FSU’s Studio Physics Program actually works to consistently boost student learning in introductory physics

At the suggestion of a visitor yesterday, I compiled some student achievement data from FSU’s Studio Physics Program to compare to typical results from traditional lecture classes, online courses and evidence-based pedagogies (like ours).  The compilation is shown here:


The green bars correspond to “normalized learning gains” on the Force Concept Inventory typical for different types of classes taken from the research literature.  The red bars are normalized learning gains from FSU’s studio physics classes since Spring 2015.

Now for some explanation.

First, the assessment instrument.  The Force Concept Inventory (FCI) is a multiple-choice assessment first released in 1992 by researchers at Arizona State University.  It measures understanding of Newton’s Laws, and it is considered the gold standard.  The version we use here was released in 1995.

In 1998, Hake published a 6,000-student study using the FCI in which he compared student learning gains in traditional lecture classes and “interactive engagement pedagogy” classes (like studio physics) in terms of the normalized learning gain, which is extracted from pre- and post-testing.  The normalized learning gain for each student is the difference between the post-test and pre-test scores as a percentage of the number of questions the student missed on the pre-test.

Hake found that in traditional lecture classes, average normalized learning gains were 23% +- 4%.  That is, the average student in a traditional lecture class learned 23% of what she or he didn’t know at the beginning of the semester.  In interactive engagement classes, the normalized learning gain was 48% +- 14% – about double the gain in traditional lecture classes (although with a significantly larger spread in results).

In 2014, researchers at MIT published their study of an introductory physics MOOC and reported a normalized learning gain of 31% +- 2%.  That result probably gives the bottom line for a high quality online course – somewhat better than a traditional lecture class but still far short of an interactive engagement class.

All three of those results – traditional and interactive engagement results from Hake and the MOOC result from MIT – are shown in the figure.

Since our studio physics classes are taught in the SCALE-UP interactive engagement format, we’d expect to match Hake’s IE result.  And we do consistently.  In fact, we’ve been doing so since 2008 when our early efforts were cited as a success story in SCALE-UP creator Bob Beichner’s commissioned paper for the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s important to say this every time it comes up:  Our success is due in large part to the tremendous support we’ve gotten from leadership in our Physics Department and at higher levels.

If FSU wants to improve the physics learning of students from all backgrounds and open the doors of STEM opportunity wider to those students, the university will expand the studio physics program.  If the university does not expand the studio physics program, then it will be a clear signal that improving undergraduate science teaching is not a priority of our institution.

It’s that simple.



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Will FSU’s Physics faculty be teaching courses online in the near future?


I’ve been on the FSU Physics Department faculty for 31 years, but my colleagues can still surprise me.

I shared with several of them the fine article by Jessica Bakeman (formerly of Politico and now at WLRN in Miami) comparing online course programs at FSU and UF. To me, the most striking part of the article is the opening picture (shown above) which shows several of our UF Physics colleagues drinking the online teaching Kool-Aid.

The course our UF colleagues are introducing in the picture is the first semester of the two-semester sequence most often taken by students who are planning careers in the health professions and life sciences. At FSU, about half of the students in this course did not take physics in high school, so the quality of this course is of central importance for opening opportunities in these careers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Consider this: Thirteen rural school districts in Florida didn’t offer physics at all in 2016-17, including nearby Gadsden and Jefferson Counties.

I thought my colleagues would be outraged by Jessica’s article, but they were not.  Disappointed? Maybe a little. Outraged? Nah.

But it’s time for my colleagues to make a decision, because the FSU Physics Department is at a crossroads.

As is the case for the rest of FSU’s science departments, our undergraduate teaching infrastructure in the Physics Department is basically the same as it was thirty years ago, when FSU was much smaller. The only addition has been the three science studio classrooms that host the studio physics program and the recitations of some of our large introductory lecture courses. And the Physics Department has to compete for the use of the studio classrooms with other academic units on campus.

