Wednesday, August 4, 2010

37% Of The Kids Are Alright

I can, in large part, credit my decision to become a physicist rather than an engineer to my high school physics class.  Prior to that class I thought science was nice, but it all seemed rather fuzzy to me - a lot of hand-waive-y biology and chemistry that was as much about memorization as understanding.  Engineering, on the other hand, was in my young mind much more concrete of a field and certainly heavier on math.  Then I took an algebra-based physics class for the math-impaired and even that was enough to get me hooked.  I saw how physics was simply applying math to the real world and I've been at it ever since.

What I'm trying to get at is the importance of physics at the high school level.  In my obviously biased opinion, physics should be an essential part of high school or - as the Physics First people advocate - the gateway to science education.  So how are we doing?  From the ever-useful folks at the AIP's Statistical Research Center:

While things are looking up compared to the 80's and 90's, only 37% of American high school students take a physics class.  That means that nearly two-thirds of the American public never gets the chance to see the most fundamental science.

So how do we improve that number?  Well one way is to start by working on the states that are bring down the average.

For some reason the inter-mountain west and the southern states seem to be doing the worst, while only 5 states - Michigan, Massachusetts, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming - are bringing up the average.  Interestingly, the study notes that requiring more science doesn't equate to more students taking physics:  "two of the lowest physics-taking states did require 4 years of science for graduation, and most of these below average states required 3 years of science".

So if more since doesn't equal more physics, what does?


  1. Two options: (1) reduce the number of distinct science courses available without changing the graduation requirement; (2) add a specific physics requirement. The problem is that if the school (as is typical) offers a range of science courses, including two different biology courses, two or three different chemistry courses, earth science, psychology, sociology, economics, and perhaps more *in addition to* physics (and my high school offered all of those), then increasing the number of required science classes doesn't guarantee that any student takes any specific science class.

  2. Johnathan,

    You make a good point - my high school had two science classes in chemistry and biology, and one each in oceanography, human anatomy, and psychology. I think, however, that the solution isn't requiring more physics so much as integrating physics into math courses. Physics is perhaps the most mathematical science and spurred much of the development of modern math. Teaching them together just makes sense to me.

  3. Good post. I didn't take a high-school physics course. We had a particularly bad physics teacher at my high school.

    I can't pinpoint one thing or another that led directly to me going into engineering. Though I have always enjoyed knowing how things worked, I have never really been much of a "tinkerer" as most engineers seem to be.

    In addition to physics courses in high school, I would like to see courses that teach students how things actually work. For example, how many of us know how air traffic control works? Or how about a battery? And the vast number of people who have absolutely NO IDEA how an internal combustion engine works, but use one daily, is an embarrassment.

  4. I'd be happy to see more real science content in math courses, as opposed to the largely made-up examples that get used presently. However, adding physics content to math textbooks is not an adequate way to teach physics, especially if the people teaching know their math but not much physics. Moreover, physics content integrated into math courses wouldn't show up on your graphs, which are looking at the percentage of students who have taken at least one *physics course*.

  5. Jonathan,

    Yeah, I think for many people physics problems in math books are the ones they have the harest time solving: you know... the word problems. :)

    Why is it for so many people "setting up" the problems is harder than doing the actual math?

  6. Because doing the math at that level is usually algorithmic; whereas, setting up the problem is usually not. In fact, word problems are often (and I think stupidly) intentionally designed to have misleading bits.

  7. The real issue here appears to me to be, dare I say it, an economic one. Students have a limited number of classes they can take, and physics has earned the reputation of being a "hard" class with little payback. This presents an awful liability both for students whose upcoming college enrollments depend mainly on a good GPA and also for borderline students who just need to maintain their 2.0 (or whatever it is) to graduate. Most students barely know what physics is, let alone what it's good for. (They know in chemistry they will deal with chemicals, in biology they'll study plants and animals and stuff, but a lot of middle-school students -- remember that's when a lot of these students make their "4-year-plans" -- don't really know what physics is or why it's fun/useful/important/etc.) (I'll also admit, before I took physical science, I never really knew what "physics" was. I also had no clue what "calculus" was until I was in the class. I just knew it was really cool, really hard math, and as a certified nerd, that's all the motivation I needed. Most people aren't like that, though.)

    Personally, I think the biggest boost we can do to help physics enrollment is to get a bit better PR. When we help students better know what physics is, they will get excited about it all on their own. (And as we all know, there is plenty to get excited about.) Think about when you got excited about physics or science in general. Most likely it was some class with a teacher that was really engaging, or some demo show where you thought "Wow! That was really cool! I'd like to know how that works.", or something like that. Chemists have liquid nitrogen ice cream and exploding balloons. That's hard to compete with. Students can "see" what chemistry is and what it does. Some thing with biology (they have to get people past the formaldehyde frogs, but they've got a lot of other cool things that get people excited). If all that we help students see about physics is dragging wood blocks across a table with a spring, we're going to lose them.

    I think physics first makes a lot of sense. There is real power in physics as an introductory science in that it is so applicable to all other sciences. It is really a bridge between the power and rigor of mathematics and the cool/wonderful/useful/beautiful complexity of nature and the real world in which we live. That's how we need to sell physics (and, in the end, we really do need to sell it).

    Sorry, I'll get off my soapbox now. As always, great post, Nick!

  8. "I think the biggest boost we can do to help physics enrollment is to get a bit better PR"

    Do we think that states that are doing significantly better than the national average have better PR for their physics classes? I'm willing to bet that a lot of it can be helped by hiring and promotion policies for getting good teachers. My high school physics teacher was very good and quite popular, so he was able to build a reputation for physics as a fun class and therefore compete with all the other science offerings. Of course I have no data on this, but it seems most likely to me that a lot of it comes down to the teachers rather than the PR.

  9. Thanks for the clarification Nick. When I was referring to "PR," what I meant included exactly what you are saying. Students need to know why they want to take physics. Good physics teachers do that. Students talk, they know why the class will be useful and interesting, and they know that the teacher is worthwhile. I wasn't meaning simply "do more demo shows" or anything like that. I just mean that if we want to increase enrollment, we need to build a better reputation.

  10. One more link to talk about what I meant:
    Most of the real growth in high school physics enrollment has been in "conceptual physics" (or similar) and in "advanced physics" (honors / AP / etc). This seems to me to be on one hand, the students who are willing to give physics a try, but don't want to risk their GPA / health / sanity to do it. And on the other hand, the students who are really sold on physics and know what it's good for. "Regular" physics hasn't grown much at all. To better sell physics, we either need to make it appear like less of a risk (first group) or a better payback (second group). Again, this is just how I read the situation, but I could be wrong.

  11. Bill,

    I'm glad we're on the same page. To highlight the problem, my very good physics teacher was hired away by another school district to be the head of their online science education program. He once mentioned that he would have preferred to stay teaching in a classroom, but they pay was so much better in this new position that he just couldn't turn it down. If we want to keep really good science teachers in public-school classrooms, we're going to have to start paying them more.

  12. There are a lot of factors in how to get good teachers in the classroom. I think part of it is kind of a catch-22. To get more good science teachers, we need more people studying science, and the way we get more people interested in studying science is by having better science teachers. However, I do think we are moving in the right direction in a lot of ways.

    First of all, we can see that enrollment in physics courses is increasing. This alone is a good sign. I don't know how it compares with population increases, but it looks like we're gaining ground.

    Second, the population in general is seeing a lot of uses for science. Most of it comes in the way of computer science, but I'll take what I can get. A blessing to one is a blessing to all. The last time we had a big boom in the sciences was in the 60s and 70s with the space race. Public interest does a lot to get science moving. Having average people on the street who have at least heard of things like CERN, Hubble, and stuff like that will go a long way toward getting people interested. It's a long-term, delayed response, but it's a good thing nonetheless. The public, as a whole, is much more scientifically literate than just about ever before. This is probably largely thanks to the internet and the "information age." Wherever it comes from, it's a good sign. Most people are at least basically informed. They critique science (albeit from a very layman's perspective), but most of the time that means that they think about it and they care. This is good.

    Third, people are recognizing that teaching takes more than just knowing the subject. Things like the No Child Left Behind Act, whether or not you think it was a good idea, is certainly evidence that people are caring about teaching and are trying to do something to make it better. Just about everyone realizes that teachers are not paid what they are worth. We're still not at the stage of making real improvements to that condition, but it's in the public consciousness. I think we are moving (slowly) in that direction.

    Those are some reasons I have to be optimistic. What would I suggest to help push the solution forward?

    First, like you said, improve teaching conditions. Right now, to teach high school, you mostly have to be really passionate, or unable to do much else. Economically, it rarely makes sense. We pay teachers too little, demand too much of them, give them too little support and too much blame. We need to find ways to help them earn a full 12 month salary at a middle-class wage. They should not have to work 60 hours a week to get paid the same as someone who works part-time.

    Second, give them more support. Teachers deal with more stress than just about anyone. This comes in the form of discipline problems, lack of parental support, lack of training, lack of resources, demanding they not only teach, but grade, design curricula, serve on committees, etc. It's a lot more work than it seems like. We need structures that will help teachers to be able to teach. Many of these will need to be neighborhood support rather than governmental support. I think, in large part, it's a public attitude paradigm that has to shift. Much of this could also take the form of more publicly available curricula and resources and more training/mentoring if necessary.

    Third, give incentives for teachers to excel. In most jobs, people get promoted when they do well. That's what helps motivate people to do better. I don't really know what's already in place in the public school system in this regard, but it seems like it could improve.

    In general, I think we already have plenty of qualified teachers or potential teachers who would love to teach public school science if they could afford the low pay / high stress / etc. There's a lot that needs to be done. I am optimistic, but I recognize we have a long way to go.

  13. Wow! I post long comments. Sorry to all of you out there struggling through them.

  14. Ha Bill, those are long, but pretty good comments. I fit in the qualified teachers who would love to teach public school if I could afford the low pay. I even think (excuse the lack of humility) that I'd be rather good at it. But there's no way I can afford to do it, given the choices that Lori and I have made in regards to our family. And so the vicious cycle continues.

    My only comment for Nick is that you didn't mention that Physics is just a younger step-child to the truely fundamental science: Astronomy. That whole 'calculus' thing was to develop Astronomy... ;)

  15. Andrew,

    I'll do one better and claim the original mathematical science was astrophysics, that way everybody can be happy.

  16. Just one more note - for 50 states one would expect 8 to be significantly (1-sigma) above the national average and 8 to be below average. Note that there are 6 states above average but 12 below. Obviously it's easier to be bad at something than good at something, but it looks like we have a fairly skewed distribution, meaning that the top 6 states must really be doing something right.


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