Engineering, computer science and physics majors consistently dominate rankings of salaries earned by recent college graduates (for example, see “The Economic Guide To Picking A College Major” posted on FiveThirtyEight.com on September 12 of this year). Recently, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) has been organizing a Congressional effort to urge the National Science Foundation to continue its efforts to promote Advanced Placement (AP) courses in Computer Science and Engineering. The AP Computer Science course has been offered by the College Board for many years. Few students have been taking it, although a recent campaign by an organization called code.org to promote computer science education, and specifically to promote AP Computer Science, shows signs of success. The code.org organization is financially supported by Amazon, Google and Microsoft, among others.
The AP Engineering course is still in the development phase and is scheduled for rollout in fall of 2016. Unfortunately, the efforts to promote careers in engineering and computer science via the AP program have neglected two other subjects – calculus and physics – that are foundational for engineering and computer science. While the percentage of 2013 high school graduates having a passing score on the AP Computer Science exam is frustratingly tiny (0.47%), the percentages of high school grads with passing scores on the algebra-based AP Physics B exam and calculus-based AP Physics C Mechanics exams are also small (1.37% and 0.78%, respectively). Only 4.3% of 2013 high school grads had earned a passing score on the AP Calculus AB exam, which is equivalent to Calculus 1 at many colleges and universities. (These statistics are from the 2014 AP Report to the Nation)
If the nation intends to expand the percentage of college graduates that have majors in engineering, computer science and physics beyond the present levels (in 2011 they were 4.5% in engineering, 2.5% in computer science and 0.30% in physics, according to the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators) then AP courses in calculus and physics must become much more heavily subscribed. There seems to be plenty of potential for growth in AP Calculus AB since as of 2011 47% of 8th graders in the US were enrolled in Algebra 1 or a higher level course (Brookings Institution, September 2013). There is also potential for strong growth in AP Physics with the arrival of the new AP Physics courses (AP Physics 1 and 2) this school year. In particular, AP Physics 1 is intended to replace Honors Physics in American high schools.
Given the unmet demand (and associated high salaries) for engineers and computer scientists, it is clear that an expansion of AP Computer Science and the availability of an AP Engineering course would be positive developments for the nation’s high school students. But it would be unwise for the College Board and organizations associated with the engineering and computer science industries to promote these courses without also promoting AP courses in calculus and physics. In fact, the most prudent course for all these organizations would be to promote a high school program that includes all four of these courses – AP Calculus AB, AP Physics 1, AP Engineering and AP Computer Science – to the entire top quartile of American high school students.