Dual enrollment, early college, and the engineering and physics pipelines: A map of the eight years from 9th grade to bachelor’s degree

As a state, Florida is doing a lousy job of preparing students for bachelor’s degree programs in engineering, physics and other high-income STEM fields.

Students in Florida’s public high schools take physics at a rate only about half that of the nation as a whole.  And high school physics enrollments have dropped by 8% over the last three years.

Despite Florida’s financial incentives for Advanced Placement course success, the state is only about average for the rate at which students earn college credit in the program for Calculus 1, which the American Society for Engineering Education recommends for high school students who might major in engineering in collegeDual enrollment makes only a modest contribution to addressing this issue.

Even Florida high school chemistry enrollments are in free fall – down 9% over the last two years.

Former Florida Senate Education Committee Chair John Legg and former Step Up for Students editor Travis Pillow (now at the Center for Reinventing Public Education) proposed in an entry to the Fordham Institute Wonk-A-Thon that the conventional boundary between high school and college be rethought.  Could such a scheme open the doors of engineering and physics opportunity to more students?

The answer is a murky “maybe”.

Surely there is a need to open those doors.  Women are earning only about 20% of the bachelors’ degrees in those fields – both at the state and national levels.  Black students earn only 7% of the bachelors’ degrees in engineering and 4% of the bachelors’ degrees in physics in Florida’s State University System.   In Florida, 22% of the students in the public K-12 schools are black, so their underrepresentation in engineering and physics is severe.  (Bachelor’s degree numbers are for the 2015-16 academic year, and the K-12 numbers for 2017-18.)

And that underrepresentation begins in the K-12 schools.  Only 37% of the Florida high school students taking the AP Physics 1 exam in 2017 were female (although about half of the AP Calculus AB exam takers were female).  Of the AP Physics 1 exam takers, only 6% were black.  For AP Calculus AB, 7% were black.

So what Florida is presently doing is not working to address these inequities.  Could tinkering with the boundary between high school and college help?

Maybe.  But focusing too much on the high school-college boundary might obscure the most important issues, which are:

  • Providing access to great math and science educators; and,
  • Coaxing parents and students (and perhaps mostly parents) to enroll in the necessary math and science courses with those great educators.

One of the main selling points of Early College schemes is the idea of saving money by shortening the college experience.  If a student earns an A.A. degree at the same time as a high school diploma, doesn’t that shorten the total time spent in high school and college?

While that might work in Political Science, it doesn’t in Engineering and Physics.  The two tables below show the academic paths from the end of 8th grade to graduation with a bachelor’s degree in either mechanical engineering or physics for a student who successfully completes Algebra 1 in 8th grade.  The programs for Years 5-8 are taken from FSU’s Academic Program Guide.  The courses for Years 1-4 are the standard math and science sequences at most high schools.

Mechanical engineering


The mechanical engineering and physics degree programs are actually quite similar.  The math, science and engineering courses in both programs involve prerequisites that dictate the length of the conventional college-level program.  Just to take one example:  Calculus 1 is a prerequisite for the first calculus-based introductory physics course.  That particular situation actually drives a Year 5 feature of both degree programs – the “required summer term”.  If a student indeed completes Calculus 1 (either via AP Calculus AB or the Dual Enrollment Calculus 1) during Year 4 – that is, the traditional senior year of high school – then the student can take Calculus 2 and the first calculus-based physics course in the fall of Year 5, eliminating the need for a summer term that year.

Just to note one related thing that came up in conversation recently:  A student who has to start Year 5 (once again, the traditional beginning of college) with a Precalculus course adds a year to the bachelor’s degree program – five years of college instead of four.  (Or 9 years total instead of 8)

Yes, we are now way down in the weeds.  But that’s where I (and my students) live.  Adding a summer term or even a full year costs everybody money, and that matters.

So where should we draw the boundary between high school and college?  Which of the courses in the tables are best taken in a high school environment and which in a college environment?

It depends.  It depends on where students have access to the strongest educators and what it takes for parents to become convinced that they should nudge their children to take on the challenge of the next year’s math and science courses.

It seems self-evident that Geometry and Algebra 2 courses should be taken in a high school environment.  The standard biology course that Florida requires should be taken at a high school level, too.

It also makes sense to me that a first chemistry course should be taken from a high school chemistry teacher in a course titled “Honors Chemistry”.  But there are options:  In principle, the student’s first chemistry course could be a liberal studies-level college chemistry course, as long as it includes a lab component (For aficionados:  CHM 1025?).  But do we want a 15-year-old taking a college course on a college campus?

Alternatively, a high school could attract a chemistry teacher with the 18 graduate credit hours of chemistry courses required for college instructors and have that teacher offer CHM 1025 (or whatever the correct course number is) in the high school building.  But as hard as it is to find bachelor’s-level chemistry teachers now, what are the odds of a high school attracting a master’s-level chemist to teach?  Given all this, it seems that the traditional Honors Chemistry course with a Florida Chemistry 6-12 certification (and often a bachelor’s degree in biology) makes the most sense most of the time.

What about the Precalculus and Algebra-based Physics courses I’ve listed above in Year 3 (the conventional 11th grade)?  During the 2017-18 academic year, 4,183 high school students dual enrolled in Precalculus at Florida College System (FCS) institutions.  In contrast, 41,495 high school students were enrolled in the standard Honors Precalculus course and another 2,689 in the International Baccalaureate Precalculus course.  How should a student and parent choose whether to take the standard Honors Precalculus course or the dual enrollment option?  To me, it’s easy:  Pick the option with the stronger educator.  Learning Precalculus concepts with deep understanding is critically important for keeping the engineering career option open.  Whether or not a student earns a college credit for it is not important.

The same principles apply to choosing physics and calculus teachers in years 3 and 4.  In each subject, a parent and student should pick the option with the strongest educator.  How can you tell which educator is stronger?  In physics at least, a parent should choose the option that involves hands-on pedagogy.  Having a Golden Lecturer holding forth about physics at the front of a classroom is not effective.  If the high school physics teacher is hands-on, choose that option.  If not, and a student has access to a hands-on algebra-based college physics class, then pick that.

Class Panorama

A hands-on college physics class at FSU.

Dual enrollment can also offer other kinds of temptations.  If a junior in high school has to make a choice between a high school Honors Physics class and a dual enrollment “Introducing Biology” class (BSC 1005, which attracted 4,039 high school students last year), which should that student (and parent) choose?  That’s easy – the Honors Physics class that keeps the option for an engineering career open.  BSC 1005, which we call “Baby Bio” here at FSU, may carry college credit.  But it’s a dead end as far as STEM careers go.

Dual enrollment and early college can open access to bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers for students from a wide range of backgrounds.  Those options can also derail promising students.  What matters most is what always matters most – great educators and informed choices by students and parents.  In the end, the arbitrary boundary between what we call “high school” and “college” doesn’t really matter much.

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