Same as it ever was: Nine years ago, Florida TaxWatch published my idea piece on improving the college STEM readiness of the state’s high school students. I’m still saying the same things.

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down

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Memo to those who (like me) are trying to widen Florida’s pipeline to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers: We’re losing.

We seem to be winning in Bay County. Elsewhere? Not so much. A scene from the CENTAUR Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp held at FSU’s Panama City campus in July.

If you want to identify the most reliable routes to economic security in the modern economy, look at a list of the twenty-five highest ranked college majors by salary for ages 25-59 as compiled by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) in 2015. As shown below, sixteen of the top twenty-five have the word “engineering” in them. Computer Science is ranked 11th. Physics is ranked 15th.

The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that high school students who might choose to major in engineering take chemistry, physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) in high school. That high school formula works for physics and computer science as well. These are also important high school courses for students who might pursue careers in medicine, dentistry, physical therapy and (ahem) architecture.

Florida’s leaders profess to care about the economic opportunities that the state’s K-12 students will have when they go out into the big world. So enrollments in courses in chemistry and physics at the state’s public high schools should be shooting up, right? Well, they’re not. Physics enrollments in the Fall of 2018 were 12% lower than four years before. Chemistry enrollments were 14% lower than only three years before. Four years ago, a survey of state departments of education showed that Florida’s rate for high school physics enrollments was only about half the national rate, and clearly things have gotten worse since then.

In math, there is a different problem. To be on track to take a calculus course in high school, a student must take Algebra 1 in middle school. More than a third of Florida’s students now do so. But the access those students will have to calculus classes when they arrive in their junior or senior years of high school is being threatened by the intensifying shortage of teachers with the state’s Math 6-12 certification. The number of candidates taking the Math 6-12 exam for the first time in 2018 was 42% lower than it was in 2013.

The situation is much worse for black students. The underrepresentation of black students among those taking and passing Advanced Placement exams in calculus, physics and computer science is staggering – and there is no sign of signficant improvement. The underrepresentation of women among AP exam passers in physics and computer science is significant as well, as is the underrepresentation of Hispanic students.

For Florida to turn this situation around will require contributions from parents, teachers, school and district leaders and state policy-makers – all of them.

Parents will have to decide that they want their children to have the option of choosing careers in engineering, the physical sciences, computing, math, life and health sciences and architecture – and then they will have to become informed about how best to prepare their children for these careers. A small number of parents already know what courses to take in high school and insist that their children do so (and raise heck with administrators if they don’t offer these courses). But to provide access to these careers for students from homes where the parents are not STEM professionals – and especially those from lower income families – will require that we reach out to these parents to let them know about why these careers are attractive and how to prepare for them. Research by the Wisconsin Study of Families and Work showed that such outreach can be remarkably effective. And my own experience with parents at Bay County’s Mosley High School was extraordinary.

The biggest problem with parent outreach is that the cooperation of school and district leaders is necessary to have access to parents. And in my experience, many school and district leaders are reluctant to cooperate. The incentive system that Florida’s leaders have set up for the public schools certainly contributes to this reluctance. The state wants high school graduation rate maximized (whatever it takes). Schools and districts get credit when a student gets a college credit. But it doesn’t matter if that credit comes from passing an AP Physics exam or passing the low-level College Algebra course via dual enrollment – in the eyes of the state they are equivalent. In this system of incentives, taking a chance of ruffling the feathers of parents by suggesting that their kids would have more career opportunities open to them if they take calculus, chemistry and physics classes that the parents themselves refused to take in high school just doesn’t seem attractive to many school and district leaders.

Nevertheless, there are school and district leaders who summon the courage to challenge their parents and students. Bay County’s extraordinary rise (a factor of five increase in the high school physics enrollment, among other things) sets a high bar for that sort of courage. Orange County has already implemented the exemplary Calculus Project to broaden access to the STEM pipeline, and they are taking on the difficult task of rebuilding physics and chemistry enrollments as well.

