Physics is the high school science course that is the gateway to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. A student who decides to major in engineering, the physical sciences, computer science or the life and health sciences but shows up at college without having taken a high school physics course is at a significant disadvantage. Some students overcome that disadvantage, but many more do not.
As the map above (produced at the University of Texas and presented in a recent commentary by University of Texas-Austin physics professor Michael Marder) shows, Florida has one of the lower high school physics-taking rates in the nation – or at least did during the 2015-16 school year. Since that year, high school physics enrollment in Florida has dropped by about one-tenth – so things are even worse now.
There are some notable pathologies in Florida’s high schools that go beyond the statewide decline of physics. In Fall 2018, 36 high schools of 1,000 or more students didn’t teach physics. There are high school engineering academies in schools that do not teach physics. A school choice advocacy blog recently gushed movingly about a STEM-focused school in South Florida that is populated largely by low-income students. Unfortunately, that school didn’t teach physics last year (we will know whether they are teaching physics this year when the Florida Department of Education releases course enrollment statistics in February 2020). My own university’s lab school isn’t teaching physics.
The experts on what students need to be well-prepared for success as majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computer sciences, and the life and health sciences are the university faculty in those fields. What do they say? The American Society for Engineering Education wants high school students who are considering majoring in engineering to take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus). The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering has produced a very nice poster saying exactly that (and you can see that poster below). In an Orlando Sentinel article on the rise of computer science courses in Florida high schools, the chair of the UCF Computer Science Department said he would prefer if high school students who aspire to major in computer science would take calculus and physics in high school. To be admitted to professional schools in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy, students must take two semesters of physics. And students are likely to perform better in college physics courses (and therefore have stronger grades to put on their applications to professional schools) if they have taken a physics course in high school.
And yet most of Florida is backsliding when it comes to high school physics course-taking – or even providing physics courses in high schools. There are exceptions. Brevard, Seminole and Monroe Counties exceed the national physics enrollment rate. Bay County’s high school physics enrollment grew by a factor of five from 2014-2015 to 2018-2019.
But often there are excuses or just plain contempt for the advice of university faculty to take physics in Florida. In Texas – with a high school physics-taking rate about four times Florida’s – the situation is quite different. Why? There are deep differences in the educational cultures of the two states. Texas has K-12 challenges that are comparable to Florida’s. Yet at the high school level, Texas students are choosing more challenging courses in math and science than Florida students are – including physics.
It is not OK that Florida students are told they are well-prepared for college STEM majors without a high school physics course. Yet it happens all the time. In other states like Texas, teachers, counselors and school and district leaders think differently and give their students different – and better – advice. It’s long past time for Florida to start emulating Texas in this regard.