“Give Florida students national tests for better comparison” – my op-ed in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel (and the graphs my readers want!)

This morning, the Sentinel published my opinion piece on replacing Florida’s high school standardized tests in English Language Arts, math and science (er, biology) with the ACT.

Of course, my regular readers (maybe five now??) want graphs of the rankings described in the op-ed.  So graphical comparisons of Florida’s average scores on the four ACT sections with the other 24 states in which 73% or more of the high school graduating class of 2017 took the ACT (Florida had a 73% participation rate) are shown below.

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Why is STEM such a tough sell in Florida? In part because there aren’t many STEM professionals in Florida.

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Source here.

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Which teaching future will FSU’s Physics faculty choose? We’ll discuss during next week’s Physics Colloquium

Update (Saturday evening, September 9):  No, we will not discuss the future of FSU’s introductory physics classes next week.  The university will remain closed all week because of Hurricane Irma and the expected power outages.

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The two pictures above illustrate the choices that my colleagues in the FSU Physics Department have when it comes to meeting the exploding demand for the introductory physics courses that students are required to take if they are majoring in engineering, computer science, science or health fields.

On top is a scene from UF’s online algebra-based physics course, which is generally taken by students majoring in life sciences or health fields.

Below that is a picture taken last week from a first semester calculus-based class being held in FSU’s newest science studio classroom.

The online course is sanitary and – at least from the point of view of the instructors – orderly.  It requires the sort of management skills in which scientists excel.

The studio course is messy and chaotic.  It requires constant negotiation, observation and mediation – skills not included in degree programs in science.

In which do students learn physics with greater understanding?  According to the research, it’s in the studio course – and it’s not close, as shown below.

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In this figure, which illustrates normalized learning gains for the Force Concept Inventory in traditional lecture classes, an MIT online course and “interactive engagement” courses like our studio physics courses from research studies (in green) and our own studio physics results from the last three years (in red), the online course edges out the traditional lecture course.  But the “IE” courses blow both away.

With a teaching facility crisis looming, it’s time for FSU’s Physics faculty to decide which way it wants to go.  We’ll learn something about how they are feeling next Thursday, September 14 at 3:45 pm in the Physics Department Colloquium, titled “The Future of Introductory-Level Teaching in the FSU Physics Department:  A Discussion.”  It will be held at 3:45 pm in UPL 101.  Refreshments will be served at 3:15.

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I challenge each Florida legislator to acknowledge that the state is facing a crisis in recruiting talented individuals into high school math and science teaching careers.

I challenge each Florida legislator to acknowledge that the state is facing a crisis in recruiting talented individuals into high school math and science teaching careers. I also challenge each of them to propose a way of effectively addressing this crisis.

While news accounts from around the state report that last year’s severe teacher shortage is abating, the shortage of new math and science teachers continues. The number of first-time exam takers for “Math 6-12” certification – the certification required in Florida to teach Algebra 2 and above – declined by 25% from 2013 to 2016. A report prepared for the State Board of Education earlier this year showed that the state’s Colleges of Education are only graduating enough new chemistry and physics teachers to meet less than a quarter of the demand for these teachers in the public schools.

Legislators have proposed and even implemented “solutions” in the past that do not help. Democratic lawmakers have proposed a $50,000 minimum salary for all teachers, regardless of subject, even though starting salaries in the private sector for bachelor’s degree graduates in fields like math and physics are much higher than those for other fields represented on school faculties. Such a proposal is a non-starter in the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature.

Teacher union-bashing is a default setting for some Republicans. But in Bay County, the teachers’ union agreed to $5,000 signing bonuses for teachers in certain math and science fields. These bonuses may or may not be sufficient to address the $15,000 salary penalty that a new bachelor’s degree graduate in physics or math accepts to enter teaching, but it shows that at least in one community the union is willing to bite the bullet and address the problem.

The Best and Brightest teacher bonus program – in which eligibility depends on a teacher’s own SAT or ACT score and the teacher’s rating in the state’s fluid teacher evaluation system – has not stemmed the steep decline in the supply of new math teachers. My students at FSU say that the program does not provide the stability they need to start a family or pay off student loans.

Lowering barriers to certification sounds at first like an attractive and cheap option for increasing math and science teacher supply, but I haven’t yet met an individual who has allowed the certification process – including the requirement that Florida teachers know something about reading instruction and English-language learners – to keep her or him out of teaching.

