The public policy spotlight is focused on science and engineering programs at Florida’s universities, particularly the public universities. The state’s leaders want the universities to graduate more workforce-ready scientists and engineers, and have even proposed a tuition scheme that would provide students an incentive to select majors in these fields (although this scheme is proving to be remarkably unpopular with university faculty and the public at large).
There are things that the universities can do to graduate more scientists and engineers, and nearly all of them fall in the category of “retention” – that is, helping more students who arrive at a university intending to major in science and engineering to successfully navigate the rigorous courses of study associated with these fields. Courses can be revamped with more effective research-based pedagogies. Social support structures like FSU’s Women in Math, Science and Engineering Living-Learning Community can be offered to help students who are members of groups underrepresented in these fields. Undergraduates can be encouraged to join the university’s research groups and take on major research projects.
But students who arrive at a university uninterested in and unprepared for science and engineering careers are almost never going to climb into the science and engineering pipeline. Therefore, Florida’s universities will not show any significant increase in the number of graduates in the most economically viable science and engineering fields unless the state’s K-12 schools do a better job of preparing and motivating students in these fields. And at present that is not among the priorities of the K-12 schools.
The symptoms of the K-12’s systems shortcomings in its science and engineering pipeline are so numerous that a single listing would be difficult to read and depressing to write. They are listed throughout the more than 1,100 posts on this blog.
But here are a few action items for the new year. There are just a few in part because the state’s educational bureaucracy has proven so resistant to input on science education that it makes no sense from a mental health point of view to be any more ambitious:
Push for Florida adoption of the national Next Generation Science Standards: Adoption of the NGSS would at least leave the door to improved K-12 science education cracked open in Florida. One more public draft of the standards will be released in January, and then states will have the opportunity to adopt them in the spring. Florida, a leader in the Common Core movement in math and English language arts, declined to be a “lead state partner” in the development of the NGSS, while 26 other states said “yes” to the opportunity. Furthermore, the FDOE used thousands of hours of effort by educators and scientists to patch the state’s woeful existing standards, leading any objective observer to conclude that the present plan is to pass on the NGSS and stay with the state’s standards. A national science education leader told me recently that Florida is considered to be one of the most difficult states when it comes to improving K-12 science. Adoption of the NGSS would be the first step in reversing that perception.
Educate policy-makers on the limitations of the present generation of virtual science courses: Someday there may be effective virtual science courses, but that day hasn’t yet come. Even officials from the Florida Virtual School say so. For now, we are “stuck” with the “old paradigm” of an effective science classroom being made by the physical presence of an effective science teacher. And while we desperately need more of those, solving the problem will require relatively expensive and politically difficult steps like differential pay. No wonder virtual science seems like a panacea. I’ll note for the record that the American Physical Society, the guild of physicists, is holding a workshop on virtual physics courses next year. So we are not hiding from the virtual science issue, but instead are trying to lead. But virtual science is not yet ready for prime time. [Update, Wednesday, December 26: This morning’s Tampa Bay Times includes an op-ed advocating for – among other things – a federal program to support high school MOOC’s. The authors are either not thinking about science in their proposal or (worse) are and just know nothing about the teaching and learning of science.]
Build grass-roots support for the science and engineering pipeline by recruiting middle school students and their parents: Hence the Future Physicists of Florida. See the Tallahassee Democrat feature story here, their editorial here, my op-ed here, and the piece from the blog redefinED here.
In Florida, the science and engineering pipeline leaks everywhere. Perhaps in 2013 we can start thinking seriously about how to plug a few of the leaks.