High School Physics: How Perception Creates Reality

An undergraduate thesis for the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University - Tempe

by Toni Gagliardi tonigagliardi13@gmail.com

May 2018



Committee chair (Director): Jane C. Jackson, Ph.D. jane.jackson@asu.edu

Second committee member: Robert Culbertson, Ph.D. robert.culbertson@asu.edu


The thesis is slightly adapted for public posting at http://modeling.asu.edu .





This study explores the significant roles and responsibilities of Arizona physics teachers as well as the effect that these teachers have on students and thus their futures. In a two-fold survey administered to all 194 public comprehensive high school physics teachers with 60% participation, questions regarding the perception and expectations that physics teachers hold for themselves, students, and school counselors are addressed as well as the corresponding practices. This survey reveals that generally, teachers feel that students have preconceptions about what physics is and what the course requires, and yet approximately half of the teachers do not make significant recruitment efforts.

It is pertinent to ask why physics has one of the lowest enrollment statuses out of all the sciences in high school. Even more so, it is crucial to ask why there is a teacher shortage in the subject of physics. In exploring these questions, results to the previously mentioned genres of questions will speak to the issues at hand and are intended to give a robust explanation as to why physics is fading away in Arizona.






Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………………2

Setting The Stage, Arizona’s STEM Crisis…………..…………..……………………………....2

            Learning Physics: A Process….…………………………………………………………..3

            Teaching Physics: A Profession…………………………………………………………..4

Present Study……………………………………………………………………………………...5

Future Directions...………………………………………………………………………………13

            Existing Initiatives……………………………………………………………………….14

            Further Solutions…………………………………………………………………………16






            To preface this study, the context of Arizona’s educational status and the quality of workers that the public school system produces needs to be addressed. Several years after the Great Recession hit in 2008, more tech companies began moving locations to Arizona. Office rent and cost of living is relatively cheap compared to neighboring states, in addition to the constantly replenished talent pool provided by Arizona State University, University of Arizona, and some of the highest-ranking community colleges in the nation. This brings rise to what was recently and unofficially termed the “Silicon Desert” (Coxhead, 2016).

            The employment dynamic on the national scale can be compared to that of Arizona’s, specifically the Greater Phoenix area. According to a study from Georgetown University, the combination of new job openings and baby-boomer retirements will generate approximately 55 million jobs from the time of the recession to 2020 (Carnevale, 2013). According to this same study, nearly 80% of the jobs will require an education higher than the high school level. The breakdown of educational requirements includes 6 million jobs calling for a graduate degree, 13 million calling for a baccalaureate degree, 7 million calling for an associate’s degree, 5 million calling for some postsecondary certificate, 10 million calling for some college credit, and 20 million calling for a high school diploma (Carnevale, 2013).

            It is important to note that this study was conducted in 2013 and is a projection of what will occur over the seven years until 2020. As we are closer to 2020 than we are 2013, the implications of this study can be partially verified. For instance, this Georgetown study examined that the Great Recession nearly ten years ago resulted in a loss of 8.7 million jobs; however, this loss would be replaced with new jobs, and they were. By 2013, when this study was completed, nearly 6.1 million jobs were created, replacing 70% of what was lost. However, these 6.1 million jobs did not reflect the 8.7 million in that they required higher qualifications and different skill sets. This observance led to the projection of the new economic norm, which is what can be observed today (Carnevale, 2013).

            While abilities such as oral comprehension, expression, speech clarity, and problem-sensitivity continue to be highly valued throughout the economy, we see a rise in the need for knowledge domains such as mathematics, the English language, and computers and electronics (Carnevale, 2013). This rise in the technology industry is naturally calling for an increase in qualified individuals who can carry out the jobs effectively. This raises the question of whether or not Arizonans are prepared to be a part of this new workforce.



            The Introduction explores what the national figures look like, but Arizona is still behind the curve. Arizona’s unemployment rate of 4.9% is greater than the national average by 0.8% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018 (Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject, 2018). The quality of workers and their skill-sets are called into question as “employers report having trouble finding qualified candidates,” according to an article that covers Arizona’s biggest employers and how they’re conducting business. In a chart that ranks Arizona’s top 25 employers, it is shown that number of employees increased from 2016 to 2017 for over half of the companies including six in health care and four in finance, with the exception of technology companies such as Intel (ranked 8th) or Honeywell International (ranked 16th) that decreased their numbers over this timespan (Wiles, 2017). These technology companies are just a few out of all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professions, which include health care, finance (analysts), advanced manufacturing, engineering, as well as many trades. The study that produced the chart also says that “a lack of educational and other qualifications is a factor that’s keeping a significant proportion of Arizonans in poorly paying, part-time positions” (Wiles, 2017). This education includes STEM, and specifically physics education.


