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The View of Physics From High School

T.K. Rogers

T.K. Rogers
T.K. Rogers

I tell my high school physics students, if they become overexcited watching televised football, to work physics problems for relaxation. I'm kidding of course. In reality, I consider physics far more exciting than football. Yes, I am a nerd but I do greatly admire football's support system. It begins in preschool, has ample resources, and involves thousands of enthusiastic paid and volunteer workers. It teaches teamwork, but ultimately it insures a quality supply of about 1500 professional NFL players to entertain us. It's a model of success.

By contrast, our physics training system barely functions, doesn't begin until middle school, receives modest resources, involves a relatively small number of paid workers who are sometimes unenthusiastic, and has no emphasis on teamwork. Nevertheless, our physics system plays a major role in maintaining our supply of about 18,000 physicists and 1.8 million engineers (who should be viewed as applied physicists) and is a prerequisite for our supply of about 600,000 physicians and about 1.9 million computer professionals. Our system's ultimate purpose is no less than insuring the technological leadership our standard of living is based on. Yet, it not only lacks football's cultural standing, but doesn't even produce enough professionals for high-growth areas such as computer engineering.

In high school the discrepancy between physics and football is sharply defined. Football rules. One doesn't even need football skill to bask in its glow. Virtually everyone participates. There's the cheerleaders, band, and booster club, not to mention the fans. By comparison, the physics program often consists of a single class limited to a few nerds. Frequently, the class is taught by a person with marginal qualifications. According to a 1997 survey conducted by the American Institute of Physics, only 22% of individuals teaching physics were physics majors. An additional 17.6% were math or engineering majors, leaving a balance of 60.4% with marginal backgrounds. This would be scandalous in any other area of study.

The marginal qualifications of physics teachers are no surprise. Bachelor's degree physics majors can get 40% higher salaries, and engineering majors 70% to 80% higher starting salaries, than teachers. By contrast, an industry-bound bachelor's degree chemistry or biology major gains only a 10% starting salary premium over teachers (Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://stats.bls.gov/oco/oco1002.html). Second grade, PE, and AP Physics teachers with the same years of experience get the same salary even though the rigor of their training and industry marketability differs greatly. In K-12 all teachers are considered first and foremost supervisors of students. While this may be necessary, it's generally not a source of fulfillment for physics-trained people. Since physics is usually not a required course and doesn't appeal to typical students, over three times as many students take biology as physics in high school. Budgets are set on a per- student basis. Small enrollments give physics teachers smaller equipment budgets even though their equipment costs can actually be higher. In general, K-12 teaching is a one-size-fits -all world which isn't particularly inviting to physics-trained people.

Remedies for our physics training system often focus on the lack of qualified teachers and encourage physicists and engineers to become teachers as a second career. Most states already have programs to address areas with teacher shortages. These give new teachers on-the-job training without compelling them to acquire education degrees. Unfortunately, the programs don't address many of the problems facing physics teachers due to low physics class enrollments. Physics teachers frequently end up teaching more non-physics than physics classes. Other classes can be anything from low-level physical science to study skills. Rigorous classes like AP Physics are often canceled, which prevents teachers from gaining the experience needed to polish their physics teaching competencies. Finally, rigor is frequently reduced in order to maintain enrollments by attracting students with marginal physics backgrounds.

The root problem with our K-12 physics training system is that it's often treated as a single course for a handful of high school students instead of a comprehensive system intertwined with our culture. Early physics training is often weak. To make matters worse, there are few best-selling books and ETV programs dedicated to presenting basic concepts. It's no wonder physics seems incomprehensible to many students. They often receive little physics input until high school and then are asked to absorb it all at once.

Fixing physics training will require a paradigm shift. Physics training needs to begin in kindergarten using toys for teaching elementary concepts such as force, inertia, and momentum. We also need to face the fact that the endpoint of physics training may not be a career in cutting-edge research, but more likely a profession in engineering, computer science or medicine, involving mostly mundane physics-based technology. We need to devote more effort toward making mundane physics exciting. High school physics needs to be seen as a key to a well-paid profession, attainable by any reasonably bright individual.

A paradigm shift in physics training will require legislation. The legislation should address high school teacher qualifications by overhauling critical needs programs to bolster economically strategic classes like physics. These programs should close some of the salary gap between industry and strategic teaching jobs. The legislation should limit the number of different subjects strategic teachers can be assigned in order to prevent them from dissipating their efforts. It should protect strategic classes like AP Physics from cancellation. The legislation should also provide economic incentives for lower grade teachers to improve their physics competency in order to improve the physics training infrastructure.

