I probably take my teaching of students majoring in engineering, the physical sciences and computing in a studio-style physics classroom at Florida State University too personally.
During a recent meeting, I finally became exasperated that my students were being discussed as faceless research subjects, and I blurted out, “These students are my children!” – a description that would horrify at least some of them.
But that (perhaps too intense) attitude profoundly affects the work that I do reaching out to middle and high school students, parents, teachers and leaders. When I look around my classroom and talk and work with my students, I see things that I want to be changed from the way they are now, like these:
I want all of my students to arrive in my classroom on the first day of class having the best possible chance to succeed. And that means having a year-long hands-on physics class in high school. In recent years, one-third of my students haven’t had a high school physics class at all – and on the average those underprepared students earn grades that are one full letter grade below those who have taken a high school physics class. That’s even true in my classroom, where the curriculum is built around the research about how the broadest population of students learns physics best.
I want the numbers of low-income students, first-generation students, students of color and women in my classroom to reflect the state in which I live and work. In Florida’s K-12 schools, about 60% of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. My students are considerably more affluent than that. I have a large number of Hispanic students in my class, which is a good thing. In Florida’s public K-12 schools, 33% of students are Hispanic, so that’s the way it should be. But I have very few black students, and that is not the way it should be since 22% of our state’s public K-12 students are black. Only about one-third of my students are women. I am aware of obstacles to young women in the fields represented in my classroom (engineering, computer science, physics) at the K-12 and college levels that should be cleared away. If we did so, I believe that half the students in my classroom would be women.
Whenever I’m allowed to talk with a group of parents, teachers, counselors or school or district leaders, I talk about how important it is for every high school student bound for a four-year college to take the courses necessary to be well-prepared for college STEM majors – chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least pre-calculus).
I also do whatever I can to encourage schools and school districts that are making investments of resources and effort in helping K-12 students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into the STEM career pipeline. Orange County’s Calculus Project is still my favorite example. It recruits low income 6th graders with average scores on Florida’s math exam into Algebra 1 in 7th grade and then provides both a summer math boot camp and after-school tutoring help to boost the chances these students have to succeed. It’s a model that many more school districts in Florida should adopt.
What I don’t care about is which sector – traditional district, charter or private – my students come from. I am happy with schools that send me well-prepared students, and I’ve been known to grumble in public about schools that send their students to FSU without proper preparation. If you corner me in my office and insist that I talk about how well individual high schools are doing (or not doing) in preparing students for college majors in engineering, the physical sciences and computer science, I’ll be glad to share. If you want to know what I think about your school or district and what I think you could do better, I’ll be glad to talk about that, too.
But unless the teachers and leaders at a school or district prioritize giving all of their students the best possible access to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers, there will not be any progress in doing so. And I will not be seeing well-prepared students from there in my classroom anytime soon.