My name is Paul Cottle, and I have been on the faculty of the Florida State University Department of Physics since 1986. I grew up in Connecticut and earned my Ph.D. in physics at Yale the same year I joined the FSU faculty.
But more importantly, I care about the future of the young people who are growing up in my adopted state, Florida. I want as many of them as possible to have the opportunity to enter the 21st century’s most robust careers – those in engineering, science and computing.
Unfortunately, Florida has not traditionally been strong in preparing its students in the math and science skills they need to be prepared for college majors in engineering, science and computing. There are signs of improvement, especially at the elementary school level where the state’s students scored at the national average or above on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and science assessments.
Yet at the middle and high school levels, there are alarm bells about math and science achievement in Florida. The state’s performance on the 2015 NAEP 8th grade math test was awful, and the state slid downward in the national rankings. The rate at which Florida high school students take physics is just a little more than half of the national rate. And there is plenty more bad news where that came from.
But there are islands of math and science excellence in Florida. Seminole County has been Florida’s math and science superpower for years, and if some giant hand took the county and dropped it into Massachusetts (the nation’s educational superpower) Seminole County students would be able to hold their own. (But they would need new winter coats)
Furthermore, there are local efforts to improve that are working. Orange County’s Calculus Project is doing an incredible job at coaxing a diverse group of rising 7th graders into Algebra 1 so that they can complete two years of calculus in high school and have a running start into college majors in engineering, physics and computer science.
In Bridge to Tomorrow, I try to tell the success stories and point out the state’s weaknesses using anecdotes from my own experiences and data from sources like the exemplary public information folks at the Florida Department of Education – about the best I can do as a hobbyist blogger. I am in awe of Florida’s best education journalists. In return, several have encouraged me since I started this blog in 2009. I also receive encouragement from other unexpected directions. If you ever meet me in person, ask me about this and I’ll share some of these stories.
Occasionally, this hobby spills over into the real media. I am occasionally quoted in a newspaper or other outlet, and I have published many op-eds over the years – mostly in the Tallahassee Democrat.
I am engaged in efforts to improve access to engineering, science and computing careers in several ways. The one that is part of my day job is FSU’s Studio Physics Program, in which almost a decade ago a small group of physics faculty adopted the SCALE-UP classroom architecture and pedagogy developed at North Carolina State University for students at FSU. On some topics, our students learn about twice what students in traditional lecture classes do (we measure student learning gains every semester). The program now serves about 250 students each semester.
I am also the “founder” of a program called Future Physicists of Florida that recognizes middle school students that have demonstrated some mathematical ability (roughly the top third of middle school students) and encourages them (and their parents) to persevere through the high school math and science courses that open the doors of opportunity to engineering, computer science and physics careers. Last year, we recognized about 400 students in ceremonies held in Bay County, the Florida Keys and Tallahassee. One of the most rewarding aspects of this work has been to get to know the educators and students at Orlando Science School.
I am even more deeply involved with a small group of physics teachers, counselors, and school and district administrators in Bay County, Florida. Over the last year, we doubled the number of students taking physics in the district. This effort has also demonstrated the importance and effectiveness of parent outreach and highly specialized professional development. While this work has not been part of my day job, FSU has supported this activity generously.
Most of my activism for K-12 math and science began in 2007 when I was appointed (against my will, by the way – another nice story I can share in person) to a committee writing new science standards for Florida’s K-12 schools. My specific work was on the physical science standards for middle school (which are still mostly in place). But I was coaxed into the controversy over evolution education, which as a person of faith I found to be a particularly vexing conflict. I wrote about my experiences in that controversy in a September 2008 issue of Jesuit magazine America. It is easily the most important thing I’ve ever published.
I was chair of the Committee on Education of the American Physical Society (the national professional society for physicists) in 2013-14. The highlight of that experience was having the opportunity to meet some of the nation’s leading scholars in physics education research and physics teacher preparation. I am not an expert in these fields – only an adopter. But at least I know who the experts are.
I hope you find some useful information or even inspiration in this blog.