The tough message about taking high school chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus: Some statistics

Why should STEM advocates take responsibility for the tough message that college-bound students should take chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus in high school?

The results of a 2007 study of Florida’s high school graduating class of 1999 by researchers at the University of South Florida (which was cited in a recent compilation by the Institute for Education Sciences) provide plenty of reasons why.  The figures below – taken from a discussion of the USF results in this article from The Physics Teacher – show bachelor’s degree attainment rates sorted by highest level math course taken (first figure) and highest level science course taken (second figure).  In each figure, the attainment rates are shown for all fields (top panels) and STEM fields (bottom panels).

The bottom line?  Students who complete calculus in high school are almost seven times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field than those whose top math course is Algebra 2.  And a student who completes physics is twice as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field than one who takes only chemistry; taking a second course in either subject increases the likelihood of earning a STEM degree even more.

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STEM advocates must have the guts to deliver the tough message to students and parents about taking chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus in high school

During a visit with parents and students at Panama City’s Mosley High School on Tuesday evening, I started my discussion with this assertion:  Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.

That is, every student arriving on a college campus should be prepared to select majors in engineering, physics, medical professions, computer science…whatever.  Many students – perhaps most students – will choose other career tracks.  But for a student who arrives on campus and discovers inspiration in the challenge of designing innovative computing devices, devising new medical treatments or deciphering the workings of the universe, it would be heartbreaking to find that it is more difficult or even impossible to pursue these dreams because of decisions made in high school to stop taking math after Algebra 2 or to skip a physics course.  The fact that these career tracks are generally the most economically rewarding just adds insult to injury.

For parents, the message is simple:  Make sure your college-bound student takes high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and – preferably – calculus.  That’s the recipe given by the American Society for Engineering Education on their eGFI site:

Earning good grades in challenging and advanced courses will give you a leg up, and taking high levels of math and science will make your introductory engineering classes in college more manageable.

Most engineering schools require four years of math, including Pre-Calculus, although Calculus or AP Calculus is strongly encouraged. Engineering schools are also looking for at least three years of science, including Physics and Chemistry.

And it’s not just engineering.

A student who wants to attend medical school, dental school or physical therapy school will have to take two semesters of physics, tons of chemistry and two semesters of college-level math as an undergraduate.  And it’s likely that a student will perform better in college physics (and those grades will look better on the medical school application) if the student takes physics in high school.

At least at my university, the requirements for a bachelor of science in computer science includes two semesters of physics (which can be replaced by a semester of chemistry and two semesters of biology if the student wishes – but who would wish for that?).

Unfortunately, not all science education advocates who are encouraging high school students to consider STEM careers are on the same page when it comes to high school course-taking advice.  Consider this advice for high school students from a STEM advocacy website:

High school is a great time for students to explore their interests and discover new ones. Advanced math and science courses, internships, summer programs, and even a part-time job can help them refine their interests. It’s important to keep variety in the mix: A 14-year-old aspiring physician could be tomorrow’s great software developer!

Yes, this site says that “Advanced math and science courses…can help them refine their interests.”  And in some parts of the nation, it would be assumed that these “advanced” courses would include physics and calculus.  But this is Florida, where the high school physics-taking rate is well below the national average and many high schools don’t even offer physics or calculus.  In fact, about a quarter of the engineering majors and larger percentages of the biology and computer science majors I see show up in my classes without having taken a high school physics course – placing them at a dramatically increased risk of failure.

My experience is that those of us talking to high school students and parents can’t just beat around the bush – like the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s site linked above does.  Instead, we must deliver in clear, blunt language that high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus open career doors that will otherwise be all but closed.  Anything short of that is doing students a disservice.

The power point from my talk at Mosley High School is here:




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Courage and cowardice in educational decision-making

What separates scholars from bureaucrats is that scholars stand by their own research and beliefs.

I happen to be a scholar, but in a very important way it doesn’t matter that I am.  I am a tenured full professor, and it doesn’t take any courage for me to stand by my research and my beliefs.

I am writing this post to acknowledge scholars who take serious professional risks to stand by the conclusions they have reached about what students need to know and how they learn – scholars who show courage.  These scholars might be teachers who push back against principals who don’t value opportunities to learn important disciplines like physics.  One remarkable teacher gave up her planning period this year rather than drop her physics class – the only physics class the school offered.

