowers, who was the 2016 Orange County Public Schools Teacher of the Year; and the support of the school and district administration for the work being done in that classroom.

But for me, the highlight of the classroom visit was the moment I realized that Mrs. Clowers’s 5th graders really and truly understood electric current and circuits.

I told Mrs. Clowers during the class that if she enrolled her 5th graders in my college course at FSU in January that they could skip the first two weeks of the semester because they already knew what my students would be learning during that time period.

And if you think that my students have problems with the basics of circuits because they are at FSU, check out this video of new MIT engineering graduates trying to light a bulb with a battery and wire. They don’t get the basics, either. And it limits their innovation potential.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clowers’s 5th graders have already cleared that hurdle.

The big challenge that became apparent to me as I watched the remarkable classroom scene today was finding a way to make sure that every 5th grader has the opportunity to master the basics of electric current and circuits, and of other key physical principles that provide the foundation for 21st century technologies. The 5th graders I saw today will have much greater opportunities to enter high-paying careers in fields like engineering, physics and computer science than their peers.

Mrs. Clowers is certainly a remarkable individual with tremendous intellectual and emotional talents. Even her physical energy level seems amazing for anyone over the age of 16. But would it be possible to find enough elementary school teachers that can learn to do what is necessary so that every 5th grader in Orange County’s public schools can have the opportunity to understand electric current and circuits? Or so that every 5th grader in the State of Florida can? Can that be done?

The answers to those questions are of tremendous importance for the future of our state’s students – and for the health of our state’s economy.

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“Mrs. Clowers, your students could take my college physics class in January and skip the first two weeks because they already know what my students will be learning!” (Photo by Bonnie Toffoli)  

 

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Will Florida’s charter schools help improve the preparation of the state’s high school students for college STEM majors?

Florida is doing a lousy job preparing high school students for college majors in STEM fields.

A national study of high school math and science course-taking just released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that charter schools do not make such a situation better, and in fact might make it worse.

The figure from the GAO report displayed below shows that charter schools are less likely than traditional district schools to offer courses in calculus and physics that are necessary for properly preparing students for college majors in fields like engineering and physics that account for 17 of the top 25 majors when ranked by salary.  The disparity between charters and traditional district high schools occurs regardless of the socioeconomic status of the students in the schools.

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Of course, in Florida the charters are not the biggest problem when it comes to preparing high school students for STEM majors. Florida public high school students take physics at about half the national rate, and the state’s rate is declining rapidly. The state’s students are only average at taking and passing Advanced Placement exams in math and science subjects despite the success in other subjects of the state’s system of financial incentives for passing AP exam scores.

But Florida’s charter schools and their advocates have a special opportunity to address the high school math and science problem. Yet in their public statements, Florida’s charter school advocates tend to avoid discussing upper level high school math and science courses, except to occasionally note the success of STEM specialty charter schools like Orlando Science School.

Here is a challenge for charter school advocates: Whenever you write more than 200 words intended for public consumption or talk for more than 5 minutes in public, acknowledge that Florida’s charter sector should do a better job preparing its students for college STEM majors. To pass my test, you don’t even have to offer a solution – just acknowledge that Florida’s charter schools should be doing better. And if you want extra credit, say how your own charter school or chain of charter schools is going to improve in this regard.

When it comes to opening the doors of opportunity for all of Florida’s students, the state’s charter sector should be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

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