Florida’s shortage of math and science teachers is part of a larger crisis in the state’s K-12 teaching corps that is driven by low salaries, a statewide testing program that is seen by many as all stick and no carrot, and sometimes problematic local leadership. K-12 budgets in Florida are so tight that no significant improvement in the teacher salary situation can take place without a major infusion of funds by the state’s Legislature. In addition, modifications to the state’s testing/accountability system can only be implemented by the Legislature. If the state makes changes to the salary and testing situations, school districts that are motivated to improve their students’ readiness for college STEM majors would have a greater opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile, the best we can do as advocates for improving the readiness of Florida’s high school students for college STEM majors is to make the strongest case we can whenever we are given the opportunity to do so. Even when we have such opportunities, we often fail to persuade our audiences. But once in a while, we succeed – and we have the satisfaction of knowing with certainty that there are students who benefit from those few successes.

Five Orange County Public Schools middle school students tell the district’s Board of Education about their April field trip to FSU’s College of Medicine and National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The Board meeting was held June 11. Picture from Rebecca Ray.
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Will Polk County improve the preparation of its high school students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers the way that Bay County has? It all depends on having outstanding individuals who are willing to make change happen.

Polk County science teacher Casey Dodge addresses members of the Polk County School Board during Tuesday’s roundtable discussion of high school math and science. From the video recording of the meeting.

During my presentation to Polk County School Board members on Tuesday, I featured the success that Bay County schools have experienced in improving their students’ preparation for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers and some of the individuals I’ve had the privilege to work with there. From 2015-16 to 2018-19, high school physics enrollment in the district grew by more than a factor of five.

I talked about Bay School Board member Ginger Littleton, who first invited me to meetings with district and school officials in 2015. Working with Ginger, who doubles as the Director of the STEM Institute at FSU’s Panama City campus, has been one of the greatest experiences and honors of my career.

I shared about Rutherford High School physics and math teacher (and math department head) Rachel Morris, who makes almost a mystical connection with her students. Rachel has been the lead teacher for FSU-PC’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp during the summers of 2018 and 2019 so I’ve gotten to watch the remarkable way that students respond to her from close range. In addition, Rachel taught a lesson on the quark model on the final day of this year’s nuclear camp and I can testify that she knows more about that subject than I do.

I told the story of Mosley High School’s MAPPS counselors Sharon Hofer and Laura Evans, who had the courage to decide that their high school needed to up its rigor game and who invited me to help with that task by meeting with parents. The success they had in improving the preparation of Mosley students in upper level math and science was beyond anything I thought possible.

I met some individuals at the Polk School Board meeting on Tuesday who seem to be just as extraordinary as the Bay County educators with whom I’ve spent so much time during the last four years.

The first who comes to mind is Casey Dodge, who has been teaching at Polk County’s Tenoroc High School during the last several years. Unfortunately for Tenoroc’s students, Casey will be moving to the district’s Kathleen High School this fall (which is great news for Kathleen’s students). She talked with the five Polk School Board members who attended the meeting while they were working on a task I had given them – making light bulbs light with batteries and aluminum foil. Later in the meeting, she delivered impassioned comments about the state of science instruction in Polk County and how it could be improved.

Casey was not alone among members of the audience in sharing her passion so eloquently with the board members. Other teachers and parents in the audience argued more strongly than I ever could for making changes to better prepare Polk’s students for careers in engineering, the physical sciences and the computing and mathematical sciences.

Casey attended high school at Tallahassee’s Lincoln High, where she was a student of my co-presenter on Tuesday, Adam LaMee. Adam is now the Physics Teacher-in-Residence at UCF and President of the Florida Chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Adam is a frequent co-conspirator of mine in high school physics advocacy. His take-down on WUSF radio’s “Florida Matters” of the then-CEO of the Florida Virtual School during a discussion of virtual schooling is the stuff of which legends are made. His argument to the Polk board on Tuesday that students and parents should be required to opt out of a biology-chemistry-physics high school science progression was powerful and made a tremendous impression on the board and audience members.

The representatives of the local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, were terrific. Reporter Kimberly Moore should win an award for using the phrase “quantum transition” in the lede of the story about the meeting. Photographer Pierre Ducharme brought the remarkable atmosphere of the meeting to the Ledger’s readers through the images the paper posted.

