Sure my studio physics students improved their physics understanding at a world-class rate. But shouldn't I/we be doing better?

My students achieved world-class learning gains this semester. But I wish they could have done better. What can I change to make that happen?

The students in my studio physics class posted a world-class normalized learning gain this semester.

So why am I so unhappy with it? And what should I do about it?

My studio physics class posted a normalized learning gain of 43% on the Force Concept Inventory (FCI) this semester. That learning gain, calculated by comparing pre- and post-test scores on the FCI, is about double the typical learning gain that is achieved in a traditional lecture class and is typical for the interactive engagement pedagogy that we use in the Studio Physics Program, according to a seminal large-scale study published by Richard Hake in 1998. My class posted that normalized learning gain despite having an average pre-test score that was low even by American standards (beginning engineering majors in China generally ace the FCI when it is given as a pre-test – but while beginning engineering majors in Ohio and Maryland are far behind Chinese students they are ahead of the students we see here). The FCI normalized learning gain is the number of test questions by which a student improved expressed as a percentage of what they missed on the pre-test. If the pre-test score is particularly low, then even improving by a large number of questions yields a relatively low normalized learning gain.

I am not the only member of the FSU Physics faculty getting good results in Studio Physics. Every colleague who has taught the first-semester calculus-based class and has stayed true to the design of the program – laying down a strong conceptual foundation and then building the mathematical structure on that foundation – has had equivalent (or better) success.

But if you step back from all of that, perhaps you can see why I am so uneasy…or even dissatisfied. Florida State University is now Florida’s public university of choice for undergraduates. Most of the students I see in my classroom were among the cream of the crop in their high schools.

So why are my students learning less than half of what they don’t know at the beginning of the semester? Are there changes I can make in my own classroom to improve student learning even above its present world-class level?

There are adjustments I can make in my own classroom. The lab write-ups we use should probably do more to focus students’ attention on the main principles – like Newton’s 2nd law and conservation of energy – that are in play during the experiments. It’s easy for students to get lost in the minutiae of running experiments, especially when their previous teaching lab experiences have rewarded them for doing so. Perhaps I should tighten up my training meetings for teaching assistants, too.

It would also help if more of my students took physics classes in high school. One-third of the students I have every semester – and they are all majoring in fields like engineering, computer science, meteorology, chemistry and physics – did not take a high school physics class. I am doing what I can as an individual to address that issue. It’s not going well.

Or maybe I should just lighten up. One colleague told me this week that my dissatisfaction with the 43% normalized learning gain proves that I should stop teaching this class and move onto something else. The only other option I would really have is a traditional general education astronomy lecture, and that doesn’t sound very inviting or satisfying.

FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching e-mails a weekly newsletter, and this week’s was titled “Celebrating your Teaching”. I’m in no mood to celebrate, and I know that at least some of my students aren’t celebrating, either. But if I can turn this end-of-semester grumpiness into future improvement, it will all at least have a constructive end.

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Will 2020 be the inflection point year for Florida’s K-12 system?

Governor DeSantis’s teacher salary proposal has put Florida’s K-12 schools and the most important component of those schools – the teacher corps – at the forefront of the agenda for the 2020 session of the Legislature.

But there are even bigger questions than teacher salaries in play for our policy-makers and education leaders: What is the mission of our K-12 schools? Is it just to make sure every student can read at the middle school level and answer rote questions about the US Constitution before graduating from high school? Or should Florida’s schools provide every student, regardless of socioeconomic background, the opportunity to fulfill her or his potential? Should the state’s schools do this even if it means giving every student access to strong math and science teachers all the way through high school?

2020 may be the year when Florida gives its final answers to these questions. If so, next year will be the inflection point for the development of Florida’s K-12 schools and for the future of all of the state’s residents.

What legislators and education leaders decide to do about Florida’s teacher corps has everything to do with the mission of the K-12 schools. If policy-makers choose a lowest-common-denominator definition of success – declaring victory when every student is at basic (or better) reading level in 8th grade (or even just 4th grade) and being able to pass a multiple choice citizenship test in high school – then they can recruit a teacher corps with a relatively narrow set of skills, teaching reading. That is a much cheaper undertaking than recruiting (and retaining) the array of educators skilled in advanced mathematics, the physical sciences, music performance, the social sciences, reading and writing literature and other fields that would be required to allow every student to advance as far as talent and character would take her or him.

