Reminder for policy makers: Calculus and physics are key ingredients in the making of an engineer (and even a computer scientist)

Over the weekend, I became aware of a recent effort in Congress to make a big push for AP courses in engineering and computer science.  This is a fine thing, but without the basics – math and physics – this is like having the icing without the cake.

Every engineering major needs to know physics and calculus – those are the gateway courses to engineering careers.  A bachelor’s degree in computer science requires physics and calculus.  I’m puzzled that our engineering and computer science colleagues who are lobbying Congress don’t understand that we should all be working together to promote a high school pipeline course sequence that includes calculus, computer science, engineering and physics – all of them.  Promoting computer science and engineering without promoting calculus and physics is just, well, dumb.

What’s needed is a real strategy for promoting careers in computer science, engineering, and the physical sciences, especially among young women and underrepresented minorities.  That strategy needs to start in middle school and ensure that the entire top 35% of students (roughly the number that takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before in Florida – and it’s probably nationally representative) graduates from high school with AP courses in calculus, computer science, engineering and physics.

The piecemeal approach that the lobbyists for engineering and computer science education seem to be taking on this is just, well, I said it above and will not say it again.

I’ll add some numbers here to provide some perspective.  They should all be compared to the 35% number of students who take Algebra 1 in 8th grade or before.

About 4% of high school grads have passed the exam for the first AP Calculus course, Calculus AB.  If a student takes Algebra 1 in 8th grade and follows the standard math sequence (Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus) then AP Calculus AB is the senior year math course.  This 4% number is pathetic.

Less than 2% of high school grads have passed an AP Physics exam.  That should dramatically increase this year with the introduction of the new AP Physics courses.  The first, AP Physics 1, is designed to replace the traditional high school physics course, which has been taken by roughly 23% of American high school grads.  While the effectiveness of the traditional physics course in many high schools is questionable, the new AP course incorporates elements that may significantly enhance student learning.

The US is badly undersubscribed in AP calculus and physics courses already.  Those are obstacles to growing the engineering, computer science and physical science workforce that need to be addressed along with the need to implement an AP engineering course and expand the AP computer science course.


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