As the new school year begins, where are Florida’s bright spots for STEM career preparation?

It would be easy for me to dwell on Florida’s declining interest in the high school science necessary to prepare for college majors in fields like engineering, chemistry, meteorology, computer science and physics and even health professions. Enrollments in high school chemistry and physics courses are declining in the state. Last year, there were 31 public high schools each housing 1,000 or more students that didn’t even offer physics. That number is increasing.

But readers generally like good news better than bad, and I want to hang on to both of my regular readers. Also, sharing good news is better for my health than moaning about bad news.

So as my back-to-school offering, I share here my Florida STEM career preparation bright spots heading into the 2018-19 school year.  I am going to turn this into a page on this blog, so if you have any bright spots I should add, let me know.

Seminole County: Seminole County has been Florida’s STEM career prep superpower ever since I started tracking enrollment rates in the key high school courses – precalculus, calculus, chemistry and physics. A high powered academic environment likes Seminole’s doesn’t maintain itself. It takes sustained effort and collaboration at all levels from the Superintendent to school leadership to teachers to parents. (Or maybe instead I should say “from parents to teachers to school leadership to the Superintendent”). At the beginning of every semester, I ask my own physics students at FSU where they went to high school. Whenever a student shares that she or he came from a Seminole County high school, I have 100% confidence that student is as well prepared as possible. And I haven’t been disappointed yet. That’s how good Seminole County is.

Brevard County: Year after year, Brevard County has maintained Florida’s highest high school physics enrollment rate – higher even than that of Massachusetts. Perhaps this should be expected. After all, Brevard is the home of the Kennedy Space Center. Yet it is never that easy, and as in the case of Seminole it takes a sustained effort by parents, teachers, school leaders and district leaders to make that happen. Brevard falls short of Seminole’s course-taking rates in higher level math, perhaps in part because of Seminole’s district-wide policy that every student take a math course every year. But Brevard is clearly in the runner-up position in the ranking of Florida’s top STEM career prep districts.

Bay County: If you simply look at last year’s STEM career prep rankings, Bay County seems average. But if I calculated a rate of change, Bay County would have a large positive number. In 2015-16, the district had the lowest physics enrollment rate of any non-rural district in Florida, with 100 physics students (the district enrolls about 28,000 students overall). In 2017-18, that number had grown to 270. Preliminary information I have indicates that the district will have about 500 physics students this fall. If that is indeed the case, it will likely push the district into Florida’s top ten for physics enrollment rate. And it’s not just that the district has more physics students – it’s the way it has gotten there, which is a story for another day (although you can see part of it here).

Orange County: Orange County’s Calculus Project, which recruits rising 7th graders from disadvantaged backgrounds into Algebra 1 classes and thus sets those students on the path to STEM careers at the bachelor’s degree level or above, is the state’s most important STEM recruiting initiative. Period. They rank 2nd in the state for middle school Algebra 1, both for all students and for black students. They are trailing only Collier County (which is next in this list).  In addition, Orange County has decided to take control of its math/science teacher recruiting process by working with “content” departments (like the UCF Physics Department and the FSU Physics Department) directly.  It’s paying off for them.

Collier County: Collier is ranked first in the state for middle school Algebra 1, both for all students and for black students. Collier’s enrollment rates in high school chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus have historically been fairly weak, but the district’s astonishing success in middle school Algebra 1 may indicate that Collier’s STEM pipeline is about to experience a surge.

Marathon Middle High School: Monroe County’s lowest income high school is also its strongest in physics. In fact, this small school (100 or fewer students per grade) last year had what was perhaps Florida’s highest physics enrollment rate for a school that was not a STEM-oriented charter – 97 physics enrollments (summed over all grades) per 100 12th graders. There is only one reason this has happened – Marathon’s fabulous physics teacher, Mr. Hayes.

Orlando Science Middle/High School: This is the STEM-oriented charter I was referring to above. The folks at OSS are doing everything right, including bringing in students from the nearby impoverished Pine Hills neighborhood. They also have spectacular national-level victories in math and science competitions.

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The crowd of students and parents attending the 2017 Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony on FSU’s Panama City campus on November 27, 2017.  FSU Physics Professor Susan Blessing (below) was the ceremony’s scientific keynote speaker.

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