Checklist for implementation of a plan to increase physics enrollment

by Earl Barrett, retired from Dobson High School in Mesa (AZ) Public Schools.  2015


In 2009 my opinion piece, Increasing Physics Enrollment at your School , was published in The Physics Teacher.   This checklist gives more specific detail concerning steps you might follow to implement the plan.


A - Get the high school counselors on your side.


Most important: Invite counselors to observe one of your classes, especially when you do a project. This could easily be your best way to change attitudes and win allies.


Set up a meeting with school counselors you feel are most supportive to physics education and:

1    Give them a copy of "7 Myths About High School Physics" (free download -- see References below) a few days before you meet with them. Ask if they disagree with any of the statements and why. Follow up by asking them what kind of students they encourage to take physics.  (Do they say that students hate math and they think physics is just one more math class? Do they feel students are not smart enough to pass physics because their math is too weak?  Give me a break -- these same students have passed at least three years of math!)


2    Ask what they hear from students about your physics program. This is important feedback that may be painful but useful if you want to grow the program.


3    Give them a copy of your curriculum and explain your philosophy and what you do to help struggling students succeed.


4    Ask them what they believe you can do to increase student enrollment.


5    Find out if there are any counselors who have a negative impression of physics and why. These are people you need to be on your side.  Plan on finding a way to change their minds about the way physics is taught at your school.


6    Ask them if they would be willing to bring up the importance of physics in a counseling staff meeting, and tell them you would be more than willing to attend.


7  Tell them the research findings: (see below for references and weblinks).

Š      A student who takes “reform” (i.e., active learning) high school physics is three times more likely to earn a STEM degree than a student whose last high school science course was chemistry.  (Tyson et al; and TIMSS Study of 12th grade physics students. See

Š      Students who take “one or two years of physics in high school exhibit a significantly higher STEM career interest, as a group…  Those who take a course in another science [other than two years of chemistry] or an additional year of biology show no significant increase, on average …. We find no evidence that students’ taking an Advanced Placement science or calculus course increases their likelihood of having a STEM career interest.” (Sadler et al, 2014)

B - Make parents aware of the merits of enrolling in high school physics.


1    Get physics information embedded in the school's web site in a way that makes it stand out.   “Want to find out how to give your student a way to get a step ahead of everyone else? Come to…”


2    Create a YouTube demo that includes information concerning your physics program. Get the URL distributed by every means possible.


3    Offer a physics information night for parents and create a hook that will get their attention:

       Learn why physics gives their son or daughter an advantage when applying to college.

       Which advanced/honors physics program is the right one for their child.

       Provide information about the AP program. Parents have no understanding that the AP exams are normed, which means that the percentage of students who will earn a score of 3, 4 or 5 has remained constant over the years. They also need to know the kind of credit that the state universities award vs. different out of state colleges. If your school also offers Dual Enrollment community college physics, parents should know how that credit transfers to other colleges.


C - Make chemistry students aware of benefits of enrolling in high school physics.


1    Meet with each chemistry class for 10 minutes (exchange time with the chemistry teacher) and provide them with a handout outlining the benefits of taking physics (see F -2 below). Answer their questions and include a favorite demo that gets their attention.  Emphasize that physics is a doing class and not a passive listening class. Offer to answer their questions before or after school.


2    Try to establish a good working relationship with the chemistry teachers, and encourage them to tell students that many of their questions will be answered next year when they take physics (not if they take physics).  Implanting that idea that they will take physics, from day one of their chemistry course, is vital to creating a culture of continuity between the two sciences.


D - Use your physics students to sell the program. (Nothing is better then word of mouth praise.)


1    Students talk to their friends about what they did in class, not what you did. So encourage them to tell their friends what they do in physics class.


2    Students talk about their class projects -- not your great lectures. If you don’t have student projects, you are missing out on the best part of physics teaching. Include parent volunteers in your student projects. ["The key is to have several modeling cycles under one's belt before doing a project so that all the power of modeling (models, whiteboards, whole group discussions, multiple representations, etc.) can be employed in the solving of the problem."]


3    Physics students should be seen “doing physics” by other potential students. Collecting data in the halls, or any place visible to others, sets your class apart from the norm.

4    One big event a year, such as a Physics Olympics or cardboard boat race, will usually draw the press if you tell them about it. This targets both students and parents.


