Whither high school physics? The AP dilemma for students in the S&E pipeline – and the solution

Chomp down on this statistic:  Half of the students in my calculus-based introductory physics class this summer – all planning on careers in science and engineering – didn’t take a physics class in high school.

That’s higher than usual, but the typical percentage over the last few years has been 25-35%.  Still shocking, in my opinion.  We’re not talking about students who were planning on being poets in high school and then changed their minds.  These are students who knew they wanted to be engineers and scientists.  What were they thinking?

At least some of them were thinking this:  that to get into a selective college they needed to take as many AP courses as possible.  And when it came time to decide what science class to take in 11th grade, Honors Physics or AP Chemistry, they had to choose AP Chemistry.  Their decisions were reinforced by the Honors Chemistry teachers who desperately wanted these strong students in AP Chemistry so that the teachers could earn Florida’s AP bonuses, and the guidance counselors who were carrying out principals’ directives to steer as many kids into AP classes as possible so that the school could earn extra funding and more points on the school grade.

Many Florida high schools do not offer AP Physics, but only Honors Physics.  And of course, the AP Physics courses have been intended for students who had already taken Honors Physics.  (And some Florida high schools do not even offer Honors Physics, which is another problem.  And about the half of Florida IB programs that don’t offer IB Physics – I’ll leave that until another time.)

Fortunately, The Answer is arriving.  The College Board has redesigned its algebra-based AP Physics B course into a two-segment, two-exam sequence called AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2.  AP Physics 1 is intended to be a year-long first high school physics course, and is built around the physics education research performed during the last several decades.  It’s a dream-come-true that will arrive in Fall 2014.  Now instead of students having to choose between AP Chemistry and Honors Physics – a choice that the physics course is increasingly losing – students will have AP Chemistry vs. AP Physics 1.  And if they take AP Physics 1 in 11th grade, they can still go back and take AP Chemistry in 12th grade [although it’s obvious to me that AP Physics 2 is the better choice – isn’t it obvious to everyone?  😉 ]

So – problem solved, right?  Not exactly.  Even though AP Physics 1 will arrive on the State of Florida’s high school course list in Fall 2014, Honors Physics will still be there, too.  And as physicists know, inertia is a powerful thing.  AP Physics 1 will languish at the low end of the course-taking frequency scale unless somebody with some clout gives it a boost.  Perhaps there’s a role the Florida Department of Education can play in, let’s say, incentivizing the adoption of AP Physics 1.  The most extreme strategy would be to remove Honors Physics from the state’s course offerings.  But surely there are less coercive ways to do this.

Why would the Florida Department of Education care enough to do anything about this?  About 20% of Florida’s high school grads have taken either Honors Physics or its non-Honors counterpart.  The state’s AP Physics course-taking rate is only about 2%, close to the national average.  If Florida wants to demonstrate that it is serious about preparing scientists and engineers, one way of doing so would be to find a way to steer the 20% of students who take Honors/regular physics into AP Physics 1.  Then the state’s AP Physics course-taking rate would be 20%, about four times the present rate in Massachusetts.

Now that would be worth crowing about.

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