Brandon Haught’s commentary in the journal Nature is a call for university faculty to get involved in K-12 education

I made my third appearance in the prestigious journal Nature today.

The first appearance – in 2005 – was a report on a study of the nuclear spectroscopy of the exotic neutron-rich nucleus Silicon-42.

The second (in 2010) was a commentary I wrote on a spectroscopic study of the doubly-magic nucleus Tin-132.

If you added the numbers of readers of each of those two articles together, you would almost certainly get a number smaller than a thousand.  Yet members of the scientific community would probably consider those two articles to be among the highlights of my modest scientific career.

Today’s appearance in Nature is a brief mention in a commentary written by a high school science teacher, Brandon Haught of University High School in Volusia County.  The number of people who read Brandon’s commentary will outnumber the people who read my own articles in Nature by a factor of at least a hundred, and perhaps much more.

And that is as it should be.

My regular blog readers (all five of them) might better recognize Brandon for his decade-long role as a leader in the Florida Citizens for Science than they would for his recently-begun teaching career.  I met Brandon while I was a member of the committee that wrote Florida’s K-12 science standards in 2007-2008.  At the time, Brandon was the public affairs officer for the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department.  He had served in the Marines.  But it was clear even then that Brandon had the beating heart of a high school science teacher.  Several years ago, he finally met his professional destiny in his own University High science classroom.

Brandon came to Nature’s notice through his concerns about Florida’s new law about instructional materials in the K-12 schools that many believe will be used to disrupt science teaching, particularly on the subjects of evolution and climate change.  Many of us will be watching this issue carefully to see how it develops.

Brandon’s Nature commentary implores university science faculty to get involved in the K-12 schools.  His discussion uses the instructional materials law as a departure point, but then he broadens his discussion by citing my work with the Future Physicists of Florida to improve the preparation of the state’s students for rigorous college majors in fields like computing, engineering and science.

The lesson that every university science professor should take from Brandon’s commentary is this:  The next generation of scientific leaders is in middle and high school right now.  If the scientific community ignores them, those students will never grow into the scientific and technological leaders we need them to be.  Our generation will die off, and there will be no one to carry the torch forward.  Our society will lose the ability to think clearly about scientific and technological issues and those we leave behind will slide backwards.

That is not the legacy I want to leave behind, and that is why I invest so much of my declining reserves of energy into trying to urge that next generation forward.

Brandon, thank you for making that point in such a visible way.

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A note to my #iteachphysics colleagues: Florida’s big problem isn’t the availability of high school physics. It’s a lack of understanding of the importance of taking it.

The Twitter chat group #iteachphysics, which is led by the National Society of Black Physicists, “meets” every other Saturday morning during the school year.  I was unable to join them this morning, but a notification popped up in my Twitter account from the chat.  One contribution to the chat said that 80% of Oklahoma’s high schools do not offer physics.  The moderator then mentioned that I might have some similar information from Florida’s Department of Education.

Dear #iteachphysics Colleagues:

Here is the statistic that I think gives the best picture of the availability of physics in Florida:  In the Fall of 2015, 89% of Florida high school students attended a high school that offered physics.

Yes, as Education Week’s Liana Heitin had reported, there were many institutions teaching high school students in Florida that did not offer physics.  Heitin said that only 40% of the state’s high schools offered physics, based on her analysis of data from the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.  But the bottom line was that schools that did not offer physics were almost all alternative schools, small charter schools, small rural high schools and district specialty schools that prepare students for particular career tracks that do not involve significant science and math demands.  That’s not good, but Heitin’s 40% number didn’t provide a useful discussion starter.

A survey of state departments of education in the summer of 2015 showed that Florida’s physics enrollment rate (the number of physics enrollments divided by the number of 12th graders) was just a little more than half the national rate.  In fact, enrollment in the standard first-year high school physics courses (Honors Physics, regular non-honors Physics, and AP Physics 1) declined by 5% during the last two school years in the state.

So if high school physics is so widely available in Florida, why aren’t more students taking it?