Learning Physics: A Process

            Learning typical high school physics 1 subject matter, such as mechanics, occurs long before entering the physics classroom. Critical thinking skills should be learned and practiced over many years as well as mathematical reasoning learned in early algebra and some trigonometry (Pitts, 2011). This scenario would be ideal; however, it is not always the case. All too frequently, what are commonly called cookbook labs are presented to students. Cookbook labs do not give the students an authentic sense of the nature of science (Cox, 1972). Instead, students are left with simple instructions to follow that do not engage in inquiry-based thinking. “Although it is important in science for students to learn how to follow directions, offering only cookbook labs limits students’ access to exploration. A worthwhile goal of a science teacher is to allow students to think and behave like scientists rather than to solely learn or replicate what other scientists have already done” (Peters, 2005).

            A common misconception is that the reason that physics is taught last out of the three high school sciences required to graduate in Arizona because it requires the most math and is the most difficult. High school sciences are typically taught in the order of biology, chemistry, and then physics for no reason other than that they are in alphabetical order. Of course some schools changed the order of this with purpose, but the majority remain this way (AAPT, 2009).

            Traditionally, 8th or 9th grade students take a life sciences or a physical sciences course, which is meant to prepare them for the subject matter in physics such as familiarity with units, working in a lab dynamic, and other practices that take place frequently in a high school physics course; however, this course typically does not introduce students to a scientific frame of thinking. The “scientific frame of thinking” understands that many problems do not have direct solutions. Though there may be practice problems in a high school class to learn a principle, ultimately, scientists in their profession are often left with little evidence from their studies to produce conclusions. Experiencing the trial and error as well as the leaps to conclusions that scientists frequently have to make is not a frame of thinking that students are often required to use in school. This mindset includes problem-solving, abstraction, creativity, inquiry and most importantly, critical thinking (Swift, 2018). “Without knowing how ideas were developed, learning science would require blind acceptance of many ideas about the natural world that appear to run counter to common sense. In a world increasingly dependent on the applications of science, people may feel powerless without some understanding of how to evaluate the quality of the information on which explanations are based. In science this evaluation concerns the methods used in collecting, analyzing and interpreting data to test theories” (Harlen, 2015).

It can be seen that many students are abandoning this opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills (most likely unknowingly) as only 20% of Arizona high-schoolers take physics. This compares to the national scale where 40% of high-schoolers take physics, as reported in the American Institute of Physics report by Susan White and Casey Langer Tesfaye (White, 2014).            The fact that the percentage of Arizona high school students taking physics is half of the national percentage is the foundation of what is currently being considered Arizona’s physics crisis. This is essentially the cornerstone for most, if not all initiatives that wil be discussed later on.

            A recent study of almost 900 high school chemistry students in Arizona shows that nearly 40% of them feel that they do not have the math skills to succeed in physics and nearly 65% fear that a poor grade in the course will hurt their GPA. Only 45% of students taking chemistry feel they have an adequate idea of what they would learn in physics (Barrett and Dukerich, 2017).

            The findings of these surveys and studies are problematic, as high school physics should ideally be where students are sharpening and refining their critical thinking skills that they’ve been practicing beforehand. Nevertheless, high school students are not receiving opportunities to build a science mindset before they reach high school physics, let alone taking physics at all. There are many misconceptions or preconceptions that stand in the way of a student receiving knowledge in a physics classroom.


Teaching Physics: A Profession

            In Arizona, almost 20% of high schools are without physics teachers (Jackson, 2018). Like teachers of various subjects in Arizona, physics teachers are paid very little. Unlike teachers of various other subjects, physics teachers have the capacity to easily find a different, more lucrative career, which potentially explains the crisis. As far as high school teacher pay, Arizona is ranked 49th with a median salary of $42,474 (Rau, 2018) . Additionally, “while teachers have gone nearly a decade with no appreciable raise, their insurance costs out of pocket have skyrocketed” as Arizona requires that teachers contribute 11.5%, or soon to be 13.6%, of every paycheck to their pension plan, which leaves the salary stated above just under $5,000 away from what teachers actually make yearly (ASRS). This is one of the reasons for Arizona’s physics teacher shortage.

