In high schools, robotics-without-physics is a problem. At Florida State University Schools, teacher Matt Martens is solving that problem.

Robotics courses have been wildly popular with high school students and teachers. There are robotics competitions like the FIRST Lego League, robotics kits, robotics curricula and robotics academies.

But too often robotics programs, which in principle are intended to attract students to engineering and technology careers, leave out the physics and math that are critical in preparing for college majors in engineering. Too many students show up in college intending to major in engineering but lacking the proper high school preparation.

Florida State University Schools physics and robotics teacher Matt Martens knows this well. As a graduate teaching assistant in FSU’s Studio Physics Program, Matt worked with engineering majors who were heartbroken to realize they just weren’t going to make it because of their lack of high school preparation. And he is taking on that issue in his robotics classes.

Matt began his robotics classes this fall with the unit on DC circuits from McDermott’s Physics by Inquiry. Physics by Inquiry was developed by the University of Washington Physics Education Research Group for elementary education majors. However, I begin my second semester calculus-based physics course (populated mostly by majors in engineering and physical science) with this unit. Rutherford High School physics teacher Rachel Morris pioneered the use of part of the same unit at the beginning of AP Physics 1, which includes some DC circuit material on its syllabus.

Matt is teaching in his school’s new science studio classroom, shown below. Robotics has a larger enrollment than his AP Physics 1 class, but with the introduction to physics early in the robotics class it might be possible to attract more robotics students into the AP Physics 1 course.

Even without a physics course, Matt’s students will see the importance of the subject in their work with robotics.  Matt intends to have his robotics students work with Arduino devices, and he says “I think moving on to Arduino controlled circuits will go smoothly” because of the students’ work with Physics by Inquiry.

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The new science studio classroom at Florida State University Schools

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Want to encourage more Florida high school students to study computing? Then allow AP Computer Science Principles to substitute for Biology 1.

It’s Groundhog Day in the Florida Legislature for those trying to use the state’s statutes to nudge more high school students into taking courses in computing.  Legislators have once again filed bills to allow high school computing courses to substitute for college admissions requirements in foreign language, math and science.

Perhaps it’s time to try something different – allowing students to take the most attractive and accessible high school computing course ever developed as a substitute for Biology 1, Florida’s only specific graduation requirement in science and the biggest science education policy error the state has made in the last decade.

Senator Brandes has once again filed a proposal to allow high school courses in computing to substitute for foreign language classes in the admissions requirements for Florida’s public colleges and universities. The proposal has been filed as legislation for the last several sessions and has attracted furious opposition every time.

Representative Porter has again filed her proposal to substitute high school computing courses for math and science courses in public college and university admissions requirements. It is already common for students to be admitted to my institution without a math course any higher than Algebra 2. We still admit students without a chemistry course, and even some of our engineering majors (and about half of our chemistry and bioscience majors) arrive without a physics course. Representative Porter’s proposal would only make things worse – and likely reduce the number of students who can be successful in earning a bachelor of science degree in computer science (which at FSU and elsewhere requires calculus and physics).

Playing off 21st century skills like foreign language, the physical sciences and computing against each other never made any sense.  It still doesn’t.

So if we insist on sacrificing some component of a Florida high school education to incentivize a course on computing, what should it be?

I nominate Biology 1 – the only science course specifically designated as a graduation requirement in Florida – and its end-of-course exam.  Florida should allow students to substitute the year-old AP Computer Science Principles course to substitute for Biology 1.

With a good teacher, Biology 1 can be an excellent science learning experience.  But for too many students, the course can become an exercise in memorization – like memorizing the steps in the Krebs Cycle without having any concept of what it means to transfer energy into a cell.

The Biology 1 end of course exam – which students must take and which is counted as 30% of the final grade – doesn’t help.  In 2012, I was a member of a Florida Department of Education panel that reviewed several of the state’s standardized tests, including the Biology end-of-course exam.  During the discussion, an engineer sitting next to me argued that it wasn’t a science test at all – that it was simply a reading test that focused on readings about biology.  He said that he could have passed the test even though it had been years since he remembered any biology.

AP Computer Science Principles was introduced by the College Board in the fall of 2016 as a means of attracting a broader audience of high school students to computing.  More than 33,000 students nationwide took the course’s exam in May – an extraordinary number for the course’s first year.

The Biology 1 requirement is a holdover from a time fifteen years ago when we believed that bioscience was going to be the future of Florida’s economy.  Now we seem to believe that information technology – and having a plentiful supply of professionals in that field – will be the foundation of the state’s future economic growth.  If that is true, then we should move the state’s high schools away from the biology requirement and toward an information technology requirement.

To be clear:  I am not suggesting that every student be required to take AP Computer Science Principles.  I am only arguing that students should be allowed to take this computing course as a substitute for the Biology course.  We wouldn’t need enough computer programming teachers to teach every Florida student – only enough to meet the demand, which would be modest at first.

Now for federal accountability requirements:  We are often told that federal law requires that every high school student take a statewide standardized test in science.  This is true.  But not every student has to take the same standardized test.  Massachusetts – the nation’s leading state for K-12 math and science – requires its students to pass one of four science tests.  (They are in biology, chemistry, introductory physics and engineering/technology)

And it’s worth mentioning that the present leadership of the US Department of Education seems to want to give states more flexibility and not less – as long as they meet the minimum requirements of ESSA.

If our policy-makers are serious about equipping more high school students for the STEM economy, they will stop being anchored to the mistakes of the past.  Allowing students to substitute AP Computer Science Principles for Biology 1 as a graduation requirement is one way of doing so.

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“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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