Increasing Physics Enrollment in Arizona

By Earl Barrett (October 2015: APS Four Corners Annual Meeting)

 

For 25 of my 41 years in teaching I had the best job in the world.  I taught physics. I worked in a department that recognized that talking was not teaching and every class was built on active learning with the laboratory experience serving as the heart of curriculum. Because we were all community college certified, we were able to create AP/CC Dual enrollment courses, which allowed the CC to  supply us with money for equipment and supplies.  This was a real blessing because we were able to stop selling candy as a way to buy supplies. More importantly we became a democratically driven department quite capable of making decisions in the best interest of the students. In short we supported each other's curriculum and shared the equipment wherever possible.

 

Today there are no longer three physics teachers and 14 sections of physics at my old school. Instead there are three sections of AP Physics.  Two sections of AP-1 and one section of AP-2. Every section of regular high school physics has disappeared, and the reasons this happened should be of concern to everyone.

 

It seems the present emphasis revolves around the expansion of the AP program - this I believe is an inappropriate focus. See results of last few years (at the end of this document).

 

In order to keep this simple, I am going to focus on three areas.  What is the problem? Why is the problem critical? What actions need to be taken to solve the problem? So here goes.

 

What is the Problem?

Only 1/3 of U.S. high school students take physics. This is far fewer than in most countries with which we compete economically.  Many countries require all students to take physics.  Unfortunately, to bring the US to this standard would require a five-fold increase in the number of physics teachers.

 

We should be raising the status of high school physics so that it is considered the core science class by all high school students, particularly by our economically disadvantaged and minority populations. The goal should be a “Modeling Instruction” driven physics class that fully prepares all students for success in college and career.

 

Of all school subjects, physics has the most severe teacher shortage, yet nationally we know that only one-third of high school physics teachers teach only physics classes.  Arizona is a perfect example. Maricopa County has 125 physics teachers employed in the 90 school district high schools that offer physics. Only 30% of these teachers are fully utilized; i.e, teach physics full-time.

 

According to a recent ACT survey, The Condition of Future Educators, just 5 percent of the roughly 1.85 million 2014 high school graduates who took the ACT test said they intend to pursue a teaching career. Its the lowest percentage since 2010, when 7 percent of college-bound seniors said they intended to major in education. Universities are producing 0.5 physics teacher a year.  Retirements in the next five years will reduce the experienced physics teacher pool by 40%.

 

So the problem is threefold - not enough students are enrolling in high school physics (particularly in economically disadvantaged populations), we have no realistic program for supplying future physics teachers, and few college students want to be teachers of any kind.  For the short term Arizona could handle an increased physics enrollment because physics teachers are not being fully utilized.

 

Why is the problem critical?

I spent two days with my grandson this summer administering the Force Concept Inventory (FCI).  He is a typical 14 year old know-it-all male.  The rules were he could not whine when he got most of the answers wrong and he had to provide me with his reasoning for each answer.  He got 10 correct out of 30 questions which is quite normal; we spent the next two days reviewing his rationale.   I had never done this before and it was an epiphany for me.  His reasoning even for the questions he got correct were still all wrong.  We had a ball working through the test, doing small experiments and  creating a new picture for just how to look at the concepts of force and motion.  This is important to realize because this means most students have a bunch of Aristotelian ideas about force that they will take into biology, chemistry and earth science. These ideas won’t disappear by what they learn in those classes or by themselves, so the ideal sequence would be physics and then the rest of the sciences.

 

The U.S. faces a current and future shortage of STEM professionals, and most of the new jobs in the future are STEM-based.  High school physics is the foundational science for nearly all STEM careers. Physics is the definition of STEM. Physics is core science, it makes the best use of present technology, it is a different name for engineering, and it gives students a reason for learning the mathematics they are required to take in high school.  I have heard too many students tell me that they hate math, but that is not true.  They hate the fact that they don’t understand how to use math in meaningful ways. School counselors don’t believe most students have the mathematical skills to pass physics, yet Arizona students must pass four years of mathematics in order to graduate, so this argument has no merit.  What does have merit is a marriage of physics with math, so students can see just why they need math skills to be successful in a STEM career. 

 

If we are serious about wanting to prepare students for STEM careers, then physics and its synergy with mathematics and sister sciences is the answer.

 

What can be done to help solve the problem?

A close friend who was a former principal tells me the greatest reason for student success in school is a waiting list for entry. The way to influence a student's enrollment selections is through WIFM: What’s In It For Me. Students will not take classes unless they think they can be successful; my conversations with teachers and counselors have revealed that they don’t think most students are capable of passing physics.

 

Students should believe:

* They are capable of passing physics.

* The physics teachers are fair.

* Having physics on their record will assist them in entrance to and success in college or technical school.

 

Students should:

* Know what they will be studying in physics and why it is relevant.

* Have their present teachers and counselors recommend physics enrollment.

* Be allowed to take physics to meet one of the math requirements for graduation.

 

Ideally we need to find a partner willing to fund a school interested in improving physics enrollment and allow implementation of the program that Jane Jackson will discuss next. (See accompanying documents at http://modeling.asu.edu/Projects-Resources.html . Scroll to the bottom of the page, to the section on increasing physics enrollment.)

 

Appendix:

Exam Statistics For Physics AP-B and AP Physics I

The number of students taking the physics test doubled between 2014 and 2015. The College Board, which administers the AP program, said that represents the largest annual growth in any AP course in the history of the program.

Below are statistics for the last three years of the AP Physics-B exam:

 

2012

AP Physics B exam

 

Score

Fraction

Comments

Fraction

5

15.0%

ASU credit

 

4

19.1%

ASU credit

34.1%

3

26.8%

 

 

2

17.2%

Considered failing

 

1

21.9%

Considered failing

39.1%

 

2013

AP Physics B exam

 

Score

Fraction

Comments

Fraction

5

15.2%

ASU credit

 

4

19.7%

ASU credit

34.9%

3

26.4%

 

 

2

16.8%

Considered failing

 

1

21.9%

Considered failing

38.7%

 

2014

AP Physics B exam

90,000

Score

Fraction

Comments

Fraction

5

14.3%

ASU credit

 

4

18.5%

ASU credit

34.1%

3

26.9%

 

 

2

17.5%

Considered failing

 

1

22.8%

Considered failing

40.3%

 

Note how consistent these breakdowns are for the years 2012-2014.

Contrast these results with those from the 2015 AP Physics I exam.

 

2015

AP Physics I exam

170,000

Score

Fraction

Comments

Fraction

5

4.1%

ASU credit

 

4

12.8%

ASU credit

16.9%

3

20.0%

 

 

2

30.2%

Considered failing

 

1

20.9%

Considered failing

63.1%

 

Note the marked decline in the fraction of students qualifying for credit in college physics.
Fewer than 50% of the students enrolled in an AP Physics course actually take the exam.

"These numbers for the AP Physics course blew my socks off and gave me hope for the country” David Coleman, the president of the College Board, said in an Aug. 26 webinar for reporters.

 

My response to David Coleman:

If I built a new car that had a 63% failure rate I would be out of business.

The norm for a high school physics course should be a solid course that emphasizes conceptual understanding and where students enjoy learning about the way the world works. High school is not a place where we educate only the elite student, it's the place where students grow, experiment, interact with new ideas, discover their potential and gain the skills needed for success in career or college.

 

 Earl Barrett. October 2015