            Fortunately, an increasingly popular method of teaching known as Modeling Instruction is slowly replacing lecturing, and is proven to be more effective in teaching science to students (Hestenes). This method promotes critical thinking, inquiry, and other science-minded character traits. Modeling practices include identifying physical phemona that occur in the world and then using labs and activities for students to discover the laws and patterns of physics for themselves. Typically an experiment will take place where teachers allow for students to decide what the independent and dependent variables are for the particular case and then find the relationship between them; and it is the student’s responsibility to produce equations (generated from graphs of data that students collect) to be used in the course, with teacher guidance, as opposed to the teacher giving away equations, laws, etc. (Wells et. al, 1995).

            Modeling Instruction is highly motivational and effective -- so much so that Kelli Gamez Warble, a long-time mechanics Modeling Workshop co-leader at Arizona State University, said that “she would have left teaching if it weren't for Modeling Instruction.” Her testimony is reinforced by many other physics teachers. For example,".. I was considering giving up teaching before I found the modeling program…” and “I am a high school physics teacher who probably would have left teaching had I not taken a modeling instruction workshop in the summer of 1999. For me, this workshop and the modeling method of instruction became a catalyst that completely changed my approach to teaching and my attitude about teaching.  I was transformed from a teacher who was constantly frustrated with students who couldn't "get it" into a teacher who better understands students and guides them to make sense of physics by giving them the opportunity and the means to do so through modeling instruction” (Jackson, compiler).



In this study (IRB: HRP-503a), a survey was sent to 194 public comprehensive high school physics teachers with four different genres of questions. These included background questions, i.e. “how many students attend your school”, questions regarding communication with the school counselor, questions asking about perception of their work, and lastly questions that were administered to counselors and students in a previous study in January of 2017 (mentioned above). These questions aim to collect quantitative data regarding what high school physics teachers do and what they think about what they do, in the most general sense. Out of the 194 public high school teachers in Arizona, 117 or 60% completed the survey.



            Taking a chronological approach to the data from my survey questions, we can start by looking at both questions one and two together.


            Q1: “What type of contact have you had with your high school’s counselor?”

            Q2: “How often are you in contact with the counselor regarding significance of physics

for success in college and the work-force?”


Nearly half, 52%, report having no significant contact with counselors, and 38% report one-on-one discussion while 16% report group meetings with counselors; however, 21% of the 38% of teachers are also a part of the 16% or in other words, nine teachers participate in both one-on-one discussion and group meetings. Of the 51(44%) teachers who do either one-on-one discussions or group meetings in question one, 5% answered “never” to question 2 and 66% answered 1-2 times per year. Therefore, out of the teachers who are in contact with their school counselors, more than half discuss the significance of physics. (Question two will be considered in a later section.)


            Turning to questions three and four;


Q3: “How often do you discuss college/career paths with your students?” (solid)

Q4: How often do you discuss with your students why physics is important even if

they're not going into a STEM career?” (checkered)


we can see the following:


Figure 1. a graph comparing responses to question three (solid) and question four (checkered), showing teachers discussing the significance of physics outside of the STEM field with more frequency.


            The fact that both responses are very similar is potentially due to the likeliness of teachers to naturally talk about career and college paths in the context of physics. Because these answers are so very close in responses it is possible that teachers could have read over question four, misreading the “not going into STEM careers” as “going into STEM careers”. I think it unlikely that teachers speak with their students about the significance of physics outside of STEM almost equally as much as they talk about the future in general with their students.


            Moving on to question five:


Q5: (T/F) “I recruit physics students from chemistry courses or students who are taking a required science one year before physics.”