Finally, the five board members who attended – Lori Cunningham, Sarah Fortney, Lisa Miller, Billy Townsend and board chair Lynn Wilson – surprised me with their engagement and enthusiasm. Lori’s undergraduate education was in electrical engineering, so perhaps I should have anticipated her passionate support of the idea of improving the preparation of Polk’s students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers.

I was not surprised a bit by Sarah Fortney’s excitement about the subject. She recently retired from a career teaching middle school science in Polk County, and the issues I raised seem to be among the reasons she sought election to the school board in the first place.

Lisa Miller, who had a career in public relations before switching to classroom teaching, is featured in one of the memorable photos that Pierre Ducharme took holding up a poster designed by the FAMU-FSU College of Education to educate students and parents about taking calculus, chemistry and physics in high school. After that photo was taken, Lisa found a way to hang the poster in front of the board’s dais for the rest of the meeting so that nobody in the room could forget why we were all there.

Board Chair Lynn Wilson surprised me with his excitement about the subject of the meeting, and the photo of him wearing a pair of FSU Physics Department diffraction glasses is another enduring image from the meeting posted on the Ledger web site. I’m still impressed with how he gracefully made sure that everyone in the room – both board and audience members – had their say. The meeting ran forty minutes over the scheduled two hours, but he hung in there and kept things orderly until the end.

And of course there is Billy Townsend, who started it all by inviting Adam and myself to Tuesday’s roundtable meeting and whose infectious enthusiasm for improving the opportunities for Polk County’s young people was the overarching theme of the day. And yes, Billy is a math person (you’ll have to watch the recording of the meeting to see why I say that). I’ll point out for the record that he never would have been admitted to Amherst College if he wasn’t quite good at math.

If there is going to be positive change in Polk County, it will have to be led by these individuals and others who will join them along the journey – just as change was led by courageous and determined individuals in Bay County.

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller commenting at Tuesday’s roundtable meeting. She is sitting at the seat usually occupied by member Sara Beth Reynolds, who did not attend. From the video recording of the meeting.

Below are the first two slides from my power point for the Polk County meeting, along with the slides about Bay County.

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Polk County School Board members take a look at how well the district prepares its students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers – and say they want to do better.

Polk County high school chemistry and environmental science teacher (and graduate of Tallahassee’s Lincoln High School) Casey Dodge speaks to members of the Polk County School Board during Tuesday’s marathon discussion about preparing the district’s students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers.

Five members of the Polk County School Board led a discussion about how the district prepares its students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers during a meeting on Tuesday that ran for two hours and forty minutes – forty minutes longer than had been planned. The five members who attended said they were determined to have the district’s students do better in the future.

UCF Physics Teacher-in-Residence Adam LaMee and I were invited by board member Billy Townsend to the roundtable discussion to provide an opening presentation and answer questions afterward. My presentation included a challenge to the board and audience members who attended to light a light bulb with a battery and aluminum foil, and an opportunity to see the discrete line spectra of hydrogen, helium and neon with diffraction gratings and official FSU Physics Department diffraction glasses. I also challenged the board with some hard facts about what their students face in college and how Polk County’s enrollment rates in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus compare to the rest of the state. Adam made a recommendation that the district require students and parents to opt out of standard math and science sequences that consist of Algebra 1-Geometry-Algebra 2-Precalculus-Calculus and Biology-Chemistry-Physics.

But the stars of the show were the teachers – and at least one parent – who attended the meeting and spoke passionately about the opportunities for the district to improve and their frustrations with the current situation. One of the teacher-speakers, Casey Dodge, is a graduate of Tallahassee’s Lincoln High School where she was taught physics by Adam himself.

The roundtable discussion was a new meeting format for the Polk County Board, and at times had the look and feel of a political campaign rally for improving math and science education (which was great). But board chair Lyn Wilson navigated the new meeting format skillfully, making sure that audience members and board members had sufficient opportunities to express their views and ask questions of Adam and myself.

When Wilson asked Adam and myself for closing remarks, I decided to suggest to the board members a well-defined, straightforward task: If there is a high school in the district that has an engineering academy but does not offer physics (and two of the district’s large high schools do not offer physics) then fix that. And if there are engineering academy students that are not taking physics and calculus (or at least precalculus) fix that as well.

