Physics is the most fundamental of sciences; it’s an essential stepping stone for careers in engineering or science. But around the country, fewer than 40 percent of high school students take a physics class. In Florida , that number is much lower — only about a quarter of high school students take physics. Experts say that the trend affects the future earning potential of the state’s students.
Alan Kramer is a fifth year graduate student in physics at the University of South Florida. He’s working in his Tampa lab, which is noisy with the sound of a cryo pump.
“It’s an air conditioner,” he explains, “but instead of using refrigerant, we use helium so we can get the contents of this ultra high vacuum chamber down to around 10 Kelvin or so, which is close to the limit of being cold.”
He’s studying what happens at the atomic level on the surface of solid materials. Besides his research, he teaches undergraduates, and says “what they gain by coming out of a physics class is thinking rationally.”
Kramer says he’s very aware of the importance of a high school physics education, because he once taught it. He taught high school physics in New Jersey, but in Florida, could only find openings for teachers for introductory classes in general science.
Instead, he taught high-level math classes briefly in Sarasota County. When he lost his job in a round of teacher layoffs, he says, he took the opportunity to get his doctorate.
High school physics classes in Sarasota County are hard to come by. According to data collected by Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle, only about 20 percent of students in that county take the class.
In the state overall, that number is about 25 percent. And Cottle says, in comparison with the rest of the country, “that’s a third fewer students that have the door opened to the kind of opportunity in physics and engineering careers.”
But even these low physics enrollment numbers don’t illustrate the real extent of the problem, because only a fraction of the existing physics classes are being taught by a qualified teacher.
Cottle says Florida does fine in other STEM classes, like math or chemistry.
“It’s physics which is the science course where we really seem to have gotten stuck,” he said. “It’s a course where you really need a teacher that understands a difficult subject and we have difficulty getting teachers.”
Cottle is active in the effort to get more Florida high school students into physics classes, and he keeps track of how many students are taking physics in all of the state’s 67 school districts.
“There are a lot of rural districts that aren’t offering physics at all,” he says. “You can kind of understand that…These are small districts and have had trouble justifying a physics teacher … But then you see counties that are good size, and you have to wonder that they’re thinking.”
Counties like Citrus, Pasco and Osceola have only around 5 to 10 percent enrollment. He says the education gatekeepers just don’t get it.
“Administrators and principals and parents don’t really understand how important courses like physics are to the future of their students,” he said.
Important, Cottle says, for social mobility, because physics is also required for the lucrative engineering or science careers that have historically provided a way out of poverty.
If students want to take that path, they’ll need college physics.
“About a quarter of the engineering majors who arrive at Florida State (University) have not taken a physics course in high school,” Cottle said. “That’s a real problem for them. That leaves them way behind.”
Cottle says it will continue to be difficult to recruit good high school physics teachers as long as the pay is so much lower than what they can make outside of education.
And as former physics teacher and current grad student Alan Kramer says, ”I don’t think teachers are valued.”
Kramer says he’ll continue to try to educate high school students through outreach programs, but his future is now in research.