Nearly 73% of teachers answered “true”, which I think shows the teachers’ awareness for the need to promote physics through recruitment. Out of this 73% of teachers, 100% report participating in at least one promotional event in question 9, which can be seen as a confirmation. From question six:


Q6: (T/F) “My school teaches physics as the first-year science (to freshman or



Responses yielded 21% “true” or that 21% of schools do have a first year physics course. As participants were capable of voluntarily leaving comments on the questions, one teacher stated that “most freshmen (365) [are] in a physics class that is truly a physical science class, not a true physics class.” It was found that out of these 21%, nearly half of them were counting a first-year physical science course as physics, leaving only 13 or 14 teachers to be true first-year physics teachers. Even then, several of these teachers teach additional advanced physics courses, which leaves only ten or fewer to be singularly Physics First teachers. The reason that this question is of immediate interest is because physics – as discussed earlier – is traditionally the last science to take in high school, making it highly unpopular for a number of reasons. When physics is taken first, we can think of the dynamic of teachers’ perception differently. For instance, an advanced physics teacher at a large Physics First school (2000-2500 students; 400 freshmen and only 24 upperclassmen taking physics) commented: "I also think that students are not taking traditional physics because they think the freshman course is "enough physics" for college." This specific insight is valuable for reasons that will be discussed in “Suggestions” .

            For Physics First teachers, looking at question five with respect to question six, all teachers who teach advanced physics in Physics First schools answered “true” that they did recruit from required science courses the year before physics, not to be confused with 9th grade-specific physics teachers who all answered “false” with two exceptions.


            Question seven probes whether or not teachers turn to the online resources available to them:

            Q7: (T/F) “I do share with my students the information from an online resource regarding

the significance of physics in college, in careers, and outside of STEM fields. (Such as American Physical Society careers website)”


Unfortunately, after the survey was administered, we decided that the American Physical Society (APS) career website may not be the best example to use within the question as this website (at https://www.aps.org/careers/employment/index.cfm) is not very user-friendly. Even with the poor choice in example within the question, the results show that 43% of teachers still use online resources for future guidance. We know of two other resources that teachers can turn to that are user-friendly and filled with a variety of resources for different audiences such as teachers, students, and parents. One of these resources includes The Physics Careers Resource, which provides all types of information mentioned above (ComPADRE).


Questions eight and nine speak to the nature of teacher-counselor dynamics and responsibilities for course promotion; question eight is:


Q8: “Whose responsibility is it to share information regarding the future of students?”


An unexpected 93% of teachers indicate that it is the counselor’s responsibility, while

88% also said that they as teachers were responsible. Some individual answers include specific career services that a teachers’ school provides. Nine out of the 13 teachers who did not choose “mine” as one of the answers singularly chose “the school counselor” as the primary source for which students should be receiving their information; and though this is a relatively small number, these 7% of teachers are the starting point for a change discussed in the following section that needs to be made. On the other end of the spectrum, 77% of teachers responded with all three answers: “mine”, “the school counselor”, and “other teachers”, which indicates their understanding of the community effort that schools should be making to educate their students about college and careers.


            Looking at teacher efforts alone, question nine asks the following:


Q9: “What kinds of activities do you participate in to promote your course?”


This question is telling of how physics teachers view the significance of their role in physics future enrollment as well as current student success. Two of the five options available in question nine are “clubs” and “projects”. 73% of teachers do projects, and 40% participate in clubs. Two examples of clubs that promote the direct use of physics in a setting outside of the classroom are EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) and MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement).

            Now, “classroom visits” and “promotional events” will be analyzed according to the number of teachers who responded “mine” to question eight. Out of all 104 teachers who acknowledged their own responsibility for informing students about their futures, only 56% promote their course with promotional events or classroom visits. Some individual, voluntary comments include: “Announcements on the daily announcement system during course registration”, “Summer School Enrichment activities”, “Recruiting video for middle schools and talking with middle school science teachers”, “Six Flags Trip”, or “the school's official registration information night”. The reason these promotional events are significant is because if 88% of physics teachers are acknowledging that it is their responsibility to inform their students about the future, then they ought to know how their course will give their students a great advantage and therefore should be seeking to give as many students as possible this education of not only physics subject matter but also the thinking skills that come with it.

Figure 2. The number of teachers who participate in classroom visits and promotional events if they acknowledged their responsibility for informing students about their future in question nine.


Nevertheless, more teachers think that it is the school counselors’ role to inform students about their futures; yet 52% of teachers report no significant contact with their school counselor and 38% report that they have never spoken to their counselor specifically about the importance of physics, while 48% say that they have had contact with the counselor one or two times regarding this matter. Taking this into account, question 22 asks if teachers think that a different class was recommended to students; 53% of teachers agree and 20% strongly agree. If classes are generally recommended by counselors, then we can turn back to question eight in addition to question two: “How often are you in contact with the counselor regarding significance of physics for success in college and the work-force?” Of the 93% of teachers who say it is the school counselors’ role to inform students about their future, 47% say that they have never been in contact with their counselor about the significance of physics to students’ futures. Similarly to the teacher rates of promoting physics, teachers and counselors are not working together to instill within students the desire to take physics. This can be seen even more so in question one where nearly half, 52%, of teachers report no significant contact to Q2: “What type of contact have you had with your high school’s counselor?”

Additionally, in Arizona a program exists called the Arizona Career Information System (AZCIS) where students are supposed to plan their courses around what would be useful in their future career. This program provides information regarding different careers and their requirements in what they call a “Career Cluster Plan of Study” and in this, physics is often only an option rather than a requirement. The recommendations can be found in 16 different plans that AZCIS has drafted for students to take in high school. Only two of these plans – “Information Technology” and “Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics” – leave physics as the required course for 12th grade. On the other hand, plans including “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” as well as “Architecture and Construction” or “Health Science” do not require physics. This could shed some light as to why counselors do not advise students to take physics, when they could be taking a course such as environmental science, chemistry, or anatomy (Arizona Career Information System).


            Moving into a course content-based question, question 10 asks:


Q10: (Y/M/N) “I believe that a student with average grades in mathematics would benefit from a regular high school physics class taught with an emphasis on developing mathematical understanding through practical applications and project-based experiences.”


This question does not take into account which grade level physics is taught, but that may not be a necessary factor to analyze as 0% answered “No” to this question. Only 6% answered “Maybe” but ultimately an overwhelming majority agreed that average students would benefit from taking a physics course. This is in accord with the fact that three-fourths of teachers do projects as well.


            Question 11 addresses professional development and ascertains the loyalty of Arizona’s physics teacher community.


            Q11: “Which ASU physics modeling workshops have you taken? (check all that apply)”


60% of participants took a three-week summer Modeling Workshop and yet of the 194 Arizona physics teachers polled, only 46% took a summer Modeling Workshop. This could suggest that the physics teachers who took a Modeling Workshop feel more connected as they participated in the survey rather than ignoring it. However, it must be acknowledged that about 2/3 of Arizona’s physics teachers live within commuting distance of ASU, giving them easier access to the Modeling Workshops.


            Question 12 asks:


Q12: “Does your school offer a hard-to-fill addendum or some type of yearly stipend, in addition to your base salary for teaching physics? If so, how much?”


Teacher salaries are so low that hard-to-fill stipends are keeping physics teachers in the classrooms. Only 30% of survey participants get a yearly stipend. Of those, 2/3 get less than $2000 per year. The Trump administration budget for 2019 would eliminate the Title II program and thus decrease the pay of these 30% of physics teachers. These Title II funds are specifically for teachers and every school district and charter school (local education agency, LEA) may apply for these funds from their State Department of Education (SEA). Specifically, these funds can go to research-based professional development like Modeling Workshops, for example, or for recruitment and retention stipends to teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as physics or chemistry. The total budget that the Trump administration proposes eliminating is $2,055,800,000 (FY 2019 Education Budget Summary and Background). The justification statement for eliminating the Title II program is that it “provides grants to SEAs and subgrants to LEAs to increase student achievement, primarily through professional development for teachers and class-size reduction. The Title II-A program is largely duplicative; virtually all other ESEA formula grant funds (e.g., Title I, Title III) may be used for teacher or staff professional development.” (FY 2019 Education Budget Summary and Background, page 56). This quote from the proposed 2019 budget does not take into consideration that Title II funds go to many more schools than Title I funds; Title II is not duplicative. Additionally, most Arizona teachers say that there is no other source of funds other than Title II, which are already difficult to obtain for Modeling Workshops. Furthermore, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Director of K-12, Rebecca Vieyra, wrote, "I generally think that although Title I "can be used for teacher PD, it probably won't be. Title II explicitly addresses preparation and retention -- I often think that the whole point of legislation is to make a point with language, and when language (or its emphasis) gets lost, so does its impact, even if the money is there.” (AZSELA listserv archive, Feb. 26, 2018, TCHRS listserv archive, May 7, 2018.)


