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Florida high schools need to prepare students to major in science and engineering | Column
About half of the students taking college physics at my university did not take a physics class in high school.
Arjon Balakrishnan, 5, of Rocklin looks at an image of the Carina Nebula at the Sacramento State Planetarium in California, which partnered with NASA to show the first images captured by the new James Webb Space Telescope. What is Florida doing to prepare students to major in science and engineering in college?
Arjon Balakrishnan, 5, of Rocklin looks at an image of the Carina Nebula at the Sacramento State Planetarium in California, which partnered with NASA to show the first images captured by the new James Webb Space Telescope. What is Florida doing to prepare students to major in science and engineering in college? [ HECTOR AMEZCUA | The Sacramento Bee ]
Published Jul. 21

Public schools should give all students the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Unfortunately, this seems to have been lost in this year’s district school board elections in Florida.

Paul Cottle
Paul Cottle [ Courtesy of Bill Lax ]

Several of the issues being discussed in school board election campaigns are likely important to most parents of children in the schools. One is that the pandemic has both exacerbated and highlighted the mental health issues children are dealing with, and it is certainly important to provide support for children struggling with these issues.

Another has to do with one of the great educational challenges of our time — providing students who will not attend a four-year college with the economic means to achieve middle class lives. There seems to be a broad consensus that efforts to provide students with pathways to good-paying careers directly from high school or via one- or two-year postsecondary programs should be expanded. And indeed these programs, called Career and Technical Education (CTE), should be expanded.

But Florida performs poorly when it comes to preparing students who have an interest in economically attractive fields like engineering, computer science and the physical sciences for success in bachelor’s degree programs in these disciplines.

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2019 Florida was ranked only 35th among states for the rate at which young people earned bachelors’ degrees in science and engineering fields.

Why should that be an issue in elections for school board members, who deal only with pre-college education? Because those of us teaching aspiring engineers and scientists on the campuses of our state’s universities see that many of these students are arriving poorly prepared for the rigors of college science and math classes.

About one half of the students taking college physics at my university did not take a physics class in high school, and multiple studies have demonstrated that such students are much less likely to succeed in college physics classes like ours. The University of Florida and Florida Polytechnic University address this problem by listing high school physics as a prerequisite for the physics courses that students are required to take if they are majoring in engineering, computer science or the physical sciences.

Students in Florida’s public high schools take physics at a rate that is only about half the national rate. There are similar issues in high school calculus — Florida’s public high school students take calculus at a rate about one-third below the national rate. Even the rate at which our state’s public high school students take chemistry is significantly below the national rate.

While it is not surprising that some small rural high schools do not find resources to offer calculus and physics, there are also many large high schools that have not made such courses a priority. Of the 369 public high schools in Florida that had more than 1,000 students in the fall of 2021, 55 did not teach physics. Students from those 55 high schools who hope to become engineers, computer scientists and physical scientists are at a distinct disadvantage on the very first day they arrive on a university campus.

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There are a few school districts in Florida that are making exemplary efforts to improve the prospects their students have to succeed in college majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields — and Hillsborough County is one of them.

First of all, Hillsborough County is now one of only two of the state’s “megadistricts” that offer physics in every large high school (the other is Orange County). Second, Hillsborough has changed registration procedures to emphasize chemistry and physics. Students in biology are automatically placed into chemistry, and chemistry students are automatically are placed into physics the next year unless they opt out. If they ask to take another science — forensics, anatomy, etc. — students are encouraged to take that course in addition to physics instead of in place of it. Hillsborough high school physics enrollment was 29% higher in the fall of 2021 than it was in the fall of 2020, and high school chemistry enrollment rose an astounding 36%.

Of course, how well students learn science and math in high school and the decisions they make about course selections in those subjects depends in part on their experiences in science and math classes in middle and even elementary school. Orange County Public Schools works to address the obstacles facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the pipeline to science and engineering careers by providing those students with a tremendous amount of extra support in middle school algebra classes, which ultimately lead to high school calculus classes. This initiative, called the Calculus Project, should be emulated by districts around Florida.

At the center of all of these initiatives is the need to attract individuals who are strong in math and science to teaching careers in the public schools. While the governor’s initiative to raise starting salaries for teachers was an important first step, he must now move on to providing a sustainable salary path for experienced teachers as well, including those teaching math and science.

It would be easy to decide to divert resources from math and science courses serving students who aspire to careers in engineering and science to increase support for mental health and CTE initiatives. But this shouldn’t be an “either/or” choice. Instead, we should be providing opportunities for all students to reach their full potential. That should be the mission of our public schools.

Paul Cottle, a physics professor at Florida State, was on the committee that wrote Florida’s K–12 science standards in 2007–2008 and was chair of the American Physical Society’s Committee on Education in 2013–2014.

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