5    Group projects or innovative explorations that have outreach are powerful tools.

Š      For example, I had a project in which physics students would spend a half-day in either an elementary or junior high class and teach a lesson. They conducted a test of preconceptions, directed a hands-on experiment, analyzed the data, developed a conclusion with the students, and did a post-assessment.  Years later, those same student learners would tell me they remembered the lesson the high school physics students taught them.

Š      Applying physics to finding a way to create a device to assist a special-needs student gives great joy to students, and is something they can tell their friends about. This was easily the best project I have ever been part of, and the joy of seeing my AP kids hug their new special-needs friends in the hall between classes made teaching so satisfying.


E - Get the school principals on your side.


Set up a meeting with the school principals and:


1    Tell them why you believe an increase in physics enrollment would benefit students and the school.  Bring evidence of your belief as well as data showing that students who take physics improve their scores on standardized tests and are more likely to enter STEM careers.


2    Ask them what they think you could do to increase student enrollment in physics.


3    Ask them what they are willing to do to increase student enrollment in physics.


F - Develop a supportive plan in the science department.


1    Take time during one of your science staff meetings to talk about not only your physics program but how the whole department benefits from an increase in the number of students enrolled in physics. If community college dual enrollment courses provide money for equipment and supplies, make sure the staff knows you would share the wealth whenever possible.


2    Develop a simple information sheet for all students who might be interested in taking physics, and in it describe advantages of taking each kind of physics course. Today I would make sure the AP-1 and 2, AP-C, and Dual Enrollment physics classes were accurately contrasted. The College Board has done a very good job selling the AP program. It has a caché that tends to cause people to overlook its shortcomings and the practical advantages offered by the Dual Enrollment alternative.

Š      Few parents understand that the AP exam is norm referenced and only 35% of the students each year earn a score of 4 or 5.  In Arizona universities, students who pass the AP-C mechanics exam, even with the top score of 5, get credit only for algebra-based PHY 111, not the calculus-based course PHY 121. 

Š      All students will receive community college credit for passing a Dual Enrollment course, and all such courses transfer to state universities.


REFERENCES and RESOURCES (provided by Jane Jackson)

Will Tyson, Reginald Lee, Kathryn M. Borman and Mary Ann Hanson (2007).  Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Pathways: High School Science and Math Coursework and Postsecondary Degree Attainment, Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 243-270.

Quoted at


TIMSS Physics Achievement Comparison Study, by Eugenio Gonzalez (April 2000). Conducted for the National Science Foundation by TIMSS International Study Center, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA. At


Philip M. Sadler, Gerhard Sunnert, Zahra Hazari, and Robert Tai (2014). The Role of Advanced High School Coursework in Increasing STEM Career Interest. Science Educator 23(1), pp. 1-13.

Philip Sadler is a longtime physics educator at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. A thorough, well-done study of 4700 college students shows that "taking a second year of a STEM course can matter far more than taking an AP course in a subject."  Their question was, "What correlates with students deciding to major in STEM in college?” For example, a project-oriented 2nd year course can serve just as well or better than an AP course. What DOES matter is the content area of the 2nd year course: physics and chemistry are by far the most important. This is true for anyone who wants to major in a STEM subject in college: even prospective life science or geology majors.  E.g., taking a 2nd year physics or chemistry course in high school is far more important than taking A&P or an AP biology course. 


For your principals: this 2-page presentation summary by Philip Sadler, prepared for STEM Smart: Lessons Learned From Successful Schools, an NSF event held on March 22, 2013, at University of Maryland, Baltimore. 

Separating Facts from Fads: How K–12 Educators’ Choices Impact Students’ College Performance and Persistence in STEM.

< from Fads Program Description.pdf>

Their longtime huge research studies conclude that high school administrators should prioritize their science resources and target two areas:

  *instructional practices: inquiry, hands-on, mathematical reasoning, concepts in-depth;

  *teacher knowledge, especially student misconceptions and subject matter.

These are what Modeling Workshops emphasize.


Download the “7 myths about high school physics” brochure and a 1-page “users manual” at and read related resources.

Users manual:

You can order 10 copies of the "7 myths" brochure for $2.49 (free shipping) at the APS store:

It is available in Spanish, too.


For your school administrators, school board, superintendent: High school physics is the chief pathway to college STEM majors.

or (in Arizona)