            Questions 14 and 15 reveal interesting statistics but to preface them, question 13 is briefly discussed:


            Q13: “What sections/levels of physics does your school offer? (all that apply)”

            Q14: “Approximately how many students attend your high school?”

            Q15: “Approximately how many students are taking physics in your high school now?”


Looking further into the 82% of teachers who answered “regular/core” to question 13, the number of physics students was examined for the schools that do not teach regular/core. The average number of students enrolled in physics (either honors, AP 1 and/or 2 or both) is 64 which is roughly two sections of physics per the 21 schools that do not offer regular physics. Only offering a higher level physics course may discourage students who typically do not take courses that are not “on-level” or core classes, making physics a class for students who tend to challenge themselves only, rather than everybody.

            To look at the correlation between question 14 and 15: the size of high school and approximate percent of students who are taking physics, we omitted the 13 Physics First schools, two schools with indeterminate physics enrollment numbers, and nine duplicate schools, leaving 93 schools to analyze. Schools were sorted by size range and then the average enrollment was estimated below:


# schools

Total # phy stdts

Average #/school

% taking physics

100 to 500





500 to 1000





1000 to 1500





1500 to 2000

24 or fewer




2000 to 2500

13 or fewer




> 2500

26 or fewer


Cannot estimate

Cannot estimate


93 or fewer




Table 1. Correlation of school size to total number of physics students with averages. (Jane Jackson, personal correspondence)

According to Table 1, the smallest rural schools and medium-large schools have the highest percentage of physics students; (these medium-large schools are more suburban than urban). In school sizes that range from 500 to 2000 students, only 20% of students take physics. To put these percent physics enrollment estimates into context, Arizona has about 182 comprehensive public high schools, and out of these schools that have physics teachers and are not Physics First school, 41 are rural, 18 are in Tucson, and 78 are in Greater Phoenix; this totals to 137. Therefore, roughly 2/3 of schools (93/137) are represented in this survey.

            It is important to note that 34 comprehensive public high schools in Arizona no longer have a physics teacher since the economic recession of 2008. These schools range in size from 120 students to 2400 students. Of the 14 that are in Greater Phoenix, 11 range in size from 1000 to 2400 students. Of the 20 rural schools, almost all have fewer than 1000 students (Jane Jackson, personal correspondence 2018).


            Many students do not have the desire to take physics due to preconceptions they have regarding the course, subject matter, and even teachers. Looking at questions 16-22, teachers were asked to respond to the scenarios starting with: “I believe students do not take physics because…” where a chart of all responses can be seen below:


Figure. 3 Raw results from Q16, Q17, Q18, Q19, Q20 , Q21, and Q22. Setting these results side by side shows that the answers to the following questions are commonly agreed upon with one exception:

Q16: They believe they haven't mastered the mathematical skills to be successful.

Q17: They don't understand what topics are studied in physics and what is required to be successful.

Q18: They fear the instructor may not help them if they have difficulty.

Q19: They may not understand how physics could help them in their post high school career – especially in a STEM-related field.

Q20: They are concerned that a poor grade in physics will jeopardize their chance of being accepted by post-secondary school.

Q21: They believe that physics is only for people who want to be engineers.

Q22: A different science class was recommended to them.

Teachers chose “agree” (purple) in much higher numbers for every question with the exception of Q18, the question involving teacher helpfulness to students. This shows that teachers assume students in general do not feel that they have the skills, knowledge, and understanding of future benefits as well as a heavy influence of others (probably chiefly guidance counselors) recommending other science courses, since they misunderstand physics to be a course for only engineers.

Questions 16 to 22 were also administered in a separate survey to 75 Arizona public high school counselors and 875 Arizona high school chemistry students in 2017. In January of 2017, a survey was carried out by Larry Dukerich and Earl Barrett to better understand the lack-of-physics-students crisis (Barrett and Dukerich, 2017). Their findings were that only 45% of chemistry students surveyed said that they have a good idea of what they would study in physics, while nearly 65% of counselors think that students do not have a good grasp of what physics is about. While 60% of students feel that they have the math skills needed to be successful in physics, almost 70% of counselors disagree with that view. About 45% of students aren't sure that physics would help them succeed in college or technical school. 57% of counselors think that students are not aware of benefits of physics. Nearly 65% of students fear that a poor grade in physics will hurt their chances of being accepted by college; 56% of counselors agree. More than 40% of students think that physics is only for people intending to become engineers. Over half of the counselors think this is what students believe. It is distressing that nearly 60% of counselors admit that they have no significant contact with the physics teacher(s) at their school.

