I learn a lot about the state of science in Florida’s high schools by talking with the students with whom I work both in my capacity as a classroom instructor for majors in engineering and the mathematical and physical sciences and as an advisor for undergraduate physics majors.
Here are some things I have learned in the last few years:
Some students who want to be scientists and engineers can’t take physics in their high schools because it is not offered. In every class I teach, there are several engineering majors who are struggling through their first encounter with physics because their high schools didn’t bother to offer physics. And it’s not just the “bad” high schools where this happens. One incoming physics major told me that the only physics course he had taken in high school was through the Florida Virtual School because his high school – an International Baccalaureate school – hadn’t offered physics. Another incoming physics major from an IB school hadn’t taken physics at all, and had been told by the school administration that there is no room in the IB curriculum for physics. A science teacher from an IB school where physics is offered told me that most IB schools in Florida – particularly smaller ones – do not offer physics. Of course, all this contributes to Florida’s embarrassingly low physics-taking rate of 16%.
But of course, there are districts where physics is taken very seriously. Two of the districts I highlighted recently for requiring four science courses for high school graduation – Brevard and Monroe – have a physics teacher for every 800 high school students. That is a very good number, and that becomes clear when to compare it to the corresponding ratio in Leon County, where FSU is located. The Leon County number is one physics teacher for every 1800 high school students. Leon also requires only the state-mandated three science courses for graduation, and the district requires that one of these be “Biology I”.
By the way, how many students don’t pursue careers in engineering and the physical sciences at all because they do not have access to high school physics courses? Nearly every student who decides to major in physics at FSU cites a great high school physics teacher as the reason for their choice. I can predict with 95% certainty that a student who does not have access to a high school physics course will not choose to major in physics. How many prospective engineers do we lose because the lack of access to a high school physics course has made them afraid of university physics? (And justifiably so!)
Honors Physics classes taught in Florida public high schools are wildly different in the topics they cover. Most of the students in my calculus-based introductory physics course – the one taken by majors in engineering, chemistry, mathematics, meteorology and physics – took an Honors Physics class in a Florida public high school. But that’s the end of what these students have in common. If you give them a list of topics that we associate with a good high school physics course and ask which topics from the list they covered, you get quite a variety of responses. Nearly all say they covered Newton’s laws and the concepts of potential and kinetic energy in the mechanical context. About half recall covering some thermodynamics and electrostatic forces and even fields. About the same number remember trying out lenses and using the equations of geometric optics. Few learned anything about circuits, or the electromagnetic spectrum, or the 20th century subjects of atomic structure, quantum mechanics or relativity.
The most practical way to remedy this situation is the statewide implementation of an end-of-course test in physics, like the Regents Exams in New York State. By the way, I once had a student from New York State who had taken Regents Physics, and I knew exactly what he had been taught – I didn’t have to ask.