Greater Equity in Science Education, Please

Physics is fun! This day found my Conceptual Physics students studying sound by creating cup and string telephones. The slow motion video of the string was amazing!

Physics is fun! This day found my Conceptual Physics students studying sound by creating cup and string telephones. The slow motion video of the string was amazing!

He’s in Physics? That’ll be interesting. He won’t last long.”

“She didn’t do anything in my class, so I don’t think she’ll survive in Physics.”

“Physics is hard.”

Sadly, these comments are all too familiar to me. It seems the general public has this notion that the subject I teach, physics, is solely for the top students, that kids have to be members of Mensa to be successful.

Where does this idea come from? Is it from experience, that the bearer of this notion struggled in a high school or college physics class and therefore all physics classes must be difficult? Is it the perception from popular culture, that physics belongs to the Sheldon Coopers and Leonard Hofstadters of this world, that someone has to be an Albert Einstein to understand physics?

Free Lab Friday, one of my students' favorite days. This is one of the way I encourage greater integration of the science and engineering practices, and a healthy dose of communication.

Free Lab Friday, one of my students’ favorite days. This is one of the ways I encourage greater integration of the science and engineering practices, and a healthy dose of communication.

In my classroom, all students are welcome. Those who need to be challenged will find it, those who require extra supports will find those as well. I’m a firm believer that we must consider equity in science education, that we must ensure all students have access to all standards, with curriculum and instruction that meets their individual learning needs.

I think the bigger question is this: Do we set high expectations for all our kids? Prerequisites, hardline expectations, and disciplinary procedures seem to be focused on the top kids, the high achievers. How can our kids in the bottom 50% of the class find their way into classes such as physics when the only option available to them is an honors class with prerequisites they would never have the time to take?

In districts across the state of Arizona, physics courses are limited to an Advanced Placement option or a class for which students need a prerequisite high level of math. This effectively prevents the average student from taking physics.

Part of the problem comes from a lack of appropriately certified physics teachers in our state. My colleague and friend Mike Vargas wrote about this in a previous Stories from School AZ blog http://www.storiesfromschoolaz.org/physics-teachers-endangered-species/ and spoke several times about the severe shortage of physics teachers in our state. This shortage has exacerbated the inequity within science instruction, limiting access to physics to only the highest achievers among our students as schools struggle to find more people to teach more classes.

Mike Vargas and I at the Arizona State Capitol, preparing to advocate for funding that would help increase access to physics across Arizona.

Mike Vargas and I at the Arizona State Capitol, preparing to advocate for funding that would help increase access to physics across Arizona.

In science, we often track students into one path or another, based on their previous performance. I am here to tell you that I, a National Board Certified Physics Teacher with a master’s degree in physics, struggled in my high school biology class. I still struggle with the content. By many districts’ procedures I would not have been recommended to take Physics. I’ve taken this memory to heart and have worked with my district, pushing to increase offerings in physics for our students.

I am proud to say we now offer Advanced Placement Physics, Honors Physics, General Physics, and Conceptual Physics. All provide access to the six essential Arizona state science standards that fall under the heading of physics, in addition to several of the plus standards. All apply the Science and Engineering Practices and focus on Crosscutting Concepts.

This means that we have chosen, as a district, to provide all students across seven comprehensive high schools and one alternative high school with the high rigor intended by the new Arizona state science standards. We are setting higher goals for them than ever before, and providing them with the supports needed to make their physics education equitable.

My Conceptual Physics class designed, constructed, and raced cardboard boats, using the project to learn more about forces and buoyancy.

My Conceptual Physics class designed, constructed, and raced cardboard boats, using the project to learn more about forces and buoyancy.

With the six essential standards in physics, there are now four essential standards in chemistry, which means limiting access to chemistry through preconceived notions of the ability required for the course again creates a state of inequity. I’m hopeful that Chemistry teachers can step forth and advocate for their kids with the intent of increasing access to those standards for all kids.

Once we increase access across the board we can then talk about equity within the classroom, in the way we see female students, students of color, and LGBTQ students. Programs such as STEP UP https://engage.aps.org/stepup/home aim to change the culture within physics education. We need more such as these to move us closer to the ideal of equity.

I’ve recently found a passion for computer science and, looking back, I can’t help but wonder if there was a system in place to keep me from being able to take that course in high school. I hope that my students will never have cause to wish they had been able to take a course in high school, during a period of their lives when they should be able to explore their interests and find their passion.

Is there a class you wish you’d been able to take?

 

 

Melissa Girmscheid

Melissa is a passionate advocate for physics education. She is currently in her twelfth year of teaching high school students about the world around them through the study of physics and carries this passion to her secondary job developing and leading Computational Modeling in Physics First with Bootstrap workshops. Melissa is a Master Teacher Policy Fellow with the American Institute of Physics and American Association of Physics Teachers, and in 2019 worked with a team of Arizona physics superstars to successfully lobby for ongoing education funding for STEM and CTE teachers. Her goal is to ensure every student in Arizona has access to a high quality physics education. She continues to advocate for students as an Ambassador with the American Physical Society’s STEP UP program and a coach in the Arizona Educational Foundation’s teachSTEM program. Melissa achieved National Board certification is 2017 and now serves candidates as a Candidate Support Provider. She believes in the power of Modeling Instruction, student-centered learning, and the Five Core Propositions.

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