            My findings show that physics teachers think similarly to chemistry students and their expectations for physics. Nearly 77% of high school physics teachers likewise believe that students may not have the math skills needed to succeed in physics, while about 72% of teachers agree or strongly agree that students might fear their GPA getting ruined by a physics course. Lastly, around 83% of teachers agree or strongly agree that students not having taken physics may not be aware of the topics studied in the course.





            Many new efforts can be implemented to help students grow more connected to their studies or have a better understanding of what physics provides, i.e. critical thinking, etc.; however, there are already organizations, efforts, initiatives, and programs that could see more recognition.


Existing Initiatives

            As mentioned previously, Modeling Instruction and Modeling Workshops involve a foundational change of pedagogy that could potentially be implemented in every physics classroom. Before discussing promotional efforts, ensuring that physics teachers are prepared to teach effectively is critical. Effective learning has been proven to be carried out through the modeling process, specifically allowing for students to explore their preconceptions about physical phenomena and then guiding them through topics to be addressed as scientifically minded individuals (Hestenes). Modeling Instruction, however, is relatively new – introduced in the 1980s by Malcolm Wells of Marcos De Niza High School in Tempe – and is still not fully embraced (Wells, 1995).

            There is not adequate funding for teachers to become educated about Modeling Instruction. For now, there exists Title II funding for every school district to pay for professional development. These funds must be shared with private schools as well. Every school district must meaningfully consult with teachers to develop its yearly application for Title II funds to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). Though very few districts use Title II funds for ASU Modeling Workshops (Jane Jackson, personal communication 2018), it would be ideal for teachers and district administrators to apply for and distribute $2,000 to these teachers for the Modeling Workshops. The survey conducted shows 41% of participating teachers never attended a Modeling Workshop. Title II funds are available to all, yet the districts and teachers must come together and value physics enough to decide that this is where funding should go.

            Arizona Senate Bill SB1038 was recently passed (in May 2017) and it appropriates $300,000 for $2,000 scholarships for professional development (Jackson 2). Dr. Jane Jackson stated that “By mid-March 2018, all 150 scholarships were awarded: 25 to re-train in physics (and 7 to prepare to qualify for physics dual enrollment) … Since August 2017, I have spent much time making teachers aware of the scholarships, personally and via TCHRS, our listserv for Arizona physics & chemistry teachers/faculty (1000 subscribers). Teachers have no time, and they need much encouragement to pursue re-training” (Jackson 2).

            The expansion of legislative work is already in progress with the Cactus Caucus, an award of the AAPT, including Melissa Girmscheid, Jeff Hengesbach, Nichole Spencer, and Amanda Whitehurst – all prominent physics and physical science educators in the Greater Phoenix area. Their advisors include Kelli Gamez Warble and Mike Vargas, who both have accomplished much in the field of physics education.

            Several other initiatives and programs include Physics First, Chief Science Officers (CSO), and STEM Teachers Phoenix, an affiliate of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA), just to name a few. All three of these serve individual purposes but ultimately work towards the same long-term goals. Physics First refers to schools that teach physics as a first-year science. This is not a physical science course but rather physics 1. According to Mike Vargas, there are benefits from learning physics and algebra at the same time from both a mathematics and physics standpoint. Having a physics course to practice the concepts learned in algebra gives students the opportunity to immediately apply what they learn in math to real scenarios and phenomena of physics (Vargas, AAPT). Chief Science Officers on the other hand, turns to younger students in middle school and high school to elect students to represent their school as a “science officer”. This program created by Jeremy Babendure holds conferences, meetings, camps, and showcase events for young students to experience a community of science. CSO is conducive to scientific collaboration and pushing students to be more science minded at a young age. Similarly to CSO, STEM Teachers Phoenix of the AMTA comes together for various events such as workshops and conferences. As the name suggests, this association serves to educate educators about modeling, which was discussed previously. Together, these three examples of current initiatives are all on track to prepare students for success both before and during their experience with high school physics.