The recurring discussion about NAEP reading scores – especially the 4th grade scores but also the 8th grade scores – and the relative lack of interest in the math scores (Florida actually improved a bit on 8th grade math – although by a statistically insignificant amount) provides a flashing yellow light signaling a dumbed-down focus on low-level reading for our public schools. An opinion piece in the conservative-leaning web site Florida Politics last spring argued that we are already spending enough money on public schools because Florida’s 4th graders can read better than their contemporaries in the neighboring states.

Fortunately, not every Republican leader has bought into the idea of a basic-reading-only mission for Florida’s public schools. Florida GOP Chair Joe Gruters expressed concern about the availability of physics courses in the state’s high schools in an op-ed published in October. And of course, regardless of whether one likes the Governor’s emphasis on new and early career teachers, the proposed investment of $600 million in teacher salaries is a significant statement that he acknowledges that the profession is not presently attracting the new talent it needs to provide students with the learning opportunities they deserve.

But apparently the Speaker of the House, Jose Oliva, is on the other side of the issue. He is skeptical about a new investment in teacher salaries. Without such an investment, Florida’s public schools will continue to slide backward toward a basic-only model.

There has been little progress made on the teacher salary issue during pre-legislative session committee meetings. So the debate about the future of Florida’s teacher corps and the opportunities that will be available to the state’s students will take place entirely during the heat of the 60-day legislative session. The outcome of that debate may determine the mission of the state’s public schools – and the capabilities of the state’s workforce – for many years to come.

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What I learned from elementary and middle school parents at the Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday event: They are hungry for information that can help them guide their kids.

The group of parents (and some kids) at the first of two parent presentations I gave at the Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday event. Photo from a tweet by Rebecca Ray.

Outreach to parents is a powerful and generally neglected way of improving the preparation of students for college STEM majors. At Saturday’s Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday event, which was attended by hundreds of students from elementary and middle schools throughout the district, I gave two presentations intended for parents. The two presentations were attended by a total of about 40 parents. While the turnout was modest, the discussions were intense – the parents attending were hungry for information that can help them guide their children through school and on to college.

I was joined for both presentations by Apopka High School physics teacher (and FSU Physics Department alumnus) Cody Smith and Matt Pytosh, who is the parent of a junior at West Orange High School and a Windermere High School graduate who is a first-year engineering major at the University of Florida. We ended up effectively being a group of three co-presenters. And the combination of a teacher, a parent and a professor is potentially a powerful thing.

I gave a talk very similar to those I have given parents in the past (my power point is posted here). But as always with parent outreach meetings, my talk was the least important part. Parents had lots of questions – and all three of us (the teacher, the parent and myself) responded to those questions. After each meeting, a few parents asked questions one on one.

One question that came up several times was whether there is a resource on the web that provides the information I was presenting – and more. Parents were particularly interested in the course and academy offerings at the middle and high schools. And perhaps that is the next logical step in Orange County – to provide a web site that provides information about recommended middle and high school preparation for STEM career paths as well as school course and academy offerings in STEM fields. Such a site would be reminiscent of the parent outreach web site that the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work used to dramatically boost enrollments in upper level high school math and science courses and – ultimately – to get dramatically more graduates into STEM careers.

It’s worth noting here – and I said this on Saturday several times – that all of the courses that students need to prepare for college STEM majors (chemistry, physics, calculus) are available at every Orange County Public Schools district high school. That is something about which the district should be proud and for which Orange County parents should be grateful.

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My presentation to parents for the Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday event on December 7

I will be using the power point shown here to talk with parents at this week’s Super STEM Saturday event. The slides are displayed below. You can download a pdf of the presentation – which includes a few bonus slides – here:

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Orange County Public Schools Super STEM Saturday is coming this Saturday, December 7. And I will be there!

