STEM advocates must have the guts to deliver the tough message to students and parents about taking chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus in high school

During a visit with parents and students at Panama City’s Mosley High School on Tuesday evening, I started my discussion with this assertion:  Every college-bound student should be prepared to choose any major.

That is, every student arriving on a college campus should be prepared to select majors in engineering, physics, medical professions, computer science…whatever.  Many students – perhaps most students – will choose other career tracks.  But for a student who arrives on campus and discovers inspiration in the challenge of designing innovative computing devices, devising new medical treatments or deciphering the workings of the universe, it would be heartbreaking to find that it is more difficult or even impossible to pursue these dreams because of decisions made in high school to stop taking math after Algebra 2 or to skip a physics course.  The fact that these career tracks are generally the most economically rewarding just adds insult to injury.

For parents, the message is simple:  Make sure your college-bound student takes high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and – preferably – calculus.  That’s the recipe given by the American Society for Engineering Education on their eGFI site:

Earning good grades in challenging and advanced courses will give you a leg up, and taking high levels of math and science will make your introductory engineering classes in college more manageable.

Most engineering schools require four years of math, including Pre-Calculus, although Calculus or AP Calculus is strongly encouraged. Engineering schools are also looking for at least three years of science, including Physics and Chemistry.

And it’s not just engineering.

A student who wants to attend medical school, dental school or physical therapy school will have to take two semesters of physics, tons of chemistry and two semesters of college-level math as an undergraduate.  And it’s likely that a student will perform better in college physics (and those grades will look better on the medical school application) if the student takes physics in high school.

At least at my university, the requirements for a bachelor of science in computer science includes two semesters of physics (which can be replaced by a semester of chemistry and two semesters of biology if the student wishes – but who would wish for that?).

Unfortunately, not all science education advocates who are encouraging high school students to consider STEM careers are on the same page when it comes to high school course-taking advice.  Consider this advice for high school students from a STEM advocacy website:

High school is a great time for students to explore their interests and discover new ones. Advanced math and science courses, internships, summer programs, and even a part-time job can help them refine their interests. It’s important to keep variety in the mix: A 14-year-old aspiring physician could be tomorrow’s great software developer!

Yes, this site says that “Advanced math and science courses…can help them refine their interests.”  And in some parts of the nation, it would be assumed that these “advanced” courses would include physics and calculus.  But this is Florida, where the high school physics-taking rate is well below the national average and many high schools don’t even offer physics or calculus.  In fact, about a quarter of the engineering majors and larger percentages of the biology and computer science majors I see show up in my classes without having taken a high school physics course – placing them at a dramatically increased risk of failure.

My experience is that those of us talking to high school students and parents can’t just beat around the bush – like the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory’s site linked above does.  Instead, we must deliver in clear, blunt language that high school courses in chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus open career doors that will otherwise be all but closed.  Anything short of that is doing students a disservice.

The power point from my talk at Mosley High School is here:




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1 Response to STEM advocates must have the guts to deliver the tough message to students and parents about taking chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus in high school

  1. Pingback: The tough message about taking high school chemistry, physics, precalculus and calculus: Some statistics | Bridge to Tomorrow

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