Why is this FSU physics professor handing out recruiting posters for the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering? Because the posters give high school students a road map for preparing for college STEM majors.

When I met in December with Tisha Keller, who is the Marketing and Communications Director for the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, and Kayla McLaughlin, the college’s Recruitment Coordinator, they seemed a little puzzled that I was so eager to get a hold of lots of copies of a large version of the recruiting poster that Tisha had designed for the engineering college.

Why would a physics professor be so enthusiastic about distributing a poster designed to recruit strong students into engineering instead of physics?

For those who knew me already, the answer was obvious. Every year, I teach a two semester sequence of introductory physics for engineers and physical science majors, so I get to spend lots of time with many of the students they recruit. And because I teach in a studio format, I build relationships with many of these students.

So when an engineering major falls short in my classroom because she or he didn’t have the proper preparation in high school, it often breaks my heart a little more. And because about one-third of the students (including engineering majors) who start my course in the fall didn’t take a high school physics course, that little bit of heartbreak happens often. Way too often.

The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering recruiting poster you see me holding so happily above is intended to improve that situation by coaxing more high school students considering a college engineering major into taking the high school courses they need to be well-prepared for college, including physics.

Sometimes it’s not just the students who need reminders. My experience is that parents often don’t know what high school courses are necessary for their students to be well-prepared for engineering majors (or majors in the physical, life, health and computing sciences, for that matter). Sometimes school counselors need reminders. So do principals. And even the occasional school district superintendent needs correction.

I’ve been preaching the gospel of preparation for college STEM majors for more than a decade now, and making perhaps just a smidgen of progress (although the number of Florida public high school students taking physics has been declining for three years). Some time ago, after I had given a talk to a group about preparation for college STEM majors, a member of the STEM education community who really should have known better dismissed my arguments by saying, “Oh, you’re just a physics booster.”

Nobody is going to accuse Kayla and Tisha of just being physics boosters. Now, instead of the physics professor telling parents, teachers, counselors and administrators that high school students who might major in engineering should take physics (and chemistry, and calculus), it’s the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering saying so.

I will soon have a large number of the 24×36 inch versions of the poster you see above. If you’d like some, let me know. I’ll find a way to get them to you. The first shipment is going to a physics professor from New Jersey who requested them. There are many, many more where that came from.

Let’s have some fun with these posters. I certainly will.

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Got equations? In my calculus-based physics class, equations don’t come first.

At the beginning of the second three-hour class period of this semester’s studio physics course, I told my students that we wouldn’t be using any equations for the next week.

Just to be clear, I am not teaching a general education physics course for liberal arts majors. Instead, I’m teaching a second semester calculus-based physics course largely populated by students majoring in engineering and the physical sciences. In a few short weeks, I’m going to write on the document camera the equation relating field and potential (in this case, electric field and electric potential) which – as practitioners and aficionados know – involves multivariable calculus with partial derivatives and all that nasty stuff.

But for now, we are starting with what should always come first, which is understanding how things work without the mathematical crutches that equations often become for novice learners of physics.

I start the second semester course with the unit on DC (direct current) circuits from Lillian McDermott’s Physics by Inquiry. The idea is both to improve student learning about circuits and electric current and to ease the transition into the relatively abstract subject of electrostatics by giving students a hands-on introduction to electric potential.

Does it work? My students learn twice as much about DC circuits as students in traditional classes do. So that’s a win. But does the inquiry-driven circuit unit succeed in easing the transition into electrostatics? It hasn’t been obvious during the last half dozen years or so that I’ve been leading off the second semester with McDermott that it does. So this semester, science education doctoral student Mark Akubo is leading an observational study of how a group of students handles the transition from circuits to electrostatics. The methodology is similar to that of a study in my fall 2017 class about how students learned about mechanical energy that led to instructional improvements that we implemented this past fall.

As we have been working through the early stages of this course (and the study) this month, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with an engineering professor recently who told me that implementing a studio instructional model for physics isn’t worth the trouble because the only thing students are supposed to learn in a college physics class is how to manipulate equations. I was caught so completely off-guard by the comment that it took me a few moments to regain my composure, and the response I should have given – that a physics course should provide students with a strong understanding of the laws of nature that the best innovators have – eluded me until I had left the engineering building.

If that misbegotten belief about what is (and should be) taught in college and high school physics classes is widespread, then it is a wound that the community of physics educators has inflicted on itself by not fully embracing teaching strategies based on the research on how students learn best.

Do I hate equations? Heck, no! In fact, this semester I’ll be implementing a scheme that was suggested by some of the students and TA’s I’ve had this year in which instead of just providing a cheat sheet of equations for the final exam at the end of the semester we progressively build an equation sheet during the semester by adding each week the equations used in that week’s lessons. But two weeks into the semester, we haven’t started this project yet because we haven’t used any equations yet. That will change quickly in the next few weeks.

What my students are doing now: Undergraduate Learning Assistant Janiris Rodriguez (second from right) assists a group of students working on an exercise from the Physics by Inquiry circuit unit.
What my students will be doing in a few weeks: Last spring, Graduate Teaching Assistant Danielle Simmons assisted students learning about the relationship between electric potential and electric field. The relevant equation can be seen on the screen behind Danielle.
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Two research-based perspectives on teacher certification and teacher preparation: the negative impact of some certification requirements on teacher quality; and, math and science teacher prep programs that really add value.

Teacher certification is on the agenda for next week’s meeting of the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee of the Florida House.  To provide my readers (both of them) a chance to prepare for that discussion, I am recommending two papers posted by CALDER Center researchers during the last eight years.

The first is the 2011 paper “Certification Requirements and Teacher Quality” by Georgia State University professor (and former FSU professor) Tim Sass.  Here is the money line from Professor Sass’s abstract:  “Of the three alternative certification pathways studied, teachers who enter through the path requiring no coursework have substantially greater effects on student achievement than do either traditionally prepared teachers or alternative programs that require some formal coursework in education.”

You can read the entire abstract or even the entire research paper here.

Does Professor Sass’s result mean that all teacher preparation programs are crap?  Not at all.  CALDER researchers studied how well students in Texas learned math and science when they were instructed by teachers who had graduated from UTeach math and science teacher preparation programs at the state’s universities.  UTeach was originally developed at the University of Texas – Austin by physics professor Michael Marder.  The researchers found that “students taught by UTeach teachers perform significantly better on end-of-grade tests in math and end-of-course tests in math and science by 8% to 14% of a standard deviation on the test, depending on grade and subject.”

Once again, the abstract and paper are here.

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Florida’s 2019-20 Critical Teacher Shortage Areas: Even elementary education graduates are in shortage now

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This week, Florida’s State Board of Education will adopt its 2019-20 list of Critical Teacher Shortage Areas.  Among other things, the report includes the number of students who completed the state’s approved college- and university-based teacher preparation programs in 2016-17 and the anticipated number of teacher vacancies in the 2018-19 school year.  A comparison of those two sets of numbers (as shown above) provides an estimate of how well the teacher preparation programs are meeting the demand for teachers in different subjects.  For example, the graph above estimates that the teacher preparation programs are providing only 5.5% of the needed teachers in the physical sciences, which includes both chemistry and physics (9 program completers vs. 164 vacancies).  The teacher prep programs are also only providing 19.6% of the needed math teachers.

But there are always severe shortages of math and science teachers.  What jumped off the graph to me was that the teacher prep programs are now – for the first time – failing to meet the demand for elementary school teachers.  The Critical Teacher Shortage Area report gives 1,845 graduates of teacher preparation programs in elementary education but 2,752 vacancies.  That is, the teacher prep programs are producing only 67% of the graduates needed in elementary education.

The graphs below show how the numbers of vacancies and program completers have evolved during the last five years for four teaching categories (only four years are shown for physical science because it was not listed as a separate category until 2016).  It is important to note that the x-axis in each plot is the year the critical teacher shortage area report was issued, and not the year for which the vacancies and program completers are listed.  The report being approved this week – shown in the graphs as “2019” – includes teaching vacancies for the 2018-19 school year and the students completing teacher prep program during the 2016-17 academic year.  So the program completer numbers are actually two years behind the vacancy numbers.

But the trend in the number of elementary education program completers is clear – it is declining.

There are a few other trends in these graphs that are concerning.

First, the numbers of vacancies for elementary ed, math and English all jumped significantly this year.

Second, the number of vacancies for chemistry and physics teachers (listed here as “physical science”) is declining sharply.

I have no explanation for either of these trends.

It is also worth noting that the State Board of Education will adopt the Critical Teacher Shortage Area report in its consent agenda.  There will almost certainly be no discussion of the issue.

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FSU Police once had an unarmed standoff with a disturbed student in my classroom. If the student had been carrying a firearm, it likely would have turned out very differently.

Years ago, I called FSU’s campus police to my classroom because of an outburst by a disturbed student that was so violent that it scared the other students in the room.

In response, a group of campus police officers entered my classroom and surrounded the disturbed student, while the other students scurried out of the room in such a hurry that they left their backpacks and other possessions at their seats.