            Though the previously mentioned initiatives are powerful in purpose and practice, a very immediate solution can be found with physics teachers Zachary Kovach and Melissa Girmscheid. Zachary Kovach teaches at La Joya Community High School in Avondale where he grew physics from two sections to 13 sections in three years, while Melissa Girmscheid teaches at Centennial HS in Peoria, where she has doubled her physics enrollment. Their zeal with which they approach recruitment of physics students has proven effective as Zachary takes the “why”, “how”, and “what” approach where each question is answered with:

(Why?): “I can help you see our world for the amazing place it is, unlock the mysteries of the universe, and learn skills that will benefit your future no matter what you do.”

(How?): “Do cool projects, build things, go outside, do hands-on labs, work together to solve problems, have fun” and lastly

(What?): “By the way, this course is called physics!”


In addition to the following strategies, further recommendations are seen in the figure below (Kovach & Girmscheid, 2017; “Workshop Info”, see references):

Figure 4. A list of helpful practices to recruit students for physics written by Zak Kovach.







Melissa’s recruitment strategies include the following as well in figure five:


Figure 5. A list of helpful practices to recruit students for physics written by Melissa Girmscheid.

            The examples set by both Melissa Girmscheid and Zachary Kovach are real, excellent solutions that other teachers can adapt to or even find inspiration from, when going about recruitment. This attitude and clear passion for the subject matter is what excites students, and perhaps there would be a higher response rate to question nine regarding the types of promotional activities if more teachers adopted their own recruitment philosophy the way that these two superb teachers have. Partnerships between AMTA, ASU, and AAPT additionally worked with Melissa and Zak to put together workshops for other teachers around Arizona on Modeling Instruction as well as increasing physics enrollment (“Workshop Info”, see references). This example of actively promoting and recruiting for physics will likely resolve many preconceptions that teachers believe their students buy into, as seen in questions 16-22.


Further Solutions

            These currently active solutions are critical in the advancement of science-mindedness and ultimately in the enrollment in high school physics; however, there are more solutions based on my survey that could potentially increase physics enrollment immediately. As one of the individual responses to the survey suggests, recruitment from middle school/junior high could pique the interest of students at a younger age when they are arguably more enthusiastic about learning. A combination of recruitment and interactive engagement (for example, Modeling Instruction) in earlier grades would prime students for high school physics and other sciences. If interactive engagement were the only way in which science teachers presented their content, then students would never have to make the transition in learning styles during high school. Additionally, this would produce more science-minded individuals who have been taught to think critically and inquisitively throughout their entire education. This makes all science courses less like history courses with rote memorization and little questioning or creativity.

            Lastly, funding Arizona schools could see some attention. Though we have discussed both Title II funds and SB1038, most physics teachers never see any of that money for professional development. Simply funding schools for updated resources, higher teacher salary, professional development, more teachers and thus smaller class sizes would immensely help the current status of Arizona’s public education, which is effectively last in the nation (Courtland, 2018). Arizona teachers have already started working on higher teacher salaries via the Red for Ed movement. This organized teacher walkout is drawing attention to the lack of updated resources that schools have access to as well as the low teacher salaries in Arizona (Willingham, 2018).

            Perhaps local school funding should not be based on local property taxes as this creates a dependence on the socioeconomic standing of a neighborhood for the quality of education that students receive (Arboleda, 2015). “In fact, the Arizona Supreme Court found in Roosevelt v. Bishop that reliance on local property taxes for capital funding was unconstitutional and ordered the state to provide adequate capital funding for all public schools” (Arboleda, 2015). A solution to this is core funding or supplemental funding, which aims to equalize the distribution of funds; however, this does also include charter schools. In the most general sense, adequate funding for schools is still a work in progress.


The physics classroom is the birthplace of scientific reasoning and critical thinking for most students. According to my survey, teachers are recognizing this fact and yet not much action is being taken to ensure students are aware and receiving all of the benefits of a physics education. Modeling Instruction does help students think differently about science, what the scientific method means, and how to practice science. This is exactly what our future needs. The statements made earlier about lack of prepared/qualified workers will soon be unnecessary when modeling is in full force, teachers and counselors are working together, and when students fully understand that physics is more than memorized equations about forces, springs, and pullies. Only then can Arizona produce a fully-qualified workforce that will move along the advancement of technology in our society.




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(Raw Data)















Questions 16-22 teachers were asked: “In your view, students do not enroll in physics because.”