Why I pick on biology

Biology is the predominant K-12 science subject – almost the “official K-12 science subject” – of the State of Florida, and many other states as well.  I occasionally note, both on this blog and in op-eds (which are much more widely read, of course) that focusing so much time, energy and money on biology at the expense of other science subjects – particularly physics – doesn’t make any sense.  I am certainly not the only one to say this, and some of the others saying it are much more influential than I am (start with the National Academy of Education).

But I thought it would be useful to summarize my arguments that biology should not be the predominant science subject in Florida’s K-12 schools.  It is my intention to demonstrate that my arguments are either reasonable or based on data (which is a much higher bar than “reasonable”).

It’s worth noting that the arguments for making biology the predominant subject in the state’s schools are not particularly clear, and may revolve around the observation that “it’s always been that way” or that the supply of biology teachers is larger than the supply of chemistry and physics teachers.

So let’s start with…

Biology-Chemistry-Physics “is ‘out of order’ in scientific terms.”  The National Academy of Education said in its 2009 White Paper on Math and Science:

The most common course sequence in science is Biology followed by Chemistry and Physics. This sequence is “out of order” in scientific terms, however. In biology class, 9th graders are introduced to the complex molecules within cells and the structure of DNA even though they know little about atoms and next to nothing about the chemistry and physics that can help them make sense of these structures and their functions. Furthermore, because of the limited course requirements in most states, standard science course sequence often means in practice that many high school students never study physics at all.

Physics is the high school course most strongly correlated with STEM bachelor’s degree attainment.  The data demonstrating this was published by USF’s Will Tyson and collaborators and is summarized in this paper from The Physics Teacher.  Here’s a taste:

While chemistry is associated with being college ready (top panel), it takes physics to make a student STEM ready (bottom panel). 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. This likely seems self-evident to most high school physics teachers, but it is generally not appreciated among teachers in other fields—even other science fields—and principals.

In fact, taking biology in high school may decrease a student’s chances of earning a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field.  So said Harvard Science Education star Philip Sadler at the 2012 March Meeting of the American Physical Society.

The best paying jobs for new bachelor’s degree grads are almost all physics or engineering (applied physics).  You can find a summary of the PayScale.com 2014 College Salary Report here, or the PayScale report itself here.

The highest powered life science career is medical doctor, but the college majors with the highest average scores on the Medical College Admissions Test are (ahem) physics and biomedical engineering.  Here is the American Institute of Physics brochure that illustrates this intriguing fact.

If I come up with more, I’ll add to this post.  But really this should be quite enough.

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