Saturday, March 05, 2011

Damn the torpedoes: full speed ahead!

A question about my "TAKE PHYSICS" posters recently came up on the Advanced Placement Physics Electronic Discussion Group (EDG).

(The AP Physics EDG is an old-fashioned messaging system reminiscent of Listservs. Informative and engaging, but a ploddingly slow throwback to the mid-nineties in comparison to modern fora such as those run via vBulletin and the like.)

A physics teacher had posted the TAKE PHYSICS posters on campus but was met with a volley of disapproval from colleagues in his department. To preserve harmony, he took the posters down.

I went through this turmoil years ago; it's something of a birthing process. Presenting the posters without describing potential pitfalls could be seen as reckless or irresponsible on my part. So let me post a FAQ. (If the '90s nostalgia gets any thicker, we'll need to crank up some Toad The Wet Sprocket or Gin Blossoms hits for background music.)

Why Advertise A High School Science Class?
Physics has traditionally been marginalized in the high school science sequence. Everyone takes biology. Half of biology students take chemistry. And whoever's still up for it? They take physics. That's a pipeline to disaster as far as I'm concerned. Many of the students at my school go on to college; it seemed to me that all of them on that path should have a year of physics. 

High school counselors are busy enough and have many interests to serve, so I didn't want to saddle them with the responsibility of communicating my belief that all college-bound students should be in physics. If you can get counselors on your side, all the better. But it never hurts to take the message directly to your market.

What About Colleagues Within the Science Department?
The greatest friction I encountered when gearing up was from teachers of chemistry and AP Biology. 

My campaign was multi-pronged, and a colleague in chemistry took exception to my changing the course description of physics to include the sentence, "Chemistry is not a prerequisite for physics." At the time, I was encountering difficulty from counselors who had a very traditional sense of the science sequence. I was looking to bypass their predilections. The chemistry colleague, I sense, was hoping to maintain market share despite the fact that honestly, chemistry is not a prerequisite for physics by any objective criterion.

Physics enrollment could reasonably be seen as a threat to AP Biology market share. In the '80s, a statement was issued from the California Community Colleges, California State University, and University of California academic senates. Its primary message for high school students was that they should take one year of biology, one year of chemistry, and one year of physics. 

An attempt was made to incorporate this dictum into our own policy for AP science enrollment, but the AP Biology teachers balked. They thought it would be perfectly reasonable for a student in a four-year high school to take biology, chemistry, and AP Biology—and be done with it as far as science was concerned.

So make no mistake: in posting the TAKE PHYSICS flyers around campus during course registration, you will be stepping on some toes. But are the objections of your colleagues reasonable? Or are they meritless attempts to protect turf? 

One early memory I have from a collegial scolding on the flyers was my suggestion that they advertise, too. They looked at me as if I had grown a second head. Mounting a campaign takes time and energy, and most of them had guaranteed enrollments. There was no way they were going to advertise. And since they weren't going to advertise, I shouldn't either. Status quo!

I chose to risk some bruised feelings and press ahead. Now my annual campaign is accepted as just another of my myriad quirks. When I initiated the campaign, my enrollment jumped from 4 to 6 sections.

Are There Any Pitfalls To Advertising?

Some are obvious. Keep all the slogans and pitches positive and pro-physics. Do not tinge any of them with negativity toward biology or chemistry. Don't turn them into campaigns promoting how cool you are: you're not running for office here. Students will find out how cool you are soon enough.

Some are less obvious. When my enrollment jumped from 4 to 6 sections, there was a problem. I can only teach 5 sections. The administration offered me a 6/5ths position. More students and no prep period. The fact that I'm still alive and teaching physics lets you know I turned that down. Then the counselors asked me to draw names from a hat to determine who'd be turned down. I refused to have any part of that. 

An administrator reminded me that I brought this trouble on by advertising. I reminded them that one of the reasons administrators get better chairs (and better compensation) was because they shouldered the burden of solving the problems I created. We hired an additional physics teacher the next year.

For more on this and related topics, see the posts on "recruitment."

1 comment:

Nupitor said...

I am an aspiring physics teacher. I, too believe that physics should be more accessible and not relegated to a quasi-cult following. Advertising is fine with me. I can remember as a high school student having trouble completing my class schedule for my senior year of high school. What made it easier was having each teacher that taught senior classes make a presentation to me and my 11th grade classmates. They went into a brief outline of the course and what you could expect. This wasn't quite equal to displaying posters but the idea was the same. Reading the end of the story where another physics teacher was hired is inspiring!