Decisions on math and science that students make in high school can limit their STEM options in college

I frequently talk with FSU undergraduates or recent graduates who realize – too late – that the decisions they made in high school not to take courses like precalculus, chemistry or physics either limited their career options or put their career ambitions at risk.

Some tell me that after arriving at FSU that they found some technology or physical science field that piqued their interest.  Sadly, they then figured out their decisions not to take upper level math and science courses in high school (because in high school they were sure they were going to be writers or “in the political science business”, for example) made it nearly impossible to succeed in those fields in college.

Others arrive at FSU without the necessary preparation for their chosen majors and then become deeply frustrated when they run into trouble.  About a quarter of the students in my studio physics classes decided – for one reason or another – not to take physics in high school.  It seems inexplicable to me that a student intending to major in engineering or even chemistry would skip high school physics.  Nevertheless, too many do.  A few succeed anyway.  Many more do not.  About half of the biology majors at FSU didn’t take physics in high school, and that turns out to be a significant problem for them as well.  More recently, I’ve become aware of students who arrive at FSU intending to pursue careers in the life sciences or health professions who didn’t even take chemistry in high school, much less physics.

A lack of math preparation can be equally problematic.  Too many students arrive on campus having to take College Algebra, which leaves them a year-and-a-half behind the students who arrive on campus with credit for AP Calculus AB or an equivalent IB calculus course.  For a fairly large number of STEM majors, taking College Algebra during the first semester on campus makes it is impossible for students to keep up with the pace required to graduate in four years.  These students are unable to keep up with the university’s “map” schedules and they ultimately get kicked out of their intended STEM majors.

I was thinking about this as I listened to the discussions during legislative committee meetings last week, where preparing high school students for STEM careers – even affluent students – was left off the agenda and even belittled a bit.

Then I thought about it again when James Madison Institute Senior Fellow Jack Chambless discussed the importance of picking an economically viable college major – like his daughter’s choice in the health professions – in the Orlando Sentinel.   The only problem with Chambless’ commentary was that he ignored the importance of high school preparation for the majors he was selling – especially those involving lots of math and science (Chambless noted that there were 100 psychology majors at the Georgia State graduation he attended and only one physics major).

The James Madison Institute once published an article about the importance of high school preparation for college STEM majors in its journal.  Alas, the institute has lost interest in the subject – and in the subject of how we are going to find enough strong teachers in math and science so that all of Florida students can have access to these economically robust STEM careers.

The plots below show how high school math and science course-taking are correlated with STEM bachelor’s degree attainment.  The data are from Florida’s high school graduating class of 1999 and were published by USF researchers led by Will Tyson in 2007.  The figures are taken from a paper published in The Physics Teacher in 2011, which can be downloaded here:

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The same figures were also published in the above-mentioned Journal of the James Madison Institute article on high school preparation for STEM careers, which I authored.

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