The students who had evacuated waited outside the classroom with me for the officers to subdue the offending young man, hoping that we could resume our class. But the police officers did not want to subdue the young man and instead maintained an unarmed standoff, surrounding him but staying back about six feet.

After about a half hour of waiting, my nervous students decided they simply wanted to retrieve their possessions and leave. I asked the police officers – still surrounding the young man – to allow the other students into the classroom to collect their backpacks. The officers were unhappy about the request, but finally allowed it as long as the students got in and out of the room in a hurry. The students were only too happy to hurry in and out. Once out of the classroom, they hastened out of the classroom building and headed off – either to their next class or to find a way to decompress.

Finally, I left as well with the standoff still underway. Weeks later, the disturbed student returned to our class. This frightened some of the other students, but at least I knew that nobody had been physically harmed during the confrontation.

I was thinking about this incident today after reading about the filing of this year’s legislative proposal to allow guns to be carried on university campuses. If the disturbed student had managed to bring a gun into my classroom, or had managed to gain possession of a gun that another student had brought to class, the outcome of the incident would likely have been very different.

Of course, this story isn’t going to change the mind of an advocate for the campus carry bill or any other opponent of gun-free zones. If the disturbed student in my class had had a gun, another student carrying a firearm could have returned fire (although in a room with 70 students in it that might have been worse). And when the Virginia Tech shooter took 32 lives during his 2007 rampage, guns were illegal on campus. The gun ban on Florida’s university campuses also didn’t prevent the 2014 shooting at FSU’s Strozier Library.

But I stand with FSU’s President John Thrasher in his opposition to campus carry. This fall, President Thrasher renewed his commitment to oppose campus carry legislation. Among other things, our president is a wily and tough veteran of the Florida Legislature. We can only hope that he continues to be successful in blocking legislation to legalize concealed weapons on Florida’s campuses.

Class Panorama

This is the same studio science classroom in which the incident I describe in this post took place.  Of course, the day this picture was taken was much more peaceful.

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The power of architecture in a classroom and the influence of the SCALE-UP studio-style classroom design on students

“Architecture provides a stage to engender certain behaviors by curating one’s experiences.” – Allison Peitz, Overland Partners

My first real lesson about the power of architecture came fairly late in life – in 2008 – when FSU’s first SCALE-UP studio-style classroom opened up and I led a recitation for a traditional lecture class in the room.

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FSU’s first SCALE-UP studio-style science classroom.

The SCALE-UP classroom was certainly not designed for a traditional recitation class, in which an instructor generally writes the solutions to the week’s homework problems on the board and the students sit in their individual seats – all facing forward toward the instructor and the whiteboard (still blackboards then, actually) – and passively write down the problem solutions as they are written on the white[black]board.

Instead of the rows of forward-facing seats, the SCALE-UP classroom had (and still has) round tables, each seating nine students who generally work in groups of three.  The idea is to facilitate conversations among the students and an active learning environment.  It was certainly not intended for a passive traditional recitation session.

But the university was short of the 50-seat (all facing forward) traditional lecture rooms that we generally used for recitations, so I was assigned to teach traditional recitations in the 72-seat SCALE-UP room.

Despite the fact that I had been assigned to teach in a traditional lecture course that semester, I was an advocate of the studio-style SCALE-UP model.  In fact, the inclusion of the SCALE-UP room in FSU’s new classroom building had been my idea and I had campaigned for it during the building project’s design phase, earning me multiple dirty looks from the project’s lead architect.

But I had drawn the short straw on teaching assignments, so the privilege of teaching the first studio SCALE-UP-style physics class in the new classroom had passed to my very, very able colleague Simon Capstick.  And I had been assigned to teach a traditional recitation.

I was apprehensive as students walked into the SCALE-UP room for my traditional recitation on the first day.  Then I noticed something interesting – and encouraging.  As students sat down at the round tables before class, they pulled out their homework assignments and starting discussing them with other students already seated.  Despite the fact that the class was advertised as a traditional lecture class, the students were being moved by the architecture of the classroom (especially including the round tables) to start learning collaboratively – the way they would have been learning in a studio-style SCALE-UP class.

In subsequent years, I used the same SCALE-UP room to teach a hands-on physical science course for elementary education majors and then introductory physics courses for engineering and physical science majors – the population for which the SCALE-UP model was first invented at North Carolina State University.

