About one-third of the students who arrive in my introductory physics classes did not take physics in high school and thus are at considerably higher risk for failure than well-prepared students who did take high school physics. These higher-risk students aspire to be engineers, physical scientists, computer scientists and health professionals. If they do fail, their loss from the STEM pipeline is costly for society.
So what should be done to fix this situation?
I talk with middle and high school students and their parents – at least when I’m given the opportunity by their teachers, counselors and administrators – and plead with them to take chemistry, physics and precalculus (or better yet calculus). I write in newspapers (an example from the Orlando Sentinel is here, and one from the Tallahassee Democrat is here) and in this blog. I’ve even provided information to school board members and other education advocates when I’ve been asked to.
But our colleagues at the University of Florida have a different approach. In their official description of the same course I teach at FSU, they list a high school physics course as a prerequisite. That is, if you haven’t taken physics in high school, you are presumably not allowed into the first physics course that students majoring in engineering, the physical sciences and computer science must take. Here is the statement from this semester’s syllabus at UF:
The UF physics faculty has no way of enforcing the high school physics prerequisite. As a result, the only purpose this statement serves is to allow the faculty to wash its hands of the failure of underprepared students.
A week or so ago, I tweeted the UF syllabus statement out. I expected broad-based condemnation for the statement from my “followers” (that is, those who are patient enough with me to read my brief musings). But what I got was quite different. Many high school physics teachers – and the group represented many different states – embraced the statement enthusiastically, saying it finally showed students/parents/counselors/administrators that physics really is important for high school students.
It’s not as if the same sentiment hasn’t been expressed authoritatively before. The American Association for Engineering Education makes it quite clear that physics is important preparation for a college engineering major.
But something about the UF syllabus statement struck a nerve with high school physics teachers.
I asked via a tweet whether FSU should adopt a high school physics “prerequisite” like UF’s, even if it is unenforceable. The high school physics teachers who had been excited about the UF statement didn’t respond to my question about adopting the same statement at FSU.
Of course, the right answer is to fix the problem of underpreparation. Every college-bound high school student in Florida should be prepared to choose any major – and that means taking chemistry, physics and at least precalculus (and preferably calculus) in high school.
But high school students in Florida take physics at a rate only about half of that of the rest of the nation. That is, the problem of underpreparation is much worse in Florida than it is in many other states. And fixing this problem seems intractable, particularly since physics enrollments in Florida high schools are actually declining (by 8% over the last three years).
The UF Physics faculty has simply given up and instead says clearly that they have no interest in underprepared students.
Here at FSU, we have not done so – we let every student who has the Calculus 1 prerequisite (because it’s a calculus-based physics course) take a shot. But I’ll admit there are days when the UF approach of simply giving up seems to make sense.