STEM project in Florida taps traditional, magnet & charter schools

Paul Cottle

On his blog, Bridge to Tomorrow, Florida State University physics professor Paul Cottle laments that students aren’t getting the push they need from parents, guidance counselors and teachers to take tougher math and sciences classes in middle and high school.

The result: fewer students completing degrees in STEM fields, those high-tech, lucrative jobs in science, technology, engineering and math that both presidential candidates in Tuesday night’s debate deemed necessary to get the economy back on its feet and competitive with the rest of the world. So Cottle created what he calls the “antidote’’ – Future Physicists of Florida. And interestingly enough, the launching pad for his new program is built on traditional, magnet and charter schools.

Cottle said he doesn’t favor one type of school over another. The mix is really accidental. Once science teachers heard about the program, they reached out to him.

“We’re trying to find any way we can to get kids to take on these academic programs,’’ Cottle said. “I’m looking for great teachers anywhere.’’

And there are great teachers in all kinds of schools, he said.

Cottle’s program officially begins next month with an induction ceremony in Tallahassee. It will offer middle school students and their parents advice on which high school courses better prepare students for physical sciences and engineering majors in college.

“We know what students need to do to give them the best opportunities in STEM fields,’’ said Cottle, who was among the educators who helped craft Florida’s K-12 science standards.

He cites a 2007 University of South Florida study that found students who take physics in high school are twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field as those taking only chemistry. Such a degree will likely translate into a high-paying job upon graduation with some occupations, such as chemical engineering, commanding starting annual salaries of $70,000 or more.

Six public schools, including three charters, are taking part in the Future Physicists program.

Three are in Tallahassee: School of Arts & Sciences (a charter), Cobb Middle School (a science and technology magnet), and Raa Middle School (a fine and performing arts magnet).

The others are Brown-Barge Middle School, a magnet school in Pensacola; River City Science Academy, a charter school in Jacksonville; and Orlando Science School, a charter middle and high school in Orange County affiliated with the University of Central Florida.

Cottle said participants came by way of the schools’ science teachers, some of whom were his former students. Others, like Orlando Science, already had strong interests in boosting math and science education.
The Orlando school’s executive director, Yalcin Akin, has a doctoral degree in material science and engineering.

“This is a great opportunity for our students, to expose them to the field of physics,’’ Akin said. “In K-12 education, the problem is a lack of motivation of students.’’

State test scores show something is off. Fifty-one percent of fifth graders scored at grade level or above on this year’s Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in science. Only 46 percent of eighth graders did. (Only fifth- and eighth-graders are tested.)

Among other issues, Akin said, many students don’t know what they want to study after high school, so they don’t know which science courses to take. Future Physicists of Florida will act as a guide.

Forty-three of Orlando’s students and their parents will travel next month to Tallahassee to meet Cottle and his colleagues at FSU. Students also will tour the campus.

In addition, professors from Florida A&M University, Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of West Florida and Tallahassee Community College will participate in the program, which is sponsored by FSU’s FCR-STEM – the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.

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