About the same time that the first SCALE-UP classroom opened at FSU, our middle child, Allison, decided that she wanted to be an architect.  I showed her the SCALE-UP room, and apparently I talked about the power of the room design to affect student behavior over family dinner enough nights that she remembered that years later when she was working toward her Master’s degree in Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

One evening during Allison’s second year at Harvard, she called me to tell me that she had decided to write (or design) her master’s thesis about how to deliver a SCALE-UP-style classroom experience to students in geographic locations where you couldn’t gather 72 students, or 20 students or maybe even more than 3 students in one place.  This would be done by seating the students who could participate around a round or U-shaped table and then connecting them via video and audio links to other small groups of students seated in similar facilities at other locations far away.

Allison defended her thesis in January of 2017 and then was hired by Overland Partners, which is a highly regarded firm in San Antonio where her then-fiancee (now husband) Geoff Peitz is a neurosurgery resident.  During one of her job interviews (perhaps with Overland), Allison was asked how she became interested in educational facilities.  Allison shared with me that she told the interviewer that she had become interested in such facilities because so much of the family dinner conversation while she had been in high school had been about our SCALE-UP classes at FSU.

When Allison married Geoff, she took his last name.  She is now Allison Peitz, and when I saw the quote at the top of this post on her web page at Overland, I instantly thought of our SCALE-UP classrooms and the dinner conversations we had while Allie was in high school.

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Allison defending her M.Arch. thesis at Harvard in January of 2017.

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A model of two small classrooms, each containing one round table for six students.  Each of these classrooms would be connected to other similar classrooms at other geographic locations to provide the instructional advantages of the SCALE-UP model to students in remote locations.

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Models and drawings showing how a number of small SCALE-UP classrooms could be incorporated into a structure.   The map shows a town in Wyoming that would be a candidate for such a facility.

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Bachelors’ degrees in engineering, computer science and physics are among the surest routes to economic security in America and more Florida students should have access to them: What I’ll be doing in 2019.

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The top 25 college majors ranked by salary.  From the report “Economic Value of College Majors” by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Bachelors’ degrees in engineering, computer science and physics are among the surest routes to economic security in 2019 America.

Unfortunately, the State of Florida does a poor job preparing its high school students for college majors in those fields.

Florida high school students take physics at about half the national rate. Despite the state’s emphasis on (and financial incentives to high schools for) having high school students take courses for college credit, the state’s high school students take calculus at a rate that is only average for the nation.

Those statistics have consequences for the career fields that the state’s students choose.
Florida ranks 35th in the nation in the number of bachelors’ degrees it awards in science and engineering fields per 1,000 18-24 year olds in the state’s population. The state ranks 43rd in the percentage of the employed workforce that has engineering jobs.

As poor a job as Florida does at preparing students for the most lucrative bachelor’s degree-level careers, the situation is much worse for women and African-American students.

Women earn only about one-fifth of the bachelors’ degrees awarded by Florida’s State University System (SUS) in engineering, computer science and physics (this situation is similar to the national picture). While 22% of the state’s K-12 students are black, only 7% of the SUS bachelor’s degree grads in engineering are black. The corresponding numbers in computer science and physics are 11% and 4%, respectively.

This underrepresentation of women and black students among bachelor’s degree grads isn’t just a university problem. Florida data on Advanced Placement exams in calculus, physics and computer science show that the disparities begin while students are still in the K-12 schools.

I am doing my feeble best to change all of this.

I believe that all Florida high school graduates who are heading to four-year colleges and universities should have taken high school courses in chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) so that if they decide they would like to pursue careers in engineering, computer science or physics they are equipped to do so. This is my ultimate goal.

I try to shine a light on this issue using this blog and the occasional op-ed.

I visit with K-12 teachers, students, parents and administrators when I am invited and when it appears I have at least a remote chance of helping a school or district make progress toward my goal.

In my day job as a Physics Professor at Florida State University, I teach introductory physics courses in the studio-style SCALE-UP format first developed at North Carolina State University. It is an economical format (as economical as the traditional lecture format) that leverages the power of social interactions among students and between students and instructors to improve student learning – and that improvement over the traditional lecture format is often dramatic. The emphasis on building social connections is particularly helpful for women and students of color, according to research.

FSU’s SCALE-UP program is now in its 11th year. The small group of FSU Physics faculty members who teach in the SCALE-UP program serve 250 students each semester. We don’t win awards or recognition, and we don’t make many friends. But we help students learn and persist.

Here is my resolution for 2019: I will continue this work – both the advocacy and my own teaching.

And here is the more personal part: I will focus more on enjoying and even treasuring the individuals who I encounter in this work and less on my frequent setbacks.

I’ll look forward to visiting with you in 2019.

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A scene from one of FSU’s studio-style SCALE-UP physics classes.

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