The answer is that many students, parents, teachers, counselors and school- and district-level administrators in Florida don’t think that high school physics is important.  You can add state-level education leaders to that list if you’d like.  As my adopted family of educators in Bay County (where Panama City is located – 100 miles from my home in Tallahassee) has shown, if the school and district administrators, counselors, teachers and parents all get onto the same page about the importance of high school physics (and chemistry, and calculus), then you can make dramatic progress pretty quickly.  Bay County has three times as many physics students in its high schools this fall as it did in 2015-16.

Bay County has had one of those rural high schools that didn’t offer physics.  As you can imagine, the part of the county that is along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico is pretty built up.  But the northern part of the county is pure rural Florida Panhandle.  So it’s significant that Bay’s rural K-12 school, the Bozeman School, has a 17-student Honors Physics class this fall – the first time that physics has been offered in the history of the school.  The class is being taught by a sharp chemist (and experienced chemistry teacher) named Denise Newsome who will be meeting with several of the district’s other physics teachers once a week (and I join them once a month).  She is equipped with Pasco stuff and will shortly receive seven laptops from FSU to make the Pasco stuff hum.  It’s going to be great.  I’ve already met her students, and they will be fine.

How did physics come to Bozeman?  The Principal and Assistant Principal saw the progress being made at Bay County’s other high schools and realized their own students deserved the same opportunity.  And they were fortunate that Denise had joined them last year.  The stars aligned.

I don’t know what Oklahoma’s situation is.  But Florida’s is this:  If Florida’s educators and educational leaders decide that more of the state’s high school students should take physics, then it will happen.

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FSU’s new 81-studio science studio classroom to debut Monday

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Physics Professor Volker Crede takes in FSU’s new 81-seat science studio classroom – Room 315 in Carothers Hall – where he will lead the first class on Monday.

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The new studio science classroom provides the instructor with the capability of monitoring all 27 student computer screens simultaneously – and projecting an image from one of the student computers on the classroom’s four large screens.

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A Tegrity camera will allow action at the instructor’s station to be broadcast to the classroom’s four large screens and to be recorded for later viewing.  Shown here are me (left) and Jay Willoughby, who leads FSU’s classroom program and has played the leading role in the development of the campus’ three science studio classrooms.

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News item: Candidate for Governor Putnam downplays the need for “advanced education” in STEM. Does Florida overemphasize the production of bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering fields?

A report on a speech given by Adam Putnam to the Kissimmee Elks Club this morning is given in the blog Florida Politics.  Reporter Scott Powers says that Putnam “downplayed the need for advanced education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – so called STEM education”.

The figure below shows a ranking of the states (plus DC) by the number of bachelors’ degrees in science, engineering and technology conferred per 1,000 individuals 18-24 years old in 2013.  The data are taken from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators.

Florida does not rank highly.

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Rutherford High School and Bozeman School opening new STEM horizons for their students

On Friday night, Rutherford High School defeated the Bozeman School 20-7 in the football season opener for both teams.

But when I visited both schools on Friday – before the football game – I saw that students are winning at both schools because teachers and administrators have opened new opportunities for students to prepare for STEM careers.

I started Friday morning at 7:15 am – Zero Hour – with the IB Physics 2 class at Rutherford High School and its charismatic teacher, Rachel Morris.  Rutherford is a diverse school of more than a thousand students located in the built-up southern part of the county not far from Tyndall Air Force Base and the Gulf of Mexico.  The school houses the Bay County school district’s International Baccalaureate Program.

Rachel, who is a former Rutherford Teacher of the Year and a winner of Governor Scott’s Shine Award, also teaches math.  She has been a Bay County leader in implementing interactive teaching strategies for physics.  Rachel earned her bachelor’s degree in Math Education at FSU in 2008 and taught briefly in Gulf County before joining the Rutherford faculty.

Rutherford’s IB Physics 2 course is the first second-year physics course the school has offered in memory.  In fact, the second-year class is only part of the expansion of the physics program at Rutherford.  Two years ago, during the 2015-16 school year, Mrs. Morris had a single 14-student class that combined AP Physics 1 and Honors Physics.  This fall, she has two AP Physics 1 classes and the second-year IB Physics 2 class that I visited.  In total, about four times as many students are taking physics at Rutherford this year as two years ago.

Rutherford’s physics growth is a significant contributor to the growth in physics courses district-wide.  In 2015-16, only 100 students took physics at Bay District’s high schools.  This year, the number is about 300 – a factor of three increase in only two years.

On Friday afternoon, I visited a 17-student Honors Physics class at Bozeman – the first time physics has been offered there.  Bozeman is located in the rural northern part of Bay County and draws students from a large and sparsely populated geographical area (most of the county’s residents are concentrated along the Gulf of Mexico in the southern part of the county).  Bozeman covers all grades K-12, and is best known for an award-winning agricultural program.  The school graduates about a hundred students each year, so the 17 students taking physics represent a reasonably large percentage of a graduating class.

Bozeman’s physics teacher is Denise Newsome, who grew up not far from Bozeman and who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from FSU in 2008.  She is an experienced chemistry teacher but only joined the Bozeman faculty last year.  This summer, Denise collaborated in leading a summer camp on the physics of dance at FSU’s Panama City campus.  As part of the preparation for the camp, Denise unearthed electronic sensors and computer interfaces purchased for Bozeman years before but never used (nor even unpacked from their original boxes) and deployed them so that the camp’s dancers could quantify their motion.  That long-lost equipment will be used extensively in Bozeman’s physics class this year.

Bozeman students are aiming high.  Even though physics was being offered at Bozeman for the first time, several were planning to pursue careers in engineering and meteorology.  After I finished my discussion with the class about how the Sun produces its energy with nuclear reactions, one of the students asked about how difficult it would be to power a home or a city with solar power.  We made some estimates and found that with 10% efficient solar panels we could power a medium-sized city – requiring about 100 MW of power – by covering a square about 1 km on a side.  And we noted for the benefit of the half-dozen physics students wearing their football jerseys that 1 km is about ten football fields strung end-to-end.

Both Rutherford and Bozeman – located worlds apart despite being in the same school district – are bursting with promise.  This year, both schools are making substantial progress in unleashing that promise.

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Rutherford High School’s Rachel Morris (middle) and Bozeman School’s Denise Newsome (right) with Bay High School’s Sean O’Donnell (left) during a workshop on thermodynamics earlier this month.

 

 

 

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Will the 2018 Florida Legislature address the math and science teacher crisis? Almost certainly not.

I have already lost hope that the 2018 Florida Legislature will address the math and science teacher crisis.

Instead, it seems almost certain that on K-12 education the Legislature will be completely occupied with the dueling efforts to repeal some or all of the provisions in HB 7069 and to consolidate the new parts of Florida law from that bill.

The number of new Math 6-12 teachers may very well continue to plunge (see below), but no one in Tallahassee will notice (except for me and a few of my colleagues and friends).

The shortages of teachers in other math and science fields will continue, mostly unnoticed.

The decline in the number of new physics teachers? Who cares? Enrollment in high school physics is falling in Florida so that solves the physics teacher shortage, right?

And the burden of finding the math and science teachers that Florida’s students need will continue to fall to the school districts. Some districts care a lot and work hard at it (as described in my Orlando Sentinel op-ed). Some seem, um, less interested.

So a shout-out to districts like Bay, Duval and Seminole that are working hard to recruit (and mentor) the math and science teachers their students need. Keep it up! Because it looks like you are going to be on your own for a long time.

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Purdue University is serious about active learning: The new 164,000 square foot $79 million Wilmuth Active Learning Center

Purdue did what you do when you are serious about improving the learning of your students.  Here is a report on the new building from the Lafayette Journal and Courier.

And below is the floor plan for the new facility.  You can see for yourself what is inside the building.  Note well the abundant round tables for hosting classes in SCALE-UP format.  The pdf of the floor plan is below the pictures.

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The pdf (so you can take a closer look) is here:

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