To reverse Florida’s decline in high school physics, college and university faculty should step up

Florida was a weak state for high school physics even before enrollments declined 8% over the last three years.

A survey of state departments of education we performed in the summer of 2015 showed that Florida ranked 23rd among the 30 states plus DC that responded to our survey with an enrollment rate (total number of high school physics enrollments divided by the number of 12th graders) about half of the average rate we measured for all thirty-one responding jurisdictions.


If physics is the gateway high school science course for college STEM majors, then this is a serious problem.

Who is responsible for fixing this Florida problem?

I can tell you who is not going to fix it.

The people leading the high schools where physics is considered a luxury specialty for the elite few students aren’t going to fix it.  They are perfectly happy with the way things are.  In fact, I can tell you from personal experience that they can get very upset if you point out that what they are doing is not OK.

The parents in those schools and districts where physics is considered an extra – even for students in engineering academies – aren’t going to fix it.  They don’t know any better.  They don’t know their kids are either at high risk for failure if they declare engineering or a physical science as a college major or are (as at UF) unwelcome in a physics classroom altogether.

Florida’s educational policy-makers are not going to fix it.  Almost a decade ago, they decided that the state’s high school science curriculum should be focused exclusively on biology.  A recent Florida Department of Education Economic Security Report showed that among college majors with large enrollments in the State University System, Biology has the lowest median first-year earnings – even lower than Psychology and English (figure from the report is shown below).  The state’s policy-makers are unmoved.

economic security

So who’s left?

Who’s left is the state’s college and university faculty in physics and other science and technology fields that require physics.  We have to do something about it.

Over the years, I’ve heard lots of excuses from my colleagues at FSU and elsewhere why we can’t or shouldn’t do anything about the problems that high school physics has in Florida or in other states.

One excuse is that the culture of the K-12 schools is vastly different from that of the universities in which we are comfortable.  As an observation, this is valid.  As an excuse, it’s not.  The correct way to respond to this observation is to look for opportunities – K-12 educators and leaders who want to improve the preparation their students are getting for college STEM majors – and then to just ask, “What can I do to help?”

One west coast colleague told me once during a meeting several years ago that our professional society should not assist such efforts because he didn’t have the personality necessary to cooperate with middle and high school teachers.  I would have burst out laughing except that several others in the meeting seemed to be nodding along – they didn’t think they had the necessary personality traits, either, and they figured that was a good enough reason for our professional society to decline to help.

Another colleague from the mid-Atlantic region who was actually very active in K-12 affairs in his state told me that Florida is culturally beyond help and that I am wasting my time.  I responded that giving up on Florida was not an option for me.

Here is another of my favorite excuses:  “I can’t get a grant for that.”  No, you probably can’t.  And never mind, I’ll find someone else to talk with.  (By the way, among the National Science Foundation’s merit review criteria for grant proposals is “broader impacts”, which can include work with the K-12 schools.  And yes, it’s helped me in the review process for nuclear physics grants.)

My own experience with the K-12 world is that I can help in modest ways if I find K-12 educators who really want to do better and collaborate with them.  I think I’m being realistic in saying that there are hundreds of students around the state who are (or were) better prepared for college STEM majors because I helped an educator – teacher, counselor or administrator – with what that educator knew needed to be done.

My batting average with state-level policy advocacy is probably zero, and if I measured my self-worth by that I’d be very discouraged.  But as an educator myself, I know that the extra work I invest in my studio classroom every semester probably really helps perhaps only a few dozen students learn more than they would have in a lecture hall.  That’s the scale of success that I’m accustomed to, so improving the lives of hundreds of kids in the K-12 schools over a period of years seems pretty good – and sufficiently rewarding.

I only wish more of my colleagues felt the same way.

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