UW's Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory

Dr. Mohammad Piri holds a collection of small rock pieces to be tested and observed inside a nano-CT scanner Nov. 5 at the University of Wyoming’s Hess Digital Rock Physics Laboratory in Laramie.

Ryan Dorgan | Star-Tribune

LARAMIE — Physics takes up a more prominent role in popular culture than ever — from widespread excitement regarding the discovery of the Higgs boson particle to celebrity astrophysicists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But the U.S. remains behind many other comparable countries when it comes to science and math proficiency among its students, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment — PISA — which releases a triennial report comparing 15-year-old students around the world.

The results of this are felt in the University of Wyoming Department of Physics and Astronomy, particularly within the physics graduate program, where the disparity between domestic and foreign students is perhaps greatest.

Of the 50 students who applied to the physics graduate program in the past cycle, two were domestic students, Assistant Professor of Physics Bill Rice said.

“The math and the science are both difficult for students coming out of U.S. high schools,” Rice said. “A lot of time, the barriers that are encountered, especially in the first and second years, are deal-breakers.”

Rice said college-level calculus and physics courses can appear to move at “light speed” to students who did not study those subjects in high school. He said undergraduates who lack enough preparation, though they might start in physics, end up leaving the program.

“I have found, just anecdotally, that students that come in with strong high school preparation tend to stick with physics because then they’re able to see sort of the beauty and usefulness of having such an important background,” Rice said. “Once they get hooked, especially with research, then they can continue on. Many of our students who are involved with research do continue on to graduate levels.”

It’s difficult to make the claim, however, that U.S. high schools are inadequately preparing students for college-level physics and math, Department of Physics and Astronomy Professor and Chair Jinke Tang said.

“We don’t have sufficient data to say, ‘Oh, they’re getting poorly prepared,’” he said.

“It’s hard to locate that concrete data to demonstrate that clearly. But there are places where I see can make improvements. For example, they can have more calculus courses.”

The PISA 2015 “Results in Focus” report found the United States’ science scores were average and its math scores below average among the 72 countries and economies assessed.

Wyoming Superintendent for Public Education Jillian Balow said those results can be partially explained by the fact that some of the countries are outperforming the U.S. because they are not as committed to equity in education.

“Some of our international counterparts are focused on excellence of a few or an (upper) echelon of students and not equity and excellence for all students,” Balow said. “I’m not saying that that negates the data by any means, and certainly we want to see more domestic students in those graduate programs at the University of Wyoming and elsewhere.”

Singapore, Japan, Canada, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany are among the countries outperforming the U.S. in the PISA report.

“There is a nationwide focus on STEM for a number of reasons, not just STEM in higher education, but STEM going all the way down to pre-K and it’s for those very reasons,” Balow said. “We want to make sure that we maintain global comparability in terms of all academic subjects.”

Wyoming, for its part, is in the process of implementing updated Science Standards — the state’s expectations for student ability at each grade level. The lengthy review and formalization process took into account what students would need to know, and what skills they would need to have, to succeed in higher education, as well as in business and industry.

“Because our old standards were so old and lackluster, many of our school districts started implementing them before they were even completed ... knowing that they were not where we expect our students to be in respect to science,” Balow said.

Wyoming high school students are required to complete three science classes — or four for Hathaway Scholarship eligibility — but are not required to take any specific science classes.

“We don’t prepare every student for success in a physics or astronomy major,” Balow said. “The students that … know that they want to pursue physics or astronomy in higher education certainly have, or can find, opportunities to build onto their science repertoire.”

Laramie High School physics teachers Pete Kontaxes and Eric Weitzel said most of the students enrolled in their classes were college-bound and the majority of physics classes offered at the school were geared toward preparing those students for higher education.

“About 90 percent — or more than 90 percent — of our kids are all pretty much college-bound,” Weitzel said.

Kontaxes said one reason for the disparity between domestic and foreign students in physics degree programs could be the lack of lucrative jobs in the field and the surplus of higher-paying jobs available to U.S. citizens.

“They could be a stockbroker, they could be a real estate broker, they could be an insurance salesman and they could make a heck of lot more,” he said. “They go where the money’s at. There’s too many other things in our country that they could get into.”

Domestic students were more prevalent in physics graduate programs during the Space Race, Rice said, when there was a large governmental push for funding and students.

“Overall, throughout the nation, domestic students are way down from what they used to be,” he said. “And that’s a trend that’s been going on for the last several decades. Our high point was during the Sputnik age. Right after Sputnik, there was a large bump and that bump is sort of the high point in physics.”

Ideas abound for boosting domestic student enrollment in the physics degree programs — especially the graduate degree program. The updated Science Standards’ impact on Wyoming public education will not be assessed until all schools have a chance to implement them.

An exchange program with historically black Howard University could boost interest among minority students who otherwise might not be able to envision themselves as physicists, said Rice, who is spearheading the program.

Another program with the California higher education system — dedicated to drawing in otherwise overlooked students, this time for astronomy graduate students — could have a similar effect, while also strengthening the department, said the professors helping with that program.

Other efforts at UW — including Ellen Currano’s Bearded Lady Project and Women in Math, Science & Engineering, or WiMSE — could pave the way for more female graduate students in various STEM fields where they are underrepresented. And the Wyoming Department of Education’s annual Roadmap to STEM conference aims to improve the state’s science education, from kindergarten to college.

“We know that in the 21st century, there are more and more careers or professions that require in-depth STEM skills, so certainly Wyoming is not immune to that,” Balow said. “We have a goal that we want our students to be globally competitive, no matter if they go to school in Meeteetse or in Cheyenne.”

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