During the next few months, a few thousand fortunate high school seniors and their parents will be deciding whether to attend Florida State University or the University of Florida to prepare for careers in science, engineering or health professions.
While making those decisions, they should pay careful attention to the starkly different visions the two universities have for the future of science instruction.
For a decade, FSU’s administration has supported the development of their Physics Department’s Studio Physics Program, in which students build relationships with each other and with instructors in a physical classroom designed especially to encourage engagement. Many years of research on how students learn show that leveraging social interactions in this way dramatically improves student learning and opens career opportunities to students who might not be able to learn with understanding in a traditional lecture course.
In contrast, UF is staking its future on online instruction. In fact, UF’s Physics Department is now featuring its online laboratories – apparently intended to allow its students to avoid the inconvenience of coming to physical laboratory classes and talking face-to-face with other students or instructors.
While FSU’s Studio Physics initiative focuses on improving student learning using an approach proven by research, UF’s online approach will magnify the shortcomings of the traditional lecture course by further isolating students and narrowing the population that can succeed in earning bachelors’ degrees in engineering, science and health fields.
Students and parents should pay close attention to these developments. Most Florida parents and students reflexively believe that students get a better education in science, engineering and health fields at UF. But FSU has made tremendous strides in STEM education recently. In 2016, a national task force recognized FSU’s Physics Department as one of five model undergraduate programs in the nation – and one of only two at major research universities. That distinction was based in large part on the department’s focus on personally engaging students.
FSU is also making important strides in improving the education of students in other engineering, science and health fields.
Students – and particularly parents – should take a careful look at what each institution is emphasizing. Don’t just settle for generic admissions tours. Ask about the classroom environments in which students learn science. Ask about how to access undergraduate research opportunities.
Even in science, engineering and health fields, student engagement matters. Students and parents should keep that in mind as they decide on their next steps.