It is likely that the continuing artillery duel over last year’s complex education bill (HB 7069) that included the authorization for the Schools of Hope program will dominate this year’s legislative debates – which begin next week – and keep the math and science teacher shortage out of the spotlight. But if even one legislator can come up with an idea that breaks the mold and would make the teaching profession significantly more attractive to math and science experts, that would at least provide a candle of hope for the future of Florida’s classrooms.

Author’s note:  Former legislators are welcome to come up with ideas, too!  Anybody?

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FSU Physics Ph.D. grad and Florida High teacher Matt Martens schools Education Secretary on science

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Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (second from right) visits with (from left) FSU President John Thrasher, Florida State University Schools Executive Director Stacy Chambers, and (far right) FSUS physics teacher and FSU Physics Ph.D. graduate Matt Martens on Tuesday, August 29.  Photo from Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Capitol reporter Kristen Clark and posted with permission.

During a visit to the Florida State University Schools (FSUS) last Tuesday, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had an opportunity to learn a bit of physics and how students best learn science from FSU Physics Ph.D. graduate Matt Martens, who joined the school’s faculty as a physics and robotics teacher in the fall of 2016.

Martens moved into a newly equipped 30-seat science studio classroom this fall, where he is teaching both physics and robotics.

DeVos joined the students in Martens’ class during an experiment, and had an excellent opportunity to observe how the studio classroom model works.

After earning his Ph.D. in 2015 at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory with dissertation work in experimental condensed matter physics, Martens held a postdoctoral research position at Berkeley.  He returned to Tallahassee in the fall of 2016 and immediately began teaching at FSUS.

During his doctoral research, Martens served as a teaching assistant in FSU’s Studio Physics Program, where he became familiar with the instructional model he is now using at FSUS.

Prior to becoming Secretary of Education, DeVos was an advocate for charter schools and private school voucher programs.  Her focus on charters and vouchers has continued during her time as Secretary.  In addition to her FSUS visit, DeVos toured two private schools and met with business and political leaders during her time in Tallahassee (coverage of the visit in the Miami Herald here and here).

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Incentives might help reverse the decline in the supply of new Math 6-12 teachers in Florida – a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed

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The Tallahassee Democrat carried my op-ed on using financial incentives to reverse Florida’s sharp decline in the supply of new Math 6-12 teachers.  It cites the recent report from the American Physical Society on the recruiting of teachers in math, physical sciences and computing.

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Brandon Haught’s commentary in the journal Nature is a call for university faculty to get involved in K-12 education

I made my third appearance in the prestigious journal Nature today.

The first appearance – in 2005 – was a report on a study of the nuclear spectroscopy of the exotic neutron-rich nucleus Silicon-42.

The second (in 2010) was a commentary I wrote on a spectroscopic study of the doubly-magic nucleus Tin-132.

If you added the numbers of readers of each of those two articles together, you would almost certainly get a number smaller than a thousand.  Yet members of the scientific community would probably consider those two articles to be among the highlights of my modest scientific career.

Today’s appearance in Nature is a brief mention in a commentary written by a high school science teacher, Brandon Haught of University High School in Volusia County.  The number of people who read Brandon’s commentary will outnumber the people who read my own articles in Nature by a factor of at least a hundred, and perhaps much more.

And that is as it should be.

My regular blog readers (all five of them) might better recognize Brandon for his decade-long role as a leader in the Florida Citizens for Science than they would for his recently-begun teaching career.  I met Brandon while I was a member of the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards in 2007-2008.  At the time, Brandon was the public affairs officer for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department.  He had served in the Marines.  But it was clear even then that Brandon had the beating heart of a high school science teacher.  Several years ago, he finally met his professional destiny in his own University High science classroom.

Brandon came to Nature’s notice through his concerns about Florida’s new law about instructional materials in the K-12 schools that many believe will be used to disrupt science teaching, particularly on the subjects of evolution and climate change.  Many of us will be watching this issue carefully to see how it develops.

Brandon’s Nature commentary implores university science faculty to get involved in the K-12 schools.  His discussion uses the instructional materials law as a departure point, but then he broadens his discussion by citing my work with the Future Physicists of Florida to improve the preparation of the state’s students for rigorous college majors in fields like computing, engineering and science.

The lesson that every university science professor should take from Brandon’s commentary is this:  The next generation of scientific leaders is in middle and high school right now.  If the scientific community ignores them, those students will never grow into the scientific and technological leaders we need them to be.  Our generation will die off, and there will be no one to carry the torch forward.  Our society will lose the ability to think clearly about scientific and technological issues and those we leave behind will slide backwards.

That is not the legacy I want to leave behind, and that is why I invest so much of my declining reserves of energy into trying to urge that next generation forward.

Brandon, thank you for making that point in such a visible way.

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