Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook Future Physicists of Florida FSU Panama City Chapter: A big boost for STEM career preparation in Bay County

FSU’s Panama City campus today issued a press release on the $100,000 gift by Jim and Jana Cook that resulted in a boost to the campus’ STEM outreach efforts and the naming of the Bay County Future Physicists of Florida chapter.  I wanted to share my own story about the Cooks and the gift, so here it is:

I met retired Panama City cardiologist Jim Cook last fall over a lunch arranged by Randy Hanna, who was then the new Interim Dean at FSU’s Panama City campus (he is now the “permanent” Dean). As I have since learned, Randy is one of those folks who has some supernatural capacity to know what’s going to happen in any situation long, long before anyone else involved has figured it out. But at the time of the lunch, I had only recently met Randy and I thought that the lunch was a somewhat hastily arranged random event.
I had ordered a salad with shrimp, but by the time the salad was served Jim had dived into the conversation with tremendous gusto. I recall Jim starting the conversation on the topic of thorium reactors, and I was so quickly focused and engaged with the conversation that I didn’t notice that the tails of the shrimp in the salad hadn’t been peeled. I think I somehow got through two shrimp (and accumulated a considerable amount of shell in my mouth) before I figured out that I was going to have to deal with that.

As my dear, patient family knows, I tend to steer most social conversations toward the educational demands of the 21st century – specifically, how important it is for college-bound high school students to persevere in upper level math and science courses so that they have the full range of career choices (creative writing, art, economics, engineering, physics) when they arrive on a college campus. I probably mentioned to Jim that half of the students who arrive on FSU’s Tallahassee campus intending to go to medical school neglected to take high school physics, and that the collision for these underprepared students with college physics is often fatal to their medical school hopes.

Jim was astonished that any high school student who had given any thought at all to a health or scientific profession would skip physics in high school. By the end of the meal, Jim said he was sold on my cause and wanted to know what he could do. Randy had already left the restaurant (I’m sure knowing full well what was going to happen) so the best response I could muster was something like “I’ll have to give this some thought” and “I’ll bet Randy will have some ideas.”

It didn’t take long before I knew what I wanted to ask Jim for. The previous spring, I had visited with groups of Mosley High School parents twice and talked with them about the importance of their college-bound kids taking upper level math and science in high school, regardless of their present career plans (because they can change). Part of my pitch is the importance of physics and even calculus for high school students considering health careers.

Of course, there is a big hole in that argument when I make it – I’m just an old nuclear physicist. And while I’ve taught many future physicians over the years (and many more who wanted to be physicians but weren’t successful with their undergraduate programs), the argument would be much more powerful coming from someone like Jim. So I asked him to accompany me on my next visit with Mosley parents. Jim accepted, and he accompanied me on my visit to Mosley the evening of January 24th – several weeks ago. Jim connected with the audience instantly, and his talk about the importance of physics in medicine was powerful. I hope Jim is willing to do it again.

Of course, I’m just a physics professor and perhaps sometimes I’m guilty of thinking small. Randy has neither handicap. Randy and Jim – and Jim’s wife Jana – worked out an arrangement that culminated in an announcement last Saturday during the Future Physicists of Florida STEM Expo at FSU-PC. The FSU-PC Future Physicists of Florida Chapter is being named the Dr. James T. and Jana L. Cook Chapter of the FPF in recognition of a donation to the campus of $100,000 to support K-12 STEM activities.

As some of those close to me know, I’m a sentimental old physics professor. And last Saturday’s event made me reflect on what has happened during the last several years. In 2012, I started the Future Physicists of Florida with then-FAMU Physics Department Chair Charles Weatherford at the urging of Frank Fuller, a former school principal who was then the education advisor to Florida Senate President Don Gaetz. It cruised along for several years with the participation of the Orlando Science School and a few middle schools in Tallahassee.

Then in the fall of 2015, FPF was invited to hold district-wide induction ceremonies in Bay and Monroe Counties with the support of the school districts themselves and, in the case of Bay County, with the collaboration of FSU-PC. Those district-wide induction ceremonies were held again last fall in the Keys and in Panama City, along with the customary smaller ceremonies on FSU’s Tallahassee campus.

In Bay County, I’ve gotten even more involved with Mosley’s parents and with physics teachers from Bay, Mosley and Rutherford High Schools. At my request, FSU President John Thrasher provided $40,000 of university funds to purchase physics lab equipment for loan to those three schools.

And now comes the gift from Jim and Jan Cook, which was a deeply humbling experience for me. If you doubt that I’m capable of being humble (and many who know me will be skeptical), see the goofy look on my face in the photograph with Jim, Jana, Randy and Bay County School Board Chair Ginger Littleton that FSU-PC included with their press release about the gift. I was humbled.

This fall, there were twice as many high school physics students in Bay County high schools as there were last spring. At Mosley, there were 58% more students enrolled in chemistry, and six times as many physics students as last spring. But there is so much farther to go to make sure that every Bay County student has the math and science needed to have the full range of college and career options. The gift from Jim and Jana Cook is an important step in pushing that project forward.


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