The Orange County Public Schools annual Super STEM Saturday event is being held this coming Saturday, December 7, at Apopka High School. I’ll be there to visit with the parents of the participants in two presentations at 11 am and 1 pm, and during one-on-one conversations that parents might like to have.

According to the school district, the Super STEM Saturday event “provides a platform for all OCPS students to showcase their creativity and demonstrate prowess in STEM activities.” Sixty schools will be represented. More than 750 students will be participating, and altogether with family members and others there will be more than 3,000 people at the event.

If you attend the event, look for me and say hello!

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Are you a policy-maker who thinks it is OK to not be a math person? Read this from the Harvard Business Review by the President of Barnard College.

This piece by Barnard College President Sian Beilock published in the Harvard Business Review in October caught my eye especially because of the last few paragraphs, which are reproduced below. But it’s worth reading the whole thing.

Finally, we need to reject the social acceptability of being bad at math. Think about it: You don’t hear highly intelligent people proclaiming that they can’t read, but you do hear many of these same individuals talking about “not being a math person.” When we echo negative sentiments like that to ourselves and each other, we perpetuate a myth that increases overall levels of math phobia. When students reject math, they pigeonhole themselves into certain jobs and career paths, foregoing others only because they can’t imagine doing more computational work. Many people think math ability is an immutable trait, but evidence clearly shows this is a subject in which we can all learn and succeed.

If Americans are to compete for the STEM jobs of the future, it’s imperative that we help those who are anxious about math to approach rather than avoid it. If not, we are missing a population of people who have the potential to succeed in STEM. This can be done in schools, such as by requiring every student to tackle number-centric classes. It can also be done in the workplace by bringing math and computation training to those who already excel in other areas. At Barnard, our approach seems to be working. More than a third of of our class of 2019 graduates were STEM majors (as compared with about 21% female students nationally). Those are numbers we can all feel less anxious about.

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller at a board roundtable discussion about STEM in July.
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What Orange County Public Schools is trying to do with its Calculus Project is really, really hard – and really, really important

What Orange County Public Schools is trying to do with its Calculus Project – give students from disadvantaged backgrounds equitable access to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers – is really, really hard and really, really important.

The article on the Calculus Project published by the Orlando Sentinel this weekend showed just how hard it is to provide that access to the best-paying career tracks for students who do not have the advantage of being from affluent homes.

The project recruits students who earned a score of 3 (out of 5) on Florida’s standardized 6th grade math test into 7th grade Algebra 1 classes – which elsewhere are reserved for students with top scores on the 6th grade test. Then the project provides those students with lots of support in the form of math tutoring during the summer and after school. Students who complete Algebra 1 in middle school are on track to take a calculus class in high school, and that calculus class is necessary to be well-prepared for college majors in fields like engineering, computer science, meteorology, physics and math.

The first Calculus Project cohort took Algebra 1 in 7th grade during the 2014-15 school year, and those students will graduate this spring. The Sentinel reported the disappointing result that of the 27 students in this first cohort – all of whom were low-income – only five will graduate this spring with a calculus credit on their transcripts.

Sentinel journalist Leslie Postal also explored some of the fixes that might be required. For one thing, the summer and after school support tutoring connected to the Calculus Project ends after 10th grade – leaving students on their own for the last two years of high school. It might very well make sense to continue that support all the way to the end of 12th grade.

Of course, it is no surprise that getting disadvantaged and minority students into the STEM pipeline is difficult. In Florida, only 6% of the students who took the AP Calculus AB exam in May of this year were black, even though 22% of the students in the state’s public K-12 schools are black. It is also not surprising that this underrepresentation extends into Florida’s university system as well: Only 6% of the engineering bachelor’s degree graduates in 2016-17 were black. The corresponding number in physics, 4%, is even worse.

The key question is this: What does Orange County Public Schools do now?

The district’s Calculus Project is Florida’s most important school district-level initiative for drawing students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the pipeline for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. The district leadership already knew that the issue they were taking on is challenging, and the results on the first cohort serve to demonstrate that. I am confident that the leadership will take a look in the mirror, make adjustments, and persevere. The State of Florida should continue to look to Orange County Public Schools for leadership in this area.

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