by Colleen Flaherty
Nearly ten years ago, California science teacher Michael Towne stood up in front of a small group of families in his classroom—families from one of the most economically depressed counties in Southern California—and he told them that physics could act as an agent of social change in the community.
“As I left the meeting, I was profoundly moved by their response: they stood and cheered,” said Towne. “I realized that the students and their families valued physics as much, if not more, than I did. Their desire to learn and recognition of opportunities this education could offer them spurred them to want more and motivated me to teach them more.”
When he first began, there were 41 physics and no engineering students in the entire school. With the help of like-minded teachers and administrators, Towne has built up the science program and there are now more than 300 physics students and more than 250 engineering or applied science students, nearly 25 percent of the student body.
According to Towne, opportunity is essential to student success. Yesterday, he flew to Washington DC to testify before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce to weigh in on reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and share what he’s learned from his time in the classroom.
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“Based on my experience as a teacher, I deeply believe that instead of labeling and punishing schools, we need to focus on ensuring equal opportunity for all students—the reason ESEA was passed in the first place,” said Towne. “As part of ensuring equal opportunity, we need to address the under-representation of racial and ethnic minority students in STEM-related fields like physics and engineering, the subjects I teach.”
In Towne’s school, where nearly all will become first-generation college students, the numbers look good. More than 150 students are taking AP physics in a state where the average size for AP physics is between 15 and 25, and most of the 2,100 high schools do not offer any AP courses. This year, 16 percent of the freshman class of physics majors at the University of California came from Towne’s classroom.
In 2011, 11% of the Mexican-American students who passed California’s AP Physics C Mechanics exam came from his school, Citrus Hill High School, and in 2012, over 26% of those who passed the Electricity and Magnetism AP Physics exam were from Citrus Hill. Between 20011 and 2012, 60% of the growth in qualifying scores for Mexican-American students on the AP Physics C exam was attributable also attributed to Towne’s classroom.
“Positive as these numbers seem, the real story is less upbeat. A single school having such a great impact in a state as large as California means that nearly all the schools in the state produced no Mexican-American students with qualifying scores. There seems to be little equity of opportunity in this area. Surely we need to do more to provide support for students like mine around the state and around the country. I’m convinced that if my students can do it, others could too—if only they got the support they need.”
Towne discussed how in many California’s major universities, it wasn’t unusual to find science and engineering departments where less than 10 percent of their students are Hispanic or African American. In a state where over 60 percent of the k-12 students are students of color, why are there so few ethnic minority students in these programs?
“I think the answer lies in lack of opportunity,” said Towne.
Towne told the House committee about just a few of his students. Elias Fernandez, who told Towne he was put in his freshmen class by mistake and then went on to win awards for engineering, take two AP physics courses and major in physics at the University of California with a straight-A average.
Another student, Erica Romero, currently attends UCLA on a physics scholarship even though someone had told her that “girls like her didn’t major in physics.” She is currently in her second year at one of the top-rated physics programs in the world.
Alejandro Torres was in AP physics the first year Towne implemented the program. He has his degree and is now working in the industry, and his current students look to him as a mentor.
“With appropriate support, all students can achieve at high levels, regardless of what their backgrounds might suggest. If we support the students who need it most, they will more than repay our efforts with their own,” said Towne.
“The future is so promising when students get the support they need. We need to do this as a society because we cannot afford to squander the talent of the students like Erica and Alejandro and Elias. Unless we are willing to change the way we educate our students—and that means changing the way we envision our educational institutions as well as the preparation and support we offer our professional educators—we are doomed to recreate the social and educational structure we have now.”