Frequent failures and small victories – that’s my way forward for improving STEM readiness for K-12 students

Late last summer, I traveled to visit with the faculty of a small arts-oriented charter school in South Florida.  I had been invited by the school’s founders, who were individuals I had hoped to have an opportunity to meet.  So I spent the two days on the trip fairly certain that my pep talk about improving the STEM readiness of students the school sent to college would fail, but knowing at least I’d get to shake the hands of the founders.

And that’s exactly what I got – the pleasure of shaking the hands of the school’s founders and a polite reception from the school’s faculty.  The trip was worthwhile for those reasons.  But the big score I had hoped against hope for – a new resolve by the school’s faculty to do a better job preparing their students for college majors in STEM fields – was not to be.

I have had bigger failures than that.  A briefly well-organized drive to upgrade the state’s high school graduation requirements in science fizzled out.  A pair of reports on STEM readiness that I wrote and which were issued by Florida TaxWatch had no observable effect.

The victories I’ve had have been small – or at least small compared to the state-level efforts I began with.  The recent dramatic improvement at Mosley High School has probably been the most remarkable single thing I’ve been associated with – although I am probably the least important part of the effort there.  Mosley is a 1,700 student school – not small as schools go.  The single most impressive statistic at Mosley is the rise from about 160 chemistry students last year to 240 this year.  Physics enrollment has risen from 6 to 35.

Districtwide, the number of physics students in Bay County high schools doubled from 100 last year to about 200 this year.

The Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremonies we held this fall in Bay and Monroe Counties and at FSU honored about 420 middle school students altogether.

A mentoring program I helped organize for students in the Upper Keys – in Monroe County – just began its second year by connecting eight high school students with eight college STEM majors from Florida A&M University, Florida State University and Grinnell College.  That’s right – eight.

There are two ways of looking at the small numbers involved in the projects I’ve helped organize.

One is the way a colleague on the American Physical Society Committee on Education (which I chaired at the time) saw it – he said I lacked vision.  That was lovely, by the way.

The other way of looking at it is this:  Making real durable change in the way Florida families and schools prepare their students for college so that the students have the option to pursue majors in STEM fields requires one-on-one conversations – lots of listening and persuasive but sympathetic coaxing tuned to each individual parent, teacher, counselor and student.  And you can’t mass produce that.

To most parents and students, high school calculus, chemistry and physics courses look like serious risks.  Risks of losing places in class rankings because of grades below “A”.  Risks of not getting into the perfect college (news flash – the college admissions officers I talked with during my own kids’ searches wanted to see challenging courses like calculus and physics on the high school transcript).  Risks of frustration and tears.

And for parents who didn’t take these courses themselves – and that’s true of almost all the parents I talk with – there is that deep-down tension-in-the-gut fear of telling their own children to take on a challenge that the parents themselves passed on in high school.  This difficulty for parents shouldn’t be underestimated – it is a real barrier to improving STEM education.

So the sizes of the projects I take on are limited by the numbers of students, parents, teachers and counselors I can talk with personally.

And if these projects are ever going to “scale”, I will have to find other people like me who are willing and able to talk with parents, students, teachers and counselors one-on-one.  Finding such people has turned out to be the toughest challenge of all.


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