Memo to parents: Is your high school student prepared for opportunities in STEM and health fields? School districts should feel free to copy and distribute ;-)

Your daughter or son is not well prepared for a college major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or health field unless she or he has taken Chemistry, Physics and a math course called “Precalculus” in high school. Taking a Calculus course in high school is even better.

The American Society for Engineering Education says that students who might choose Engineering in college should take Precalculus (and preferably Calculus), Chemistry and Physics in high school.

Earning a bachelor of science degree in Computer Science generally requires a considerable amount of math, including Calculus. And Physics is generally encouraged if not required for a Computer Science major. Taking those subjects for the first time in high school provides a much better chance of success in college.

Admission into medical, dental or physical therapy school requires college physics, lots of chemistry and a considerable amount of mathematics. Taking those subjects for the first time in high school makes it more likely that a student will earn high grades in the college versions of those courses – and those college grades go right into a student’s application for professional school.

Research tells parents how important high school courses like Physics, Precalculus and Calculus are for students who might have an interest in a STEM field. A study published by University of South Florida researchers in 2007 showed that students who took Physics in high school were twice as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field as those who stopped at Chemistry and didn’t take Physics.

The same study demonstrated that students who took a high school Precalculus course were three times as likely to earn a STEM bachelor’s degree as those whose highest math course was Algebra 2. Students who took a high school Calculus course were seven times as likely to earn a STEM degree as those who stopped in Algebra 2.

Not all students pursuing STEM and health fields have the best high school preparation. About a quarter of the students in my studio physics courses at FSU – and those are students majoring in fields like engineering and computer science – did not take a high school physics course. Our studio physics program provides such underprepared students the best possible chance of success, but they are still at a serious disadvantage.

About half of the FSU students intending to enter professional school in a health field did not take a physics course in high school.

If your child is being advised not to take physics or calculus for some reason, get your advice elsewhere. I talk with counselors and teachers around Florida who encourage students to take on seemingly risky challenges like physics and calculus.

Recent research has shown that parents play a very important role in determining whether their children take the challenging high school math and science courses necessary to prepare for college majors in STEM and health fields. In other words, your encouragement may be the critical factor that opens a world of opportunity for your children.


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