Why Physics?

Why is it so important to take Physics (along with Biology and Chemistry) in high school? Here’s some evidence that convinced my colleagues and me.

“… High school students hoping to complete a college degree in engineering or engineering technology should include a full year each of chemistry, physics, and (at least) pre-calculus.” — American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)

“These rates are simply unacceptable in a 21st century economy dependent on a STEM-educated workforce.” — American Physical Society (APS), commenting on the U.S.’s low high school Physics enrollment.

Florida Science Enrollment and Demographics

Presented at the 2019 Spring meeting of the Florida Association of Science Supervisors, these data show multi-year trends in course enrollment and the demographic differences between course areas. See how your Florida school district is doing.

To provide equal access to STEM careers, every high school student deserves a well-rounded science education. For a student planning on any technical or academic work after high school, they need to have had full years each of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Want to see some data to back that up? Check out the charts linked above.

What about the kid who already knows which career they want and it isn’t STEM-related? Do we really want to wager a student’s college and career prospects on their intuition at 15 years old? Do you know anyone who changed their career or college major? Surely. Without a Chemistry and Physics in high school, they simply won’t have the option to change it to something STEM. And those are some of the highest paying careers (with or without a degree). We don’t need every student to be a scientist, but we also don’t want anyone to change their mind and find that door was locked before they got a driver’s license. I can’t tell you how often I hear of future biologists being counseled to take three years of life science, no physical sciences, and the least challenging math courses because they “won’t need them.” What else are you willing to bet on a 15-year-old’s life plan? You do not want to see Chemistry or Physics for the first time at university. The statistics on health and life science majors flunking their required college Physics courses is staggering. Those are kids we let down years before they got there.

If you’re still reading this, let me tell you the unlikely tale of two Nathaniels (and former high school students of mine who graciously let me use them as exemplars). After his high school theater experience led to to a gig in the UK, Nathaniel Compton decided to switch to computer science. Two years later he’s a self-taught programmer without a degree and gainfully employed (moreso than I am, for that matter). What does he chalk it up to? Not being allowed to skimp on high school science and math. Then there’s Nathaniel Amos. As sure as a 16-year-old could be, he was going to study history. Until he decided to change his focus at the end of his junior year in high school. No problem since, at the time, we registered most students for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics unless a parent called the Superintendant. That left this second Nathaniel with the ability to take Calculus and a second year of Physics his senior year. He now studies how students learn calculus through Physics. I’m glad these two Nathaniels found those doors unlocked.