Why Calculus and Physics in High School?

Only about 10% of Florida’s high school graduates have taken a calculus course, and only about 25% have taