Preparing for college: It’s not what it used to be

I recently had a conversation with someone who was bemoaning what she saw as the fact that students have to pick their college majors while they are still early in high school.  Why would she say that?  Because students who might want to major in the most lucrative fields like engineering and science have to – as she saw it – change their high school course schedules to include courses like calculus and physics.

There are two things to point out about this individual.  First, she was not a K-12 teacher or the parent of a high school student.  Instead, she was a high-ranking official at one of Florida’s public postsecondary institutions.

Second, she was just flat out wrong.  Students don’t have to pick a major early in their high school years.  They just have to make sure they keep their career options open as they progress through high school.  And to keep those options open, they need math up to at least Precalculus and a complete menu of sciences including chemistry and physics.

Perhaps back in the old days it was sufficient to take Algebra 2 and chemistry to prepare for college.  But even when I graduated from high school in 1978, that wasn’t good enough to prepare for college majors in science and engineering – and students who did not step up to at least Precalculus and physics in high school placed real limits on their career options.

But it’s certainly true now that it makes no sense for a bachelor’s degree-bound student to head off to college with anything less than a Precalculus course and a full house of science courses that includes chemistry and physics.  In fact, recent research results demonstrate that Algebra 2 is not sufficient to prepare students for success in bachelor’s degree programs – and not just in science and engineering.

And taking calculus and physics in high school certainly does not lock a student in to a science or engineering career.  At considerable risk to my family relationships, I will now illustrate this by sharing about my children.  All three took math courses up to AP Calculus BC.  The eldest actually took Calc BC in her junior year and took two math courses at FSU her senior year (not unusual at her high school).  All took two years of physics as well as chemistry and a biology course that taught them the steps in the Krebs Cycle but not what those steps accomplish.  The eldest is now an associate at a big law firm, where her excellent number sense and broad scientific literacy occasionally come in handy.  The middle child is a graduate student in architecture at a prominent university after completing an undergraduate major in studio art.  Several semesters of calculus and a semester of calculus-based physics were required for admission to her graduate program.  And the youngest is (finally!) intending to major in physics and (oh, there’s an and?) economics and then continue on to law school, although since it is only his second year at college there is plenty of time for a change of heart.

Of course, high school students don’t have to take AP Calculus BC (or beyond) to be prepared for science and engineering careers.  AP Calculus AB is excellent preparation for college majors in science and engineering (so says the American Society for Engineering Education) and all is not lost for a student who takes Precalculus.  Physics is critically important, but two years of physics is probably not.  Chemistry is important, but at least in Florida the vast majority of high school students take it already.

But the idea that only a few select high school students need calculus and physics – a view that is widespread not just among parents but also among educational leaders in Florida – is obsolete.

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