Twenty years ago, I took my first physics class at Centennial High School in Peoria, Arizona. It was one of my most favorite classes because of all the projects and experiments we did. Mr. Barner, our teacher at the time, had a knack for taking math and science, and making it totally applicable to our everyday world. I still have my ribbon for winning the third period catapult challenge. I loved it because it was the most realistic science experience I had ever done. And I was challenged to look at the world in a whole new light - a viewpoint I still carry with me today. Unfortunately, the opportunity to take high school physics in Arizona is rapidly disappearing.
So why is PHYSICS so important? Physics is a foundational cornerstone of STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math). Physics teaches critical thinking and problem-solving skills that serve 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 Arizona. Most of the top-rated schools on their list require 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.
Why should I care if my kid takes physics over biology or earth science? 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. Research conducted by the College Board using ACT data shows that high school students who take physics are twice as likely to be ready for college science. Also, research has shown that 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.
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 possesses. 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. Nationwide physics enrollment has doubled in the last 20 years. Nationally almost 40% of high school students take physics while Arizona and greater Metro Valley Phoenix are stagnant at a mere 20%. [https://www.aip.org/statistics/reports/high-school-physics-courses-enrollments-0]
If all this stuff is so important, why aren’t my kids taking physics? Arizona doesn’t have enough certified physics teachers to make it happen. According to ADE, there are 410 people in the state who hold the certificate to teach physics. Currently, only 160 of these folks are teaching physics in the classroom, and half of this population is within a few years of retirement. Do the math: AZ has a high school population of about 320,000 students. If your child is in a physics class on any level, he or she is one of the lucky ones. Arizona physics teachers are on the verge of extinction.
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.
How do we solve this problem? I’m glad you asked! You can’t learn everything from YouTube, as our kids would like us to believe. Online classes are not the answer either. Nothing takes the place of experienced and knowledgeable teachers who are skilled at their craft. We already have excellent teachers in Arizona, we just need to start creating opportunities and incentives through training, and graduate tuition funding for them to learn the content. Luckily for us we have one of the best programs in the country to do it in our own back yard. The ASU Physics Modeling Instruction Program is one of the best physics teacher professional development programs in the world, with proven data and results of success. Teachers learn deep content and effective hands-on, minds-on pedagogy, so that in science class, students DO science. And we need help from all stakeholders to make our numbers grow and re-seed our profession.
By increasing the number of physics teachers in Arizona, we can double the number of students who have access to higher level STEM coursework. Quality STEM instruction is critical for Arizona prosperity and will yield long-term tangible economic benefits. It’s a global market out there, and we must be competitive. Arizona needs a capable and mathematically adept workforce. We want our kids to be the ones who run Intel and Honeywell here at home in the valley. In order to make that happen we need to double the number of physics classes offered as well as all upper level STEM instruction. Arizona desperately needs an investment in STEM and more specifically - high school physics.
Mr. Vargas is a proud native of Arizona and a graduate of Northern Arizona University. He also holds Masters Degrees and Graduate Certificates from Trident University International, and the University of San Diego. He is AZ highly certified in Physics and General Science and has taught Astronomy, Earth and Space, and Applied Physics. Mr. Vargas was a teacher and coach at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Mons Belgium for a decade prior to his arrival at Pinnacle High School in North Phoenix in 2012 where he now teaches conceptual physics and coaches varsity athletics. Mr. Vargas is the 2014 ASTA Arizona HS Science Teacher of the Year and is currently serving as a 2016 AEF Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence.