Physics Enrollment Challenges

Back in my day, you took physics senior year of high school. Its just what you did. And if  you were lucky enough, you had an awesome teacher who inspired you to go into the sciences post high school. Today the reality is disciplines like ours are rapidly diminishing. With the advent of the teacher shortages and educational institutions being pushed to their limits across the board, many organizations are in crisis mode and not too concerned about the long term effects of not offering upper level sciences like physics. In Arizona we are down to only 160 certified physics teacher’s left, and yet the alarm is still not sounding anywhere were people can hear.

The question to ask is why is that? Well let’s think about this; how many science and STEM people do you know are now working in the front office either as an administrator or a counselor? I think it would be safe to bet the answer is very few. Most of these folks have bigger fish to fry like how to schedule ever increasing numbers of students without rooms to place them in or teachers to teach them something. The problems they face are real and daunting and issues like more kids in IB and AP Physics go by the wayside as we all just try to survive and maintain yet another school year.

What we need to stay in the game and keep our kids ahead of the world market is strong advocacy for our profession and physics modeling in particular. Our craft brings with it a robust curriculum that is challenging and tangible, which allows for kids to put ideas into words and vice versa and create a storyline /ven diagram of the models of science that work in nature. A deeper understanding of our everyday world which in turn becomes the framework for all other sciences.

Physics is a foundational cornerstone of STEM (Science Engineering Technology and Math). Physics teaches critical thinking and problem-solving skills that serves as a catalyst to higher level math and sciences. In essence, physics, is the science that ties all other sciences together.

US News and World Report rates high schools in my home state of Arizona. Most of the top-rated schools in their list required students to take physics at any level. That’s right, I didn’t say advanced placement, AP. I said ANY level. This includes conceptual physics and applied physics. Why? Physics is an essential component in scientific literacy; it is helpful in politics, the arts, history, and culture.  And it makes math applicable.

The perception that “Physics is just too tough for most high school students,” or “Physics is for the smart kids” has permeated throughout our educational institutions. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the data proves it.  ACT research shows that high school students who take physics are twice as likely to be ready for college science. A college student who took high school physics is twice as likely to earn a STEM degree than a student whose highest high school course was chemistry. [Tyson et al., U of So. FL, 2007]

Ready or not the STEM economy is here; 60% of new jobs in the 21st century will require the skills that only 20% of our current workforce has. These 20 percenters are the ones with PHYSICS skills! If your kid doesn’t have the skills to do the job, they’ll find someone else who can! The bottom line is high school physics is needed for almost all college STEM majors.

By increasing the number of physics teachers, we can double the number of students who have access to higher level STEM coursework. Quality STEM instruction is critical for our national prosperity and will yield long-term tangible economic benefits. It’s a global market out there, and we must be competitive. We need a capable and mathematically adept workforce. In order to make that happen we need to double the number of physics classes offered as well as all upper level STEM instruction.

In many schools, students who wish to take upper level science courses are now forced to take biology based courses or some other class with less rigorous math because schools can more readily find staff to teach these subjects. The fact of the matter is this; it is way easier to find a biology or earth science teacher than a physics or chemistry teacher. Its simple economics.

So wherever you are at, advocate for your discipline. Let the guidance counselor know that your classes are important. Let your front office know that classes like physics are worth keeping and important not just to your students but our national prosperity. The value of what we teach cannot be lost to deaf ears. Sound your alarm were you are at and don’t allow your state to end up like us in Arizona with only 160 certified physics teachers left. As STEM professionals we have the duty to keep our country competitive in the world market and ignite the sparks of imagination that get kids excited about science.

-Mike Vargas

Arizona Teacher of the Year, Modeling advocate and change agent

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