A letter to Polk School Board member Billy Townsend: What do high school students have to gain from having a strong science and math background, and how do we steer them into it?

I had a very interesting Twitter exchange with Polk School Board member Billy Townsend today.  He asked lots of good questions, and it was clear that trying to respond on Twitter would not work.  In fact, what’s really required to respond properly to Billy’s questions is probably a book.  But I’m going to confine my response to this blog post, because my day job awaits me tomorrow.

Billy’s three Twitter questions were these – and were interspersed with responses from others:

1)  How much of what you teach your college students do they go on to employ in the actual jobs they accept and execute in life? Are you an equipper with useful skills or a weeder out? Not meant as any kind of insult. Genuinely curious. Thinking about this a lot.

2)  [In response to my argument that college-bound students – especially those intending college major in STEM fields – should have physics in high school] How does it cost them [if they don’t have a high school physics course]? Do they not know gravity acceleration equation? Is it computational? Or are you referencing concepts they just haven’t heard?

3)  [In response to my assertion that every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major] I think I disagree if its enforced with consequences.

Dear Billy,

These are great questions.  These are the questions that I wish every school board member in Florida would ask.

I could write a book in response.  I hope you’ll forgive me to limiting myself to an extended blog post – I have to go back to my day job tomorrow.

I’ll start with your question that I listed as #1 above.

The class that I was teaching this afternoon – and of which Caleb whose picture I tweeted is a member – is a second semester course in physics for students who are majoring in engineering, chemistry, physics, computer science and Earth sciences (like meteorology and geology).  I sometimes have a few life science majors as well, but engineers (and the other majors on the list) need to learn to use calculus to do physics.  Life science majors do not, so they generally take a course that does not use calculus.  As a result, the physics I am teaching them is considered by the faculty in their disciplines to be essential to their professions (which is why those faculty members set physics as a requirement).

Having said that, our overarching goal in our hands-on studio physics program is to broaden the opportunities for students to enter these fields.  Relatively few students learn well in a lecture course.  Of course, I did – I earned a Ph.D. in physics.  Others who have entered professions like engineering and the physical sciences in the past managed to survive lecture classes.  But we lost many people who could have been valuable engineers and scientists because we refused to teach how decades of research on how students learn have told us is best – in a hands-on environment in which we harness social interactions among students and between students and instructors to dramatically improve learning gains.

Class Panorama

One of FSU’s three studio science classrooms.


Yes that means we do pre-testing and post-testing to see how well our learning environment is working.  And here is the result:  For many topics, our learning gains are double what they are in the lecture classes.  As an education policy-maker, you recognize that doubling learning is nearly unheard of.  But that’s what happens.

I have to be a little careful in describing our work in this regard:  I am just a nuclear physicist, and not a physics education researcher.  Our classroom environment was originally developed by physics education researchers at North Carolina State University.  The design has been adopted at about 300 postsecondary institutions, including FSU.  Our learning gains are typical of those achieved using this instructional model

We were only able to implement this model here because of tremendous support (now something north of a half million dollars over a decade) from FSU’s administration.

So students have the best opportunity to learn physics with deep understanding in our learning environment.  That means they are more likely to be able to apply those basic science concepts when they are professionals in their applied fields – and that means they have greater innovation potential.

In addition, our students work in groups of three and learn something about working in teams.  We are able to monitor the social interactions of underrepresented groups in our classroom – including both members of minorities and women in general (who only earn about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in engineering, physics and computer science) – to make sure they have the best opportunities to learn.  And we do intervene when we become aware of a situation that requires it.

So I’ll leave it to you to decide on the basis of that description whether I qualify as an “equipper with useful skills”.

But a “weeder outer”?  I tell my students at the beginning of every new year that I would be thrilled if I could justify giving every one of them a grade of “A”.  But it has never worked out.  By assigning a grade to a student, I am specifying her or his understanding of the physics I have asked the student to learn.  The faculties in the various disciplines are asking me to certify that students have learned some physics.  If a student doesn’t learn what I understand she or he needs to go forward, then I have an obligation to give the student a D or F at the end of the semester.  So I guess I’m a “weeder outer”, because every semester there are students to whom I give those D or F grades.

There is a body of research on how skills developed in STEM subjects carry over into non-STEM fields.  But to provide a quick summary I’ll do what my wife tells me I should never do:  Talk about my kids.  None are scientists.  The oldest is a fifth-year associate attorney at the DC office of a big firm. In meetings, she is generally the only one in the room who can calculate or talk with engineers.  That matters.  The middle child is an architect.  It turns out you need to take physics and calculus in college to go on to graduate school in architecture.  The youngest is just about to graduate from college with a double major in economics and physics (just like Elon Musk).  He is also going to law school.

