When Democratic candidate for Governor Alex Sink released her education platform last week, she hit on an important point regarding the new high school graduation requirements in math and science passed by the Florida Legislature and signed into law by Governor Crist last spring: while they are a step in the right direction, “we can do even more to raise the bar for math and science achievement.” Sink’s plan also says that while “the demand for scientists and mathematicians continues to grow, the number of students going into these fields is not growing at an equal rate.” Sink pledges to work toward a strong curriculum “that will help students meet competitive collegiate standards.”
Indeed, it will require a major shift in the culture and priorities of the state’s educational system to meaningfully address the shortfall in scientists, engineers and mathematicians, a group of careers often abbreviated as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). The report Closing the Talent Gap released by the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce in January, 2010, said the state needs “100,000 more science and technology professionals than we are on track to produce” during the next five years. While Florida’s colleges and universities must build their capacities for educating scientists and engineers, it is equally important – as candidate Sink says – that Florida’s public high schools dramatically increase the number of students they send to the state’s universities who are both interested in science and engineering careers and well prepared for the rigor of undergraduate programs in those fields.
The undergraduate preparation for all science and engineering majors – including those selected by students who intend to pursue health careers as physicians, pharmacists and physical therapists – requires at least two semesters of general chemistry and two semesters of general physics. Prospective health professionals must endure organic chemistry as well. Yet one-third of the students in my general physics classes at Florida State University say that they did not take physics in high school and that they did not know courses like chemistry and physics would be required for them in college. Common sense says that students who have taken strong high school courses in chemistry and physics are more likely to succeed in the college-level chemistry and physics classes, and research backs that conclusion up.
How can we make sure that all of our university-bound high-school graduates are “STEM-ready” – that is, well-prepared for the rigors of undergraduate programs in science and engineering? Unfortunately, the present system that relies on students obtaining advice from parents, teachers, guidance counselors and peers is not working. While the new high school graduation law that requires biology and “chemistry or physics” will improve the scientific literacy of all high school graduates, it will fall short of what is need to prepare students for careers in science, engineering and the health professions.
Instead, it appears that to achieve the goal of dramatically increasing the number of STEM-ready university-bound students a new incentive will have to be put in place. There are three policy options for providing such an incentive. One is that Florida can initiate a program of differentiated high-school diplomas like that recently adopted in Virginia. The highest-level diploma, which in Virginia is called an “Advanced Studies Diploma,” should require that each graduate take courses in biology, chemistry and physics. A second is to modify the eligibility requirements for Bright Futures Scholarships to require biology, chemistry and physics. Finally, Florida’s public universities could require biology, chemistry and physics for university admission.
Making sure that every university-bound student is STEM-ready isn’t just about preparing the scientists, engineers and mathematicians needed to keep Florida’s high technology and health industries fed. It is also about providing the greatest possible range of opportunities for Florida’s students. In the future, the state’s highest paying and most secure jobs will be concentrated in the STEM fields. It only makes sense to be sure our best and brightest don’t cut themselves off from these opportunities while they are still in high school.