How should college physics professors respond to the disruption of the STEM pipeline caused by the pandemic?

Years before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the introductory science courses that college students majoring in engineering and the physical and life sciences take early in their undergraduate years were identified as a point in the STEM career pipeline where many students were lost. Consider this from the 2012 report “Engage to Excel” from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology:

The reasons students give for abandoning STEM majors point to the retention strategies that are needed. For example, high-performing students frequently cite uninspiring introductory courses as a factor in their choice to switch majors. And low-performing students with a high interest and aptitude in STEM careers often have difficulty with the math required in introductory STEM courses with little help provided by their universities. Moreover, many students, and particularly members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields, cite an unwelcoming atmosphere from faculty in STEM courses as a reason for their departure.

Of course, math background isn’t the only stumbling block for students in introductory college science courses. A recent study by physics education researchers at Stanford, Cornell and the University of Colorado demonstrated that a lack of high school physics preparation – as documented by poor pre-test scores on physics concept inventories – is correlated with poor performance in the calculus-based introductory physics courses taken by students majoring in engineering and the physical sciences. And that’s at Stanford, Cornell and the University of Colorado.

Meanwhile, here in Florida the physics-taking rate at the state’s public high schools in Fall 2019 was less than half the national rate. One out of every eight of the state’s large (more than 1,000 students) public high schools didn’t even teach physics in the school year that just ended. One-third of the students starting my first-semester calculus-based course each fall for the past several years had not taken a high school course, and those students earned on the average a letter grade lower than students who had taken high school physics. Of course, there were several students every fall who performed very well even though they hadn’t had a high school physics course. But most students without high school physics performed poorly.

The University of Florida’s Physics Department has taken a different approach to this issue than the state’s other public universities. The department lists high school physics as a prerequisite for its calculus-based introductory physics course. For students without high school physics, the department advises taking an additional online physics course they offer before entering calculus-based physics. That additional course can extend the length of a bachelor’s degree program by a semester.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of underprepared students entering college majors in engineering and the physical sciences is about to get much worse. Public school budgets will be gutted, and those schools will focus their remaining resources on what state law says should be the highest priorities – coaching students to passing scores on state reading and math exams and graduating from high school. At schools where physics enrollments were already low, the subject will likely fall out of the list of course offerings as schools redeploy science teachers remaining after layoffs to the required biology classes and other straightforward science electives needed to ensure students meet the three-science-course graduation requirement. Demoralized parents and students will not be looking for additional challenges, and principals and guidance counselors who were mostly already reluctant to advise students to take elective courses outside their comfort zones are not going to push students toward physics. The situation will be the same for math and calculus.

Meanwhile, a few Florida school districts will continue to be STEM fortresses because of their deep cultural commitment to those fields. But they will become increasingly exceptional.

In the past, one-third of my first-semester students didn’t have a high school physics course. In the future, it will be double that – two-thirds.

Many more students who could make fine engineers but who attend high schools where no physics is taught will be deterred from majoring in engineering, physics, meteorology or chemistry in college because they know they would be unprepared for those majors.

So what can college physics professors do?

Let’s start by considering the students without high school physics who will be the majority of students in our calculus-based physics classes by the fall of 2021 (except at the University of Florida – but I’ll get back to that). One option is to keep racing through the full menu of topics for the sake of maintaining the same rigor we have always had. If you choose that option, there will be twice as many students in your class without high school physics, so it is likely that your failure rate will be twice as high as it was previously.

If you find that first option unacceptable, you could prioritize the topics taught in the standard first semester class. For example, you could decide to spend a second week on the conservation of energy in a gravitational field so that you can start with one-dimensional problems in week one and move onto two-dimensional problems in the second week – an approach that we’ve shown is effective in improving student understanding of conservation of energy. Of course, you’d have to give something up to do that. What about giving up the Week of Memorizing Lots of Disconnected Fluids Equations to make room for the expanded conservation of energy unit?

Here’s some really bad news: Lots of students in your first-semester calculus-based physics class who haven’t had a high school physics class need work on the basics of vector addition, subtraction and components. If you spend some time coaxing students through vector practice, they will likely learn their physics with greater understanding later on. But once again, you’d have to give up something else to make room for that.

By now, I’ve lost half my readers – and they probably grumbled something about lowering the bar as they were hitting the little “x” on the browser tab.

For those of you remaining, let’s think about that second group of students – the ones who would make perfectly good engineers and scientists but who are deterred from those choices because they know that they need a high school physics course to be well-prepared. What can we do for them? That’s a tougher problem in a way. We can’t teach them high school physics because we already have full-time jobs. Or maybe a few of us can find a way to do that, anyway. After all, our department chairs should understand by now that we are going to have to work harder than before to recruit students into our undergraduate programs. Perhaps they are willing to invest some or all of your teaching assignment in that task through the dual enrollment route. Maybe. If they are particularly enlightened.

Now I’ll return to the other way of attacking the problem – what we might call the Gator Way. That is, to require students without a high school physics class to extend their undergraduate education by a semester to take a high school physics substitute course. At the University of Florida, everybody is on a Bright Futures scholarship that covers 100% of tuition, so what difference does it make? Extending a student’s undergraduate education makes a ton of difference. Because being in residence at a university is an expensive proposition, and as of today there are many, many more students whose families are in financial distress than there were even three months ago.

Florida has changed in fundamental ways during the last few months. The economic dislocation affecting our students’ families is profound, and ignoring that in making instructional decisions is counterproductive – and cruel.

College professors are going to have to roll up their sleeves and figure out how to give the state’s students the best possible opportunities to succeed in their fields. In engineering and the physical sciences, we will have the toughest task of all.

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