Physics could bring sea change to area’s workforce

Starting kids on physics at an early age, even in middle school, could grow soon from a local effort to a nationwide campaign aimed at enhancing the future workforce.

In the quest to put more science and engineering professionals into the future workforce, a middle school physics program just might be the solution.

But that’s the message describing a local concept developed by a University of Colorado Colorado Springs physics professor. The physics program is believed to be so promising that Jim Johnson, president of GE Johnson Construction, put up $100,000 to launch an education foundation that aims to deliver physics curricula to middle schools across the city, state and country.

Other high-tech firms have pledged tens of thousands of dollars to the foundation, started by Dave Csintyan, former Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO. In August, he launched See the Change USA foundation, which is awaiting approval for nonprogit status, for the purpose of putting a physics program in all middle schools.

The idea, Csintyan said, is to grow a future U.S. workforce, which according to the U.S. Department of Labor will have a desperate shortage of skilled professionals to fill the projected 1.2 million job openings in science-, technology-, engineering- and math-related fields by 2018. In Colorado, the shortage of science and engineering professionals is projected to hit 57,000 in the next five years.

“We’ve got a real problem and it’s scary,” Csintyan said.

Anatoliy Gluschenko, associate professor of physics at UCCS, believes the solution to filling the workforce with qualified professionals lies in middle school.

He studied middle school curricula in Europe and Asia and found that physics instruction begins in sixth grade. His research showed that students who have been exposed to physics at an early age are more likely to choose a science, math or engineering path in college, and complete the degree, Glushchenko said.

Carmel leading the way

In 2012, Glushchenko developed a middle school physics program for Carmel Middle School in Harrison School District 2 — now, the only school in the state, possibly the nation, to teach physics in middle school starting in sixth grade.

Educators, parents and business leaders are taking notice of the program. Carmel Middle School principal Ted Knight is giving five to six tours of the physics classes to parents, teachers and lawmakers each month.

This month, Jo O’Brien, Colorado Department of Education assistant commissioner of standards and education, is expected to visit Carmel’s physics program, and Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia is expected in February.

In recent years, Knight and the Carmel staff made sweeping changes to the school’s curriculum, adding economics and globalization, information literacy and Chinese courses. Physics was added this school year and teachers and parents embraced the change, Knight said. The school is considered at-risk because 84 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

Knight loves the idea of going nationwide with the physics middle school program, he said. But, he cautioned that physics would need to become part of each state’s curriculum and testing standards in the middle school grades before a systematic change could happen.

“You can’t just drop (physics) curriculum in and expect it to work,” he said. “There has to be a reason to change — you have to explain what you are doing is working.”

Johnson, who took his first physics class in college in an auditorium with 300 students, believes in the idea of teaching physics in early grades and joined the board of directors of See the Change USA foundation.

He sees the connection, he said, that in 11 years, today’s sixth-graders will be graduating from college. And he’s hoping more of them will choose engineering as a profession.

Johnson, an engineer, has served on the advisory board of a university college of engineering. University officials are constantly struggling with ways to increase enrollment in the engineering programs, he said.

Meanwhile, jobs today demand math, science and engineering skills, he said.

Colorado Springs has made it a priority to target software and information technology, aerospace defense and clean technology firms — all industries that need math, science, technology and engineering specialists.

“This is a universal approach to physics,” Johnson said. “It can increase math skills and basic fundamental life skills — I saw it as a way to build that pipeline to future critical thinkers.”

Foundation has big plans

No doubt there have been hundreds of K-12 science and math education initiatives since the Russians beat the U.S. into space with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Each new program promises to be the silver bullet that will increase student science and math scores and make U.S. children more competitive in global industry.

Csintyan said this program is different because it addresses the problem, which is that by the time young adults are in college it’s too late to start their physics education.

Only 16 percent of undergraduate students choose science and engineering as a major. And, studies show that of those, less than 40 percent of college students majoring in science, technology, engineering or math actually finish the degree.

“You want an economic driver for the city, this is it,” Csintyan said.

See the Change USA has applied for education grant money with the intent of building a program that can be used in public or private middle schools. The foundation intends to partner with business, which could sponsor curriculum development or purchase the program for a school, Csintyan said.

“They are the ultimate end user,” he said.

Part of the program, which is likely to cost each school a one-time fee of about $50,000 for the program and teacher-training materials, includes instruction manuals developed by Glushchenko. Currently, he also meets with Carmel teachers each week to prepare lessons. If the foundation takes off, it would like to develop online teaching materials.

The foundation’s goal is for 25,000 middle school students in the Springs to be exposed to physics in the next four years, said Maria Feekes, member of the See the Change USA team and founder of After School University, a private program for elementary-, middle- and high-school-age students that focuses on math, physics, engineering, chemistry and computer sciences classes.

Feekes, who spent her early career in the high-tech corporate world as a project manager, said Lake County School District in Leadville and Corpus Christi Catholic School in the Springs expect to begin using the physics program this year. And See the Change USA also is meeting with educators in Boulder, Texas and Arkansas to discuss the program.

“We are in public schools, now we are moving into private schools, which means there is a place for rigorous science curriculum in any school,” Feekes said.

What doesn’t show up in the statistics is the new-found classroom enthusiasm for science, Knight said. The physics classes are hands-on and kids are up and out of their chairs examining, for example, the wave effect using Slinky toys.

Maybe only 10 percent of Carmel’s 450 students will choose science or engineering as a college major, Knight said. And, he is not sure if physics will be the workforce answer.

But he is already seeing improvement in writing and math skills of Carmel students.

“Eleven years from now, I’ll hedge my bet with these kids,” he said.

One Response to Physics could bring sea change to area’s workforce

  1. It’s really exciting to see these kind of cutting edge programs here in Colorado Springs! Combine that with this kind of partnership between UCCS, local business, and community leaders and this seems like such an incredible success!

    Jessica M
    January 24, 2013 at 9:26 am