Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Sad State of U.S. High School Physics

The news in the most recent issue of Physics Today wasn't encouraging in the least, for those of us who'd like to see more U.S. high schoolers studying physics. First, the article (July, p. 29, 'Convincing U.S. States to Require Physics') notes that in terms of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) core subjects, the states by and large a doing a lousy job.

Based on data from the Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI), Massachusetts continues to do best, and Mississippi the worst. SERI, it should be noted, differs from many other indices in that it focuses on physics. (A map of the U.S. attached may be consulted to see how the separate states vary on the SERI index).

At stake is obtaining a degree in one area of the STEM field. According to Paul Cottle, a physicist at the Florida State University:

"Having taken physics in high school is the strongest correlation to STEM degree attainment."

However, according to the Florida Dept. of Education, 95% of the state's high school students took biology, 70% took chemistry and only 23% took quantitative physics (i.e. integrating some level of mathematics with the presentation, usually at least algebra.) Meanwhile, data obtained by the American Institute of Physics found a physics taking rate of 31% for Florida high schoolers, vs. 37% nationally. This is very strange in a state that for the last 30 years has launched everything from space stations to Space shuttles.

By contrast, in Barbados, all students are required to take at least a term of physics (this is for most of the comprehensive schools) while at Harrison College (where I taught for 5 years) every student had to take at least TWO years, and most students took 6 years. Unlike in the U.S., physics is taken in cumulative stages with each stage accumlating more material - year by year. Thus, not only is the past material not forgotten, but it's applied each year in new ways to different parts of the curriculum.

In this way, Harrison College students graduate with top achievement levels (via A-levels) and many go directly on to become juniors at MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Harvard, Oxford and other elite institutions. In other words, they put rings around their U.S. counterparts.

According to Prof. Cottle, cited again in the article:

"It's very tough to sell physics to school districts."

One wonders why. For example, why is it that a small 3rd world nation like Barbados with much lower GDP and resources than the great U.S. can manage actual lab physics courses to all students, while the U.S. can't or refuses to do so. There are a number of possible reasons and two might be: 1) Including Physics will put more pressure on teachers in an environment where schools are hostage to state aptitude tests, and 2) Not enough qualified teachers are available to teach the subject.

Maybe it's past time we stopped talking of cutting school budgets and started paying exceptional teachers in elite areas like physics more, while also teaching less nonsense (like 'creation science' or Intelligent design).

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