The STEM discussion was covered by Lakeland Ledger reporter Kimberly Moore and Ledger photographer Pierre Ducharme, and if you are reading this post you should read Kimberly’s article and look at Pierre’s pictures, some of which are just good fun.

My power point for the presentation is linked here:

The full Polk County Board of Education and the district’s Superintendent of Schools during a budget discussion that took place in the hour before the STEM discussion was held. During the budget meeting, the board was photobombed by the equipment for the STEM discussion that was left in front of the dais. Two red playground balls are most visible.
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The campers who attended FSU-PC’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp should make the leaders of Florida’s post-Michael Panhandle hopeful

Campers measuring the dependence of radiation intensity on distance from a source on the first day of the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp at FSU-PC.

I spent last week becoming more hopeful for the future of Florida’s post-Michael Panhandle.

Nineteen campers attended last week’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp for middle and high school students at Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Every one of them demonstrated scientific insight during the week. They were an impressive group of young people.

I assisted the camp’s lead teacher, Rutherford High School physics and math teacher Rachel Morris. The camp was supported by CENTAUR, a consortium of universities (including FSU) and national laboratories based at Texas A&M University and funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The camp was heavy with hands-on experiences using equipment like radiation monitors, sodium iodide gamma-ray detectors and atomic spectrometers. Quantum physics, the supply chain for medical isotopes and mass-energy equivalence were on the agenda along with many other topics. We also pushed hard on foundational skills like algebra and graphing.

Ironically, we lost a day-long field trip to Tallahassee to see the Fox Superconducting Accelerator Laboratory and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory because of the threat of Tropical Storm Barry. But we did have an outstanding field trip on Monday afternoon to HCA’s Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center to learn about nuclear medicine. Dr. Bob Bain spent a solid hour with the group explaining how he uses radioactive isotopes in his practice and answering questions from the campers.

The campers came from a broad range of backgrounds, and if the Panama City region has a future in science and technology then these students should be among the region’s leaders. And educators like Rachel Morris will be the unsung heroes of the region’s recovery.

That is something that the region’s economic leaders must keep in mind. In fact, while our camp group was convening on the second floor of FSU-PC’s Holley Center on Friday morning, the Bay County Chamber of Commerce was convening its monthly First Friday meeting in the meeting hall on the first floor (the real first Friday was the week before, but it was part of a holiday weekend). The Chamber has been holding their First Friday meetings since 1957, and they have become more urgent since the hurricane struck last October. In fact, Friday morning’s event featured Bay County’s Chief of Emergency Operations, Mark Bowen.

Seeing the impressively large group of Chamber members convening a floor before, I couldn’t help thinking that a truly forward-looking group would want to know about our campers one floor above and would be asking how to provide them – and other talented young people like them – with the opportunities necessary to fulfill their considerable potential. Bay District Schools has made impressive progress during the last several years providing those opportunities, but there is more work to do in the very challenging circumstances of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.

Hunting for radiation sources on the FSU-PC campus on the first day of the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp.
Rutherford High School physics and math teacher and Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp lead teacher Rachel Morris leading a group of campers through a gamma-ray spectroscopy exercise on the second day of the camp.
Campers using diffraction gratings to see the discrete line spectrum emitted from a neon plasma lamp on the fourth day of the camp.
Campers in their diffraction glasses on the fourth day of camp.
Magnetic fields in solenoids on the fourth day of camp.
More atomic spectroscopy of neon – this time with an electronic spectrometer on the fifth day of camp.
Rutherford HS physics and math teacher and camp lead teacher Rachel Morris teaches the quark model on the fifth day of camp.
The Bay County Chamber of Commerce convenes its First Friday gathering one floor below the Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp on the fifth day of camp. If they only knew what was going on one floor above!
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Black students in Florida’s STEM pipeline: Among middle school students who passed Florida’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam this spring, black students are significantly underrepresented. But some districts are doing better on this issue than others.

Taking Algebra 1 in middle school is a key milestone for students in the pipeline for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers. So it’s disturbing that the percentage of black students reaching that milestone is so much smaller than the corresponding percentage for the whole student population.