On the second question:

Students should benefit from taking a physics course in high school two ways.

First, they should get a head start on learning about motion, forces and energy.  A conceptual – or intuitive – understanding is more important than memorizing equations.  The pretests that I and my studio physics colleagues use are entirely conceptual – and they are a much better assessment of a student’s content head start than a quantitative pretest would be.  We teach our students to try to understand any physical situation conceptually before rolling out an equation – that’s the way scientists do science.

Second, a good high school physics course gives a student a head start on learning the habits of mind we are trying to develop, such as the habit of trying to understand a situation before trying a calculation.  Our experience is that only a good high school physics course gives a student a head start on that – not a biology course and not a chemistry course and not even a bad physics course.

The very best high school physics curriculum now available is the relatively new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses.  AP Physics 1 is designed to be a first high school physics class – replacing the traditional Honors Physics class.  The course coaxes teachers toward a hands-on approach that emphasizes the building of conceptual understanding along with quantitative competence.  There have been growing pains as many teachers have had to change their traditional lecture-based practices to hands-on.  But I can see the positive impacts of the new AP courses in the pretesting results and habits of mind of my students who have taken those courses.

For the third question:

I used to believe in making policy at the state or local level to nudge students into taking higher level math and science courses (chemistry, physics, precalculus, calculus) in high school.  I have given up on that because there is now plenty of evidence that it doesn’t work.  Florida’s SB 4, which was signed into law in 2010 and would have required Algebra 2 and “chemistry or physics” for graduation, was repealed before it ever went into effect.  More dramatically, the Texas “4×4” graduation plan basically required every student to take Algebra 2 and physics.  And the thing is that it worked for a decade:  Graduation rates and mathematics achievement went up.  What’s not to like?  But it was repealed in 2013, anyway.  Parents, employers and teachers had never bought in, even with all of the success.

So now my personal focus is reaching out to teachers, counselors, administrators and parents – and especially parents.  If parents don’t believe their kids need calculus and physics, then it’s very unlikely that their kids are going to take those courses.

Of course, it’s hard to mass produce this sort of outreach.  So these days I focus my efforts on Bay County, a district of 28,000 students which is about 100 miles to the west of my home in Tallahassee.  I’ve spent evenings with parents, summer evenings and school day afternoons with teachers.  We hold Future Physicists of Florida award ceremonies for middle school students who have shown some aptitude in math and science (and by some – I mean probably the top quarter – the kids who are taking Algebra 1 in middle school).  This gives us a chance to talk with the parents about persevering through the challenging math and science courses in high school.

crowd during susan

The crowd at the 2017 Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony watching while…

susan 1

…FSU Physics Professor Susan Blessing talks about what matter is made of.

During the two years we have been working in Bay District Schools, the number of students taking physics in high school has tripled.

But wait, there’s more.

At one Bay County high school in particular, Mosley High School, I was asked by the counselors to meet with parents on a regular basis.  I use a brief power point, and then we have a wide-ranging discussion in which parents ask questions about college and careers and I try to answer what I can and the counselors – who are really the visionaries driving this process – bail me out frequently.  Last Thursday night, the post-talk discussion went on for more than an hour.

Here is a brief version of what I tell them:




Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major including these, which are the top 25 undergraduate college majors ranked by salary.  Seventeen have the word “engineering” in them.  Physics is in there.  So is computer science.


The American Society for Engineering Education says that to be properly prepared for a college major in engineering, a high school student should take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in high school.


A student considering a health profession should also take these courses in high school.  Example:  Half the biology majors at FSU took physics in high school.  The grade in your daughter’s or son’s college physics class is going right onto the medical school application.  Which half of the college physics class do you want your son or daughter to be in?  The half that took a high school physics class or the half that didn’t?


Even a bachelor of science degree in computer science requires a strong background in math and science.  


So for your daughter or son to keep all career options open, she or he should take chemistry, physics and upper level math in high school.

Has this pitch to parents been working at Mosley?  Take a look at the school’s enrollment numbers for chemistry, physics and calculus below.  The answer is clearly yes, although there is more work to do.


Billy, that’s probably way too much information.

But if you have more questions, let me know.





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1 Response to A letter to Polk School Board member Billy Townsend: What do high school students have to gain from having a strong science and math background, and how do we steer them into it?

  1. Pingback: What is Algebra? And is it memorable and useful enough to justify doing lasting harm to kids’ lives over it? | Billy Townsend

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