FSU is about to encounter a space crunch. It now appears possible – perhaps likely – that no more teaching laboratory space (including studio classrooms) will be built for the use of the Physics Department. Ever.

We are expecting the numbers of undergraduates majoring in computer science, engineering and pre-health to rise significantly (maybe dramatically) during the next five years. All of those students will be required to take physics.

How will we provide those students with the physics courses they need? If we are locked into our present teaching facilities, then the only option we will have to meet our obligations to these students is to offer our courses online. As my regular readers (all four of them) know well, the best online physics courses presently available have student learning gains about half of what our studio physics classes achieve (although online courses have learning gains a bit higher than traditional lecture classes).

I could shout curses at the higher education gods for putting us in this situation. But that will not do any good if my own Physics colleagues are indifferent to this situation. In other words, if FSU’s Physics faculty is as willing to drink the online teaching Kool-Aid as the UF Physics faculty has been, then I might as well keep my frustrations to myself.

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From the APS: “7 Myths About High School Physics”

Those of you who have talked with students, parents, counselors, teachers (non-physics, that is) and administrators about taking physics in high school have collected a range of concerns.  Here is the American Physical Society’s answer to (at least some of) those concerns, in the form of a tri-fold brochure.  I’m posting jpg’s of the two sides of the tri-fold below.  But you can link to a pdf here, and to a web page on the topic here.



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Whose fault is Florida’s high school physics problem?

Florida’s high school physics program is in decline.  Total enrollment in the three main “first” physics courses – Physics 1, Honors Physics 1 and AP Physics 1 – has dropped by 5% during the last two years.

Florida’s high school physics enrollment rate was already weak.  The state’s rate is just a little above half of the national rate, according to a survey of state departments of education we performed in the summer of 2015.

Does this point to a broader STEM decline in Florida’s schools?  The statistics say “no”.  Success by the state’s middle schoolers in Algebra 1 jumped this year.  Enrollment in AP Calculus AB in Florida’s high schools rose by 9% (according to statistics available from the Florida Department of Education).

So Florida has a physics problem.

To expand on that:  The state’s communities of physics educators and professionals in science and engineering have failed to convince Florida’s K-12 educators, parents and students that physics is the gateway high school science course to STEM career opportunities.

As one of the louder voices in those communities, I bear a share of the blame for this failure.

To be sure, there are schools and school districts within the state that embrace physics as a course that all college-bound students should take.  Brevard and Seminole Counties have physics enrollment rates that far exceed the national rate and are more typical of scientifically advanced states like Massachusetts.

But the drop-off from those two districts to the next district of any size, Leon County, is enormous.  And physics enrollments in Leon have dropped by one-third in the last two years.

What can be done?  Perhaps a school district in the state’s educationally maligned Panhandle – Bay County – can show the way.  High school physics enrollment in Bay’s public high schools grew from 100 students in 2015-16 to 230 in 2016-17.  And the district’s high schools continue to push for more.

There is no magic to Bay’s rise, although it could be said that the stars aligned there.  Energetic teachers and counselors as well as leadership at the school and district level all decided that the district was not doing a good enough job preparing its students for science, engineering and health careers and did something about it – reaching out to students and parents.  I happened to be there when it happened, but I’m still convinced that I deserve very little of the credit.  (Heck, I live in Leon County and look what’s happening there)

But for those who are interested in how to make the argument for high school physics, here is one formulation that has worked in Bay County:

  • Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major, even those in science, engineering, computing and health.
  • The American Society for Engineering Education says that to be prepared to succeed at a college engineering major, a high school student should take physics (along with chemistry, precalculus and – preferably – calculus).
  • A bachelor of science program in computer science generally requires physics, and taking physics in high school significantly increases the chances of succeeding in college physics.  (And Virginia Tech’s Computer Science Department actually advises high school students to take physics)
  • Admission to professional school in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy requires two semesters of college physics.  And the best way to earn the high grades in college physics that students want on their professional school applications is to prepare by taking physics in high school.

