The correlation between skipping high school physics and college heartbreak: Why a university physics professor cares about what happens in high school.

This week, I posted some depressing numbers about high school physics in Florida (statewide high school physics enrollments are down 16% over five years, and 45 public high schools of 1,000 or more students don’t teach physics).

What I didn’t do this week is tell my readers (and there were many of them this week – at least by my standards) why I care about this issue. I’m writing today to share with my readers why this is deeply personal for me.

I am a professor of physics at Florida State University, where I’ve been on the faculty for 33 years. I teach physics to students who have decided to pursue college majors – and careers – in fields like engineering, computer science, meteorology, chemistry and (of course) physics. Intellectually, all of these fields are built on a foundation of physics, of course. But more practically, students in these majors are required to succeed in calculus-based physics classes like the ones I teach.

About fifteen years ago, I took a careful look at how to give students the best possible opportunity to learn with understanding in our introductory physics classes. I settled on the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University because it provided the best active learning environment that was financially viable at an institution like mine. The SCALE-UP model provides better learning opportunities for all students, but research indicates that it is especially valuable for students who are members of groups that are underrepresented in the fields represented in my classroom, including black students and women. During the 2016-17 academic year, black students earned only 6.3% of the bachelors’ degrees in engineering, only 10.6% of the bachelors’ degrees in computing, and only 4.0% of the bachelors’ degrees in physics awarded at Florida’s public universities – even though 22% of the students in the state’s K-12 public schools are black. Women earned only 20.3% of the engineering bachelors’ degrees, only 17.4% of the computing bachelors’ degrees and only 21.8% of the physics bachelors’ degrees awarded in the state’s university system. (Source: IPEDS)

I worked with colleagues and the FSU administration to implement the SCALE-UP model in our physics department by building classrooms in the distinctive SCALE-UP design and providing the appropriate experimental equipment. We branded our implementation of SCALE-UP as the Studio Physics Program, and now each semester about 250 students choose the Studio Physics option for their introductory physics classes over the department’s other options, which until recently were traditional lecture classes. However, in the last few years even our lecture classes have adopted elements of the Studio Physics model. As a result, nearly all of our students are learning better than they would have in traditional learning environments.

The Studio Physics learning environment brings a professor into closer physical proximity with students. So a professor teaching in such an environment generally builds more personal relationships with her or his students than she or he would have in a lecture hall – and learns more about the obstacles students are encountering in learning physics.

Above and below – scenes from a Studio Physics classroom.

One of the things that I learned was that some of my students hadn’t taken a physics course in high school. In fact, when I started formally surveying my students at the beginning of each semester, I learned that the number of my students who hadn’t taken a high school physics was larger than I realized. Recently, it has been one-third of my students. Among a group of students majoring in engineering, computer science, chemistry, meteorology and physics, that should be a shocking statistic.

In my first-semester classroom, a student who didn’t take a high school physics course earns a final grade that is, on the average, about one letter grade below those who did take a high school course in the subject. Research on the correlation between high school course-taking and success in college science classes finds that my experience is typical for the nation. There are always a few students who didn’t take high school physics who sail through near the top of my class. But most students without a high school physics course cluster near the bottom of my grade distribution, and some don’t earn grades high enough to continue on with their intended majors, like engineering. It is painful to watch at close personal range a student who desperately wants a career in a field like engineering but is unable to attain it because of decisions that were made by those who were responsible for guiding that student in high school. It is even more painful to be that student.

If you have concluded from this discussion of the experiences of students in my class who haven’t had high school physics that there is something wrong with me*, then consider this: High school physics is listed as a prerequisite for the equivalent of my class at the University of Florida. If you don’t have a high school physics class, you are advised to take an additional introduction-to-introductory-physics course – which is only taught online and which lengthens a student’s time-to-degree by a full semester. How would that work for your students from disadvantaged backgrounds?

I’ve heard some remarkable excuses from adults working at school districts and high schools for their students arriving in my classroom without a high school physics class. One said that students at her district’s engineering academies don’t have time in their schedules for physics and calculus (calculus, along with physics and chemistry, are recommended for high school students considering college engineering majors by the American Society for Engineering Education). “That high school engineering design course is a suitable substitute for a high school physics class” was said by no college professor ever. A school board member in a different district said that providing physics and calculus courses for students in her district who might want to major in STEM fields is not in her district’s mission. Ponder that: “Preparing our district’s students to succeed in the college majors of their choice is not part of our mission.”

Our Studio Physics Program offered its first classes in 2008, just as I was completing my service on the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards. So I was immersed in education politics at the same time I was getting to know my students and their struggles in a new way. It was a powerfully motivating combination.

I’ve been involved in helping a few Florida school districts look for ways to better prepare their students for college STEM majors, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that everybody at all levels – parents, teachers, school administrators, district leadership – must be on the same page to make any progress. Such an alignment is very difficult to achieve, so I’ve seen only few victories. Bay County’s high school physics enrollment has increased by about a factor of five since the 2015-16 school year – and that’s even with the devastation of Hurricane Michael. Speaking of hurricanes, Monroe County improved as well, even with a direct hit from Hurricane Irma (although their improvement coincided with – and apparently benefited from – the end of my efforts there). Seminole County is remarkable for its sustained excellence, and now they are beginning a new effort (the Physics Bus!) to improve to an even higher level.

A Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony for Bay County middle school students – part of that district’s successful effort to improve the preparation of their students for college STEM majors.

But overall, Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate is about half the national rate and declining from there. I expect the percentage of students who arrive in my own classroom without the proper preparation – a high school physics class – to continue to grow. That means the heartbreak in my classroom will grow as well. I’m not looking forward to it.

*There is a lot wrong with me. Just not this.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Seminole County’s Physics Bus.
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