Whose fault is Florida’s high school physics problem?

Florida’s high school physics program is in decline.  Total enrollment in the three main “first” physics courses – Physics 1, Honors Physics 1 and AP Physics 1 – has dropped by 5% during the last two years.

Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate was already weak.  The state’s rate is just a little above half of the national rate, according to a survey of state departments of education we performed in the summer of 2015.

Does this point to a broader STEM decline in Florida’s schools?  The statistics say “no”.  Success by the state’s middle schoolers in Algebra 1 jumped this year.  Enrollment in AP Calculus AB in Florida’s high schools rose by 9% (according to statistics available from the Florida Department of Education).

So Florida has a physics problem.

To expand on that:  The state’s communities of physics educators and professionals in science and engineering have failed to convince Florida’s K-12 educators, parents and students that physics is the gateway high school science course to STEM career opportunities.

As one of the louder voices in those communities, I bear a share of the blame for this failure.

To be sure, there are schools and school districts within the state that embrace physics as a course that all college-bound students should take.  Brevard and Seminole Counties have physics enrollment rates that far exceed the national rate and are more typical of scientifically advanced states like Massachusetts.

But the drop-off from those two districts to the next district of any size, Leon County, is enormous.  And physics enrollments in Leon have dropped by one-third in the last two years.

What can be done?  Perhaps a school district in the state’s educationally maligned Panhandle – Bay County – can show the way.  High school physics enrollment in Bay’s public high schools grew from 100 students in 2015-16 to 230 in 2016-17.  And the district’s high schools continue to push for more.

There is no magic to Bay’s rise, although it could be said that the stars aligned there.  Energetic teachers and counselors as well as leadership at the school and district level all decided that the district was not doing a good enough job preparing its students for science, engineering and health careers and did something about it – reaching out to students and parents.  I happened to be there when it happened, but I’m still convinced that I deserve very little of the credit.  (Heck, I live in Leon County and look what’s happening there)

But for those who are interested in how to make the argument for high school physics, here is one formulation that has worked in Bay County:

  • Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major, even those in science, engineering, computing and health.
  • The American Society for Engineering Education says that to be prepared to succeed at a college engineering major, a high school student should take physics (along with chemistry, precalculus and – preferably – calculus).
  • A bachelor of science program in computer science generally requires physics, and taking physics in high school significantly increases the chances of succeeding in college physics.  (And Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Department actually advises high school students to take physics)
  • Admission to professional school in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy requires two semesters of college physics.  And the best way to earn the high grades in college physics that students want on their professional school applications is to prepare by taking physics in high school.

Despite my failures (and they are many) I intend to keep chipping away.  In fact, I am finishing this post while sitting in a hotel room in Panama City waiting for a professional development session with a few Bay County physics teachers to begin.

I am not the only one working toward the goal of Florida being a strong physics state.  Adam LaMee at UCF is pushing hard.  So is Aaron Wade at UWF.  But the three of us are clearly not enough.  If you are a physics educator or a professional in engineering, computing or health fields, you need to get to work improving the preparation of the state’s high school students for your fields.  If your job description says that you are a STEM advocate and you are not telling students and their parents that physics must be on their high school programs, then you are not doing your job properly.

It’s time to get to work.

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