We all want students from all backgrounds to have the opportunity to succeed in college majors in engineering and the physical sciences. But whose responsibility is it to make that possible?

Everybody wants students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences to have the opportunity to succeed in college majors like engineering and the physical sciences.

But whose responsibility is it to make it so?

It’s mine. My colleagues in university physics, engineering, math and other departments also have a share of the responsibility.

But it’s also the responsibility of high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs.

And parents.

I have two responsibilities, one of which I share with my university-level colleagues and another that most of my colleagues cannot and will not share.

The responsibility my colleagues share with me is to adopt teaching practices that provide the best chance for every student majoring in engineering or the physical sciences (or computer science or biology) who walks through the door of our classrooms to learn physics with the understanding required to be an innovative engineer or successful scientist.

I do that by teaching my introductory physics classes in the SCALE-UP format developed at North Carolina State University. At FSU, we call our SCALE-UP classes the Studio Physics Program. FSU has provided the tools necessary (the classroom spaces purpose-built for collaborative learning experiences and the hands-on lab equipment necessary to supply those experiences) to provide that instruction for the university’s students. In the Studio Physics Program’s 11 years of existence, we have demonstrated through careful assessment of student learning and through the experiences we’ve had with students that the program has “worked” to dramatically improve student learning over traditional lecture models. We have given probably 2,500 students this superior learning experience and the deeper science understanding that enables engineers and scientists to have higher innovation potential.

One of FSU’s three SCALE-UP classrooms for learning physics.

I’ll get back to my second responsibility later.

But before that I’ll discuss the responsibility that high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs and parents have – giving their students who are considering engineering and physical science careers the best possible opportunity to succeed in those majors in college.

The formula for providing the best opportunity to succeed in engineering and physics majors in college is simple enough in principle – take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in high school. That’s what the American Society for Engineering Education says. And it’s common sense. There is also a growing body of research that backs that statement up. I list three research references below, just in case a reader is interested.

Everybody knows somebody who earned a degree in engineering or physics who didn’t take either calculus or physics in high school. I know lots of them because they have succeeded in my classroom despite their underpreparation in high school. But many more underprepared students who arrive in my classroom (which is the best possible learning environment for underprepared students) struggle or even fail. On the average, a student without a high school physics course earns a full letter grade lower than one who took physics in high school. Altogether, one-third of my students have not had a high school physics class – so my sample size of underprepared students is really big.

[It’s worth inserting here that the University of Florida doesn’t even allow students without a high school physics course to take their version of the course I teach until they take a one-semester online course first. This is likely a particular problem for low income students who are hurt the most by the additional semester of college this requires.]

At present, my biggest point of frustration is this: Some high schools offer their students “engineering academies” that consist of specialized engineering courses but do not require students in those academies to take physics or calculus (or even precalculus). The administrators and teachers in those schools tell their engineering academy students that they are well-prepared to major in engineering in college. And of course that statement is dishonest. I once publicly called out a district school superintendent who said during a public school board meeting that I (yes, she used my name) should be told that her engineering academy students don’t have time in their schedules to take calculus and physics.

The metric for the success of a high school engineering academy should be how many of its students complete physics and calculus courses. And an engineering academy whose students mostly do not take physics and calculus should be shut down. An engineering academy in a high school that doesn’t offer physics and/or calculus should also be shut down, and the teaching positions used for the engineering academy should be repurposed to teaching physics and calculus.

Now that I have that out of the way, what’s my second responsibility that I was talking about above? It’s to make sure that high school principals, teachers and counselors, and district school board members, superintendents and their staffs and parents know that high school courses in chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) are important for giving students the best chance to succeed in college engineering and physics majors.

The audience at a Future Physicists of Florida ceremony to honor middle school students who have demonstrated math and science ability. The ceremony was held at the Panama City campus of FSU in November of 2017. This event is used to inform parents about the courses their students should take in high school to be well-prepared for college majors in fields like engineering and physics.

I’ll talk with almost any Florida audience that invites me – even when the probability of success is low. I’ve been involved in some successes – Bay County high school physics enrollments have increased by a factor of five over the last four years. But mostly Florida is going backwards. High school physics enrollments in Florida are down 12% over the last four years. In the fall of 2018 there were 36 Florida public high schools with 1,000 or more students that didn’t offer physics – and some of them housed engineering academies. Florida enrollments in AP math and science courses are only average for the nation despite the financial incentives to schools and teachers that make the state a national leader in AP social science classes. The state has a booming dual enrollment program, but the dual enrollment credits in math are concentrated in courses like College Algebra that cover topics traditionally covered in high school courses. There are few students dual enrolled in physics courses.

Despite the overall lack of progress, I feel an obligation to keep trying. Perhaps I can convince others to do the same.

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller with a poster illustrating the importance of high school math and science courses in preparing for college engineering majors at a school board meeting I addressed on July 23. (And yes, the name plate belongs to another board member who did not attend the meeting.)

Three articles about research on high school preparation for college engineering and physical science majors:

“Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Pathways: High School Science and Math Coursework and Postsecondary Degree Attainment”, Will Tyson et al., Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, Vol. 12, No. 3, pgs. 243-270 (2007). [Summarized in “Preparing Your Students for Careers in Science and Engineering: How Is Your State Doing?, Susan White and Paul Cottle, The Physics Teacher 49, 418 (2011).]

“The Two High-School Pillars Supporting College Science”, Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai, Science,Vol. 317, Issue 5837, pp. 457-458 (2007).

“Demographic gaps or preparation gaps?: The large impact of incoming preparation on performance of students in introductory physics”, Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15, 020114 (2019).

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