Preparing high school students for college majors in engineering: Why is this so hard for people to understand? (And why did I have to write an Orlando Sentinel op-ed about it?)

Engineering is built on a scientific foundation of physics and a mathematical foundation of calculus.  Therefore, nobody should find it surprising that the American Society for Engineering Education recommends that high school students who are considering college majors in engineering should take physics and calculus in high school.

So why is it so difficult for many advocates and educators to say that physics and calculus are must-takes for high school students who might possibly major in engineering in college?

My op-ed in this morning’s Orlando Sentinel discussed the problems that Florida is having in the high school segment of the engineering pipeline.

To supplement the discussion, I’ll add this plot of the physics enrollment rates in 30 states plus the District of Columbia from a survey of state departments of education in the summer of 2015.  Connor Oswald (now teaching in Duval County) did all the work, and I presented this plot during my talk to the 2016 PhysTEC Conference.  Florida’s physics enrollment rate was approximately half the national rate measured in that survey.  Since then, the number of high school physics enrollments in Florida has dropped 5%.


To close, I’ll share a story of a conversation I had with another STEM education advocate and his boss a few years ago.  This advocate is very successful in his own way, but when I asked why he refused to urge students to take physics and calculus, his boss answered, “Because if we said that the parents would stop listening to us.”

There is plenty of research demonstrating the effectiveness of communicating with parents about the importance of taking courses like physics and calculus.  And I have my own successful experiences in Bay County as well.

But it’s certainly true that some parents – and some educators – will reject that message no matter what.  I just don’t think we should allow such people to keep us from pushing ahead.

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