Or these scholars might be administrators at the school or district level who understand better than their superiors how upper level science and math courses open opportunities for students.  It takes courage for these scholars to act on their beliefs because such actions put their professional advancement at risk.  And professional advancement isn’t just an ego trip – it usually impacts how well the professional can provide for her or his family.  For me, watching somebody in this situation push forward is a humbling and inspiring experience.

Often, these courageous scholars face pressure from multiple directions.  A teacher or administrator is sometimes in a situation in which she or he is trying to hold off misguided pressure from a supervisor with the left hand while educating parents in the realities of the modern economy with the right hand.  There are times when a strategic retreat is the prudent and right thing to do in such a situation.  But I’ve often seen professionals err on the side of boldness – pushing ahead despite pressure from both supervisors and parents.

Unfortunately, there are professionals at the other end of the spectrum.  These are people who have written masters’ theses or doctoral dissertations – fine documents that cast light on important educational issues.  But when these people are put in situations that expose their motivations and character, they cast aside their own research results to pander at the altar of easy political groupthink.  The strength of their convictions isn’t sufficient to lift a feather.  These professionals make “bureaucrat” a dirty word, and they damage the futures of many thousands of students.

Sheltered scholars like me have an opportunity to both support courageous colleagues and confront those who undermine the meaning of the word “scholar”.  More of us need to do so if our society is going to make progress in expanding opportunities for its young people.


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More on large lecture classes from Senators Negron and Bean

This might turn out to be a good two years for college science teaching reform.  In addition to the statement by incoming Senate President Negron at UF on Tuesday, there was also this on Tuesday at UNF, as reported by

The performance funding formula, Negron said, inadvertently creates a “perverse incentive to round up 500 students in an auditorium.”

Senator Bean echoed this concern, noting that his son at the University of Florida “didn’t see a real teacher until his junior year.”

In closing, Negron noted that “this is the first time we’ve been able to dive in” to these details, and pledged to work with the State University System Board of Governors to make meaningful reforms.


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Incoming President of the Florida Senate not a fan of large lecture classes

From the account by the Gainesville Sun of Senator Joe Negron’s visit to the University of Florida yesterday during his “listening tour” of the state’s public universities:

The classes are too large at UF.  There are too many freshmen and sophomores in giant auditoriums with teaching or graduate assistants.

I include the picture below of a studio physics class just to, you know, remind readers of what an economical large enrollment introductory science class can look like.  It doesn’t have to be students warehoused in a 275-seat lecture hall.

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Death of the Lecture Hall, Part 2

The MIT study here on the traditional lecture should be the last nail in the coffin of that teaching format. Unfortunately, it’s not. So we will keep telling the story.

Bridge to Tomorrow

Do students learn more in a physics MOOC than in a traditional lecture class?  An MIT study says yes (some), but the same study says that “interactive engagement pedagogy” like the SCALE-UP model used for FSU’s studio physics program is much more effective than MOOC’s and traditional lecture courses.


That’s according to a paper in the September 2014 issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (Colvin et al.).  The MIT team measured student learning gains and compared them to those reported for traditional lecture classes and interactive engagement classes by Hake [American Journal of Physics, Vol. 66, pg. 64-74 (1998)].

The conclusion I’d like you to draw from this?  We should not spend one more penny on building new large lecture halls.  If an instructor wants to deliver a non-interactive learning experience, she or he should MOOC it.

Perhaps the money saved on…

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The Death of the Lecture Hall

This post – written a year-and-a-half ago – and the “Part 2” which I will reblog next are just as relevant now (and maybe more so) than they were when first posted.

Bridge to Tomorrow

With the advent of MOOC’s and other technological means of beaming non-interactive lectures to students, does it make any sense to spend scarce public resources building new $5 million 500-seat lecture halls at state-supported universities?  Would any self-respecting state legislator vote to support such an expenditure?

Instead of simply settling for the obvious answer of “obviously not” for both questions, let’s examine the issue a little more carefully.

The traditional lecture class consists of students sitting passively and (if they care to) taking notes while a more-or-less distant lecturer having more-or-less charisma talks at them for 50 minutes or more.  Those few of us who were successful in lecture classes as students were able to dig into class material either on our own (reading and in the case of quantitative classes problem-solving) or with small groups of students that we arranged.   Assessments of student learning consist of periodic quizzes or exams that…

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