AP Calculus exemplifies how to set up an infrastructure for a rigorous class. It has successfully moved a college level class into high school partly by moving a high school class (Algebra I) into middle school. The training and selection process begins in early grades with capable students accelerated toward AP Calculus. As a result, AP Calculus has the highest number of participants for all scientific or technical AP subjects: 171,418 students took an AP Calculus exam in 2000, compared to 15,634 who took the calculus-based AP Physics Mechanics exam and 30,967 who took the algebra based AP Physics exam (College Board: http://www.collegeboard.org/ap/subjects.html).

Physics training changes would carry a price tag, but there are compelling economic incentives. According to remarks made by Senator Orrin Hatch to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 9, 2000, "... a shortage of high-tech professionals is currently costing the U.S. economy $105 billion a year (http://www.senate.gov/~judiciary/3920ogh1.cfm)." Business leaders have repeatedly solicited legislation to expand the number of temporary permits which allow foreign nationals to fill billions of dollars worth of technical jobs. These jobs are mostly in computer-related areas but often require some level of physics background. The jobs are not filled by Americans because qualified Americans aren't available. An improved K-12 physics training system would more than pay for itself by helping reduce dependence on foreign technical workers.

While Senator Hatch's statements about high-tech professional shortages were made during a business boom, the long-term need for technical employees is undeniably increasing. Recent blackouts in California made Americans painfully aware of a developing energy shortage. Whether addressed by building power plants, drilling for more oil, conserving resources, or creating alternatives to fossil fuel, energy solutions are going to require a massive number of new engineers and computer professionals. We also stand at the threshold of a developing biotechnology industry. This will increase the number of biological/medical scientists required to develop and manufacture new products. A similar thing happened in the drug, petroleum, and chemical industries that caused an increase in jobs for biological/medical scientists, geologists, and chemists respectively. However, for every new science job there was on average one job created for an engineer and half a job created for a computer professional. The day could come when even foreign workers cannot satisfy America's need for high-tech professionals.

While computer science majors may not seem closely related to engineering majors, it's important to consider the two together because they attract students from a common pool of qualified individuals. Marketability often determines which path a student will take. I've frequently seen students struggle with deciding between engineering and computer science during their senior year in high school. Even after graduation from college, engineering majors sometimes switch and become computer

Without legislation, high school physics reform won't occur. I once interviewed for a physics teaching job with a principal who had just canceled her school's AP Physics class. She remarked that students could get what they needed from other subjects such as AP Calculus and AP Statistics. I produced charts and graphs from my brief case while explaining that physics was a vitally important subject with a distinctly different emphasis from calculus and was mostly unrelated to statistics. Not only did I fail to get the job but I failed to influence her. One of the more progressive principals I know has told me he knows nothing about physics and doesn't want to learn. Although he says it in a good-natured way, it's clear he doesn't consider physics a basic element of education. The administrators who allocate resources for physics classes simply aren't willing to make the sacrifices needed for a quality physics program. It will take both additional resources and outside influence to alter this situation.

Legislation alone can't raise the cultural status of physics. However, there's light on the horizon and the FIRST robotics competition is one of the bright spots. Its founder Dean Kamen used sporting events like (surprise, surprise) football as a model for the competition. In it, teams supervised by volunteers from industry are given six weeks to produce a robot out of two trunks full of unrelated parts such as wheelchair wheels and electric drill motors. The robots then compete against other robots in a game which is kept secret until the robot building begins. Like football, there are numerous ways for students to participate. I've seen teams show up at competitions with everything from bagpipes to marching bands. The national competition is held at Disney World and is three days of nonstop action. This year it had 20,000 participants, having grown from about 15,000 the previous year and, yes, it does teach teamwork and sportsmanship.

Competitions are most effective when integrated into classroom activities and school cultures. The first high school robotics team pep rally I attended was a disaster in the conventional sense. The robot was supposed to dramatically break through a cloud of smoke as it drove around demonstrating its capabilities while cheerleaders jumped and shouted. The kid running the smoke machine got carried away. The robot was barely visible. Many of the robot's functions failed to work and the cheerleaders stood in silence. Yet, it generated incredible amounts of interest.

Physics training may never reach football's status, but we could do better. Those of us with physics or engineering backgrounds need to not just seek legislative solutions but also find ways of making physics activities entertaining and accessible to the average person. We need to make being a physics nerd look desirable. Our future physics training system will benefit greatly if we can raise its standing in our culture.

T. K. Rogers has a Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University and a Master of Business Administration Degree from Clemson University. He practiced engineering in industry for about 18 years before becoming a teacher in 1993. He currently teaches physics, statistics, and computer science at Southside High School in Greenville SC. He and his sons maintain a web page devoted to promoting physics, technology and lifelong learning at intuitor.com.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette