Every semester, I’m blown away by the fact that about a quarter of the engineering majors in my introductory physics classes did not take physics in high school. I wonder what these students could possibly have been thinking in high school, and what their teachers, guidance counselors and even parents were telling them. Engineering without physics? Really? These no-high-school-physics engineering majors face a steeper climb in their college physics classes than the students who came to college well-prepared with physics on their high school transcripts.
But maybe it’s not just the teachers, counselors and parents. Here’s a disturbing fact: The nation’s leading supplier of high school engineering curriculum, Project Lead the Way, doesn’t mention physics in the description of its engineering program. But surely teachers, counselors and school administrators know that students who take the PLTW engineering program should take physics (and calculus, for that matter), right? Well…not necessarily. I’ve had PLTW engineering students who did not take either physics or calculus in high school, and that is…not good.
And there is reason to suspect that the neglect of physics at high schools hosting the PLTW engineering program is not isolated but is instead systemic, at least in Florida. There are 55 Florida high schools that host the PLTW engineering program. Nine school districts (Bay, Collier, Dade, Escambia, Orange, Osceola, Putnam, Volusia and Washington) have made particularly strong commitments to PLTW engineering. Of these nine districts, only one – Collier – has a rate of physics course-taking that is above the state rate.
To get down to numbers, we use the District Physics Index (DPI), which divides the total number of students taking Physics, Honors Physics (both 1 and 2), AP Physics 1 and 2, and AP Physics C by the number of 12th graders in the district. For the state as a whole in 2014-2015, the index is 0.232. The leading districts are Brevard County (0.747), Seminole County (0.720) and Leon County (0.556).
Collier County has a DPI of 0.304 (9th among the state’s 67 districts), which is above the state average but well below the leading districts. Then the numbers go south. Dade County ranks 18th with 0.215. Orange County is 19th with 0.210. Volusia (22nd at 0.169), Osceola (26th at 0.144) and Escambia (31st at 0.125) are farther behind. Bay County is 47th at 0.062.
Then there are the two rural districts in the PLTW engineering program, Putnam and Washington Counties. Only four students are taking physics in Washington County this year, giving a DPI of 0.020 (54th in the state). Things are not much better in Putnam County, where three high schools participate in the PLTW engineering program but a total of only 18 students are taking physics this year.
At least Putnam and Washington are not among the dozen rural Florida districts that are not teaching physics at all this year. At least there’s that.
What should PLTW do? That’s easy. Say on the engineering program web page that every PLTW engineering student should take both physics and calculus in high school. And then drum that into every participating teacher, counselor and administrator.
Failing to do even that would be irresponsible.