Of Florida’s 220,975 public school 7th graders, 10.1% (22,390) passed the Algebra 1 end of course exam this spring, according to the Florida Department of Education EdStats portal. But of the state’s 47,926 black public school 7th graders, only 5.2% (2,750) did so.

The 8th grade picture is similar. Of Florida’s 213,672 public school 8th graders, 29.0% (61,871) passed the Algebra 1 EOC this spring. The corresponding numbers for the state’s black students? Of 45,684 black 8th graders, only 18.0% (8,209) passed the Algebra 1 EOC.

The situation varies dramatically among school districts. In the plots below, forty-five districts – those with enough black students in middle school Algebra 1 classes (more than 10 in either 7th or 8th grade) to show up in the Florida Department of Education’s statistics posted on the department’s EdStats portal – are ranked according to a methodology recently used here to rank districts on middle school Algebra 1. We calculated the numbers of 7th and 8th graders that passed the Algebra 1 EOC as percentages of the total 7th and 8th grade membership in each district. Then we added those two percentages up to calculate the middle school Algebra 1 index and ranked the districts. In the right side panel, these 45 districts are ranked for all students. In the left side panel, the districts are ranked the same way, but for black students only.

There are several features of the graph that are clear from a first glance. First, Collier County has a remarkable degree of success with black students – and far outpaces all other school districts in this regard. Second, nearly all of the state’s biggest urban school districts (Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Orange, Palm Beach and Hillsborough) are having more success with black students than nearly all of the state’s less populous districts (Collier, Taylor and St. Lucie being the exceptions). Among the state’s big urban districts, only Pinellas seems to fall short.

A closer look reveals that several districts rank significantly worse for black students than they do in the ranking for all students. The most remarkable case of this seems to be Martin County, which is ranked 8th for all students among the 45 districts examined here, but which is ranked 43rd when only black students are tabulated.

The underrepresentation of black students among middle school Algebra 1 EOC passers is not even close to being the end of the story about black students in Florida’s STEM pipeline. The underrepresentation of black students among Florida students who pass Advanced Placement exams in calculus, physics and computer science is much more severe than that among middle school Algebra 1 EOC exam passers. That severe underpresentation of black students is evident in the statistics of who earns degrees in engineering, the physical and mathematical sciences and computing from Florida’s public universities as well.

But solving the problem of the racial disparity in middle school Algebra 1 classrooms will be a necessary step on the road to STEM equity in Florida schools, colleges and universities.

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How many middle school students are taking (and succeeding at) Algebra 1 in your school district? In little Lafayette County, it’s a lot.

During the school year that just ended, Lafayette County High School (which houses grades 6-12) had 96 8th graders – and 71 of them took Algebra 1 and the state’s end-of-course exam in that subject this spring. Fifty-six of those students passed the exam, making little Lafayette County (the US Census Bureau estimated a population of 8,732 on July 1, 2018) the number one district in Florida for middle school Algebra 1 this year.

To rank the districts, we used the results of the state’s Algebra 1 EOC (which were posted on Friday by the Florida Department of Education) and the numbers of 7th and 8th graders in each district to calculate the numbers of 7th and 8th graders that passed the exam as percentages of the total 7th and 8th grade membership in each district. Then we added those two percentages up to calculate the middle school Algebra 1 index and ranked the districts, as can be seen below.

Lafayette County didn’t offer Algebra 1 to its 7th graders, but 56 of its 96 8th graders (or 58%) passed the end-of-course exam. So the district’s index is 58 – Florida’s top score. Collier County was last year’s number one district and was second this year. Sarasota, Seminole and Brevard Counties round out the top five. The ranking of all of Florida’s school districts is shown below.

In addition to being rural, Lafayette County (which is located east of Perry and west of Lake City and Alachua) has economic challenges. Nearly all (92%) of the district’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Lafayette County demonstrates that socioeconomic challenges don’t doom a district to poor math performance.

In fact, Lafayette isn’t the only district with a high lunch eligibility rate in which middle schoolers performed well on the Algebra 1 EOC, as the plot of the middle school Algebra 1 index vs. the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate below shows.

Students who take Algebra 1 in middle school are on track to take a calculus course in high school. The American Society for Engineering Education recommends that students who might choose a college major in engineering take a calculus course in high school.

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