In early June, the Hechinger Report published an article about programs like internships that Silicon Valley high schools are using to interest their lower-income students about careers in fields like engineering (“How Silicon Valley schools are trying to boost lower-income students into high-tech jobs”, June 7, 2018).
The Hechinger article appeared shortly after a social media blitz by the Northern California physics education community sparked by the cancellation of physics at one of Silicon Valley’s low-income high schools, James Lick High School. Ultimately, the physics educators’ blitz was successful, and a section of physics was scheduled at James Lick for the 2018-19 school year.
But the possibility of physics being cancelled at a high school in Silicon Valley – whose international preeminence is built on a foundation of physical science – was a chilling indicator that perhaps Florida is not the only state in which fundamental science is in decline at the high school level.
In any event, the Hechinger Report article didn’t acknowledge the James Lick High School physics controversy at all. It was a startling and grievous omission.
What the Hechinger Report editors and staff refused to acknowledge through this omission was that interest-building activities like internships are only half of what is necessary to provide these students with access to lucrative high-tech careers.
The other half is this: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds need educators and leaders in their high schools to encourage them to take the challenging courses in chemistry, physics and calculus necessary to be properly prepared for college majors in engineering, computer science and the physical sciences. Yes – that includes the physics offering that James Lick came within a whisker of canceling.
Too often, K-12 educational leaders focus on interest-building activities and neglect the hard work of convincing students and their parents to persevere in upper level math and science courses. Reporting on internships separately from the high school course preparation necessary to be successful in the fields in which students are interning, as the Hechinger Report did, perpetuates the problem of students showing up at college unprepared for their chosen majors.
In three weeks, I’ll meet my fall first-semester calculus-based introductory physics class for the first time. The students in the class will be majoring in fields like engineering, meteorology, chemistry, computer science and (of course) physics. It’s likely that about one-third of them will not have taken a physics class in high school. Those students who neglected to take a physics class in high school will be at a significant disadvantage, even in a classroom like mine that is designed to give all students – including those who are underprepared – the best possible chance to learn. My colleagues and I have concluded that students who arrive in our hands-on “studio” physics classes earn, on the average, grades a full letter grade lower than those who arrive well-prepared.
How does this happen? Many high school leaders and educators fail to tell students interested in fields like engineering (and their parents) that it is important to take high school courses in physics, chemistry and calculus.
I look for high schools to partner with on turning this around, but I am seldom successful. One high school where I’ve been successful is Mosley High School (in Panama City, 100 miles from my home in Tallahassee), where counselors who were determined to address this issue invited me to meet with parents in evening meetings two years ago. As a result of these meetings and the counselors’ conversations with students and parents, Mosley will have nearly 200 students taking physics this fall. Three years ago, that number was six.
High school educators who have convinced themselves (and their students, and their students’ parents) that high school courses like physics are not important should listen to what my former student Alexander Gonzalez has to say. Alexander came to FSU to major in engineering without a high school physics class. He was nevertheless successful, and developed into one of my best students by the end of the year (While it might be more powerful to share testimony from an unprepared student who did poorly in my class, I cannot bring myself to do it). But even Alexander encountered severe difficulties due to his lack of preparation early in his first semester with me. He recently shared with me that when the first semester course began, “I was introduced to concepts and ideas that weren’t familiar to my understanding of the world….This level of thinking was challenging and daunting at first, and required me to change my overall methods of learning the material.” Alexander succeeded because he had a level of maturity – both emotional and intellectual – that is quite unusual for a 19-year-old. Several of his classmates who were also handicapped by the lack of a high school physics background did poorly in the course and had their dreams of engineering careers set back or even lost altogether.
The solution to the problem of students who are motivated to pursue engineering and similar fields by internships and academies but who leave high school academically underprepared begins with educators and school leaders. In some cases, the same educators and leaders who are willing to soak up the love they receive for arranging interest-building activities like internships and academies are unwilling to take on the difficult task of talking with students and parents about persevering through courses in physics and calculus. These educators are presently responsible for many broken hearts in college science and engineering classes. If these educators change their minds and become willing to take on the hard work of preparing their students properly, they will become the heroes of their students’ fulfilled dreams.
The University of California’s Lick Observatory, located near James Lick High School