Florida’s university physics departments should prepare for a future of increasingly unprepared students

Florida’s university physics departments are responsible for providing students majoring in engineering, sciences, computing and health professions with the scientific background that educational leaders in those fields have decided their students need.

In turn, university physics faculty have relied on high schools to give their students a head start on learning physics.  Nobody believes that a broad population of students can learn the physics that engineering education leaders want their undergraduate majors to know in two short university semesters without a head start.  As the syllabus for the University of Florida’s first course in calculus-based physics says, “Although we start at the beginning of physics, the speed with which we cover the material is often too fast for those who have not seen any of it before.”

But as a decreasing percentage of Florida high school students take a physics course, and an increasing number of large high schools don’t offer physics at all, Florida’s university physics faculty must prepare for a future in which their students are even less prepared than they are now.

How will physics departments do this?

The most responsible way to prepare for an increasingly unprepared student population is to shift to interactive engagement learning environments, like FSU’s Studio Physics Program and UCF’s SCALE-UP program.  Even that doesn’t level the playing field between prepared and unprepared students, but at least it gives instructors a conversation channel with individual students.  And that helps.

Class Panorama

A Studio Physics class at FSU.

Unfortunately, most university physics faculty members in Florida – and even most physics departments – have no interest in interactive engagement pedagogies.  At the University of Florida, where there are no studio-style physics course offerings and even many of the students enrolled in the department’s traditional lecture classes are relegated to attending lectures via computer screen, the syllabus for the first-semester calculus-based course says this:  High school physics is a prerequisite.  And if you haven’t had a high school physics course, you “must” (in so far as it is enforceable) take an online course – PHY 2020 – first.


From the PHY 2048C syllabus at the University of Florida

I recently heard a personal testimonial about UF’s PHY 2020.  It wasn’t pretty, and this course is likely to be a particular barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Furthermore, Florida’s policy-makers seem to have little interest in improving teaching practices at the university level.  After I published an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel arguing that the State University System’s goal should be to expand access to evidence-based teaching practices instead of blindly lurching toward unproven online courses, the Chair of the Board of Governors responded, saying that the State University System will “ensure online programs are of comparable quality to their classroom counterparts.”  I am not aware of a single Physics Education Researcher who believes we are anywhere near achieving an online learning environment that can replicate the quality social interactions among students and between students and instructors that occur in a physical interactive engagement classroom.

I fear that the ultimate resolution of this problem will be that university physics departments decide to lower the bar on learning and make a commitment to low-level didactic physics instruction that can be gamed by “services” like Chegg and which gives stellar results on student evaluations of teaching.  Students are happy because they earn stress-free passing grades.  Faculty are happy because conflicts with students are minimized.  Administrators are happy because students are happy.  Learning gets lost in all of this happiness.  I’ve already seen this happen at one site where an attempt was made to start an interactive engagement program and administrators insisted on abandoning the attempt and returning to a didactic model to drive up student evaluation scores.  It made me ill.

Maybe I have it all wrong.  Maybe Florida’s high school physics enrollment rates will turn upward and our universities will be flooded with well-prepared students.  Maybe my university colleagues around the state will see the light en masse and demand the expansion of evidence-based teaching practices.

But you’ll have to excuse me if I’m skeptical after a decade of unsuccessfully trying to make these things happen.

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