Despite my failures (and they are many) I intend to keep chipping away.  In fact, I am finishing this post while sitting in a hotel room in Panama City waiting for a professional development session with a few Bay County physics teachers to begin.

I am not the only one working toward the goal of Florida being a strong physics state.  Adam LaMee at UCF is pushing hard.  So is Aaron Wade at UWF.  But the three of us are clearly not enough.  If you are a physics educator or a professional in engineering, computing or health fields, you need to get to work improving the preparation of the state’s high school students for your fields.  If your job description says that you are a STEM advocate and you are not telling students and their parents that physics must be on their high school programs, then you are not doing your job properly.

It’s time to get to work.

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Physics enrollments decline in Florida’s public high schools

physics plot

Florida public high school enrollments in AP Physics 1 and the non-honors version of Physics 1 declined significantly from 2015-16 to 2016-17, while enrollment in Honors Physics 1 held steady.  Altogether, these statistics show that Florida’s high school physics program is in slow decline.

AP Physics 1 enrollment dropped from 7,667 in the spring of 2016 to 7,149 in the spring of 2017, according to enrollment data available at the Florida Department of Education web site.  That is a 7% decline.

Enrollment in the non-Honors Physics 1 course dropped from 9,738 in the spring of 2016 to 9,009 in the spring of 2017 – also a 7% decrease.  The enrollment in this course had already dropped significantly the year before.  In total, the two-year decline in non-Honors physics enrollment is 15%.

Honors Physics 1 enrollment has held steady near 22,000 for the last three years.

AP Physics 1 was designed to replace Honors Physics 1 as the first physics course for students with math proficiency at the Algebra 2 level.  That has clearly not happened in Florida’s high schools.

A survey of state departments of education around the nation in the summer of 2015 showed that the rate at which Florida’s public high school students enrolled in physics was much lower than in most states, and just a little more than half the national rate.

High school physics is a critical component of preparation for college-level STEM majors.  The American Society for Engineering Education recommends high school physics for students considering careers in engineering.  Bachelor of science degrees in computer science and mathematics generally require that students take physics in college.  Two semesters of physics are required for students to enter professional schools in medicine, dentistry and physical therapy.

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The week in physics education at FSU



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Orange County’s high schools vary tremendously in physics-taking. And it’s not just because of socioeconomics.

Orange County Public Schools are making tremendous progress in advanced math course-taking among their middle schoolers.  The district’s high school calculus enrollment rate is already pretty high, and is likely to go higher with the high achieving middle schoolers entering high school.

So now it’s time for Orange County to work on high school physics.  As in the case of math, course-taking in physics has as much to do with the choices that school personnel and parents make as it does with socioeconomics.  And the data from Orange County for high schools with 200 or more 12th graders (shown below) make that crystal clear.


Let’s start by looking at the affluent end of the chart.  The school at 50 physics enrollments per 100 12th graders is Timber Creek High School, with a free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rate of 32%.  Physics is valued at Timber Creek.  But not so much at the other two equally affluent high schools, Winter Park (physics enrollment rate of 29 and FRL of 35%) and West Orange (physics enrollment rate of 20 and FRL of 34%).  Those disparities almost certainly represent choices made by personnel in those schools.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum (FRL of 100%) are four schools.  Three (Colonial with a physics enrollment rate of 13, Cypress Creek at 12 and Evans at 14) manage to maintain physics programs.  The story of the fourth school – Jones High School with its failure to offer physics to its students – has been told publicly several times.  Once again, it’s about choices made by school personnel.  School leaders at Colonial, Cypress Creek and Evans find a way to offer physics.  Jones does not.

In between is the strong program at Apopka High School (physics enrollment rate of 36 with FRL of 58%) and the remarkably weak program at Boone High School (physics enrollment rate of 10 with FRL of 49%).

Altogether, the graph above is a clear statement of which high schools in Orange County want to prepare their students well for college majors in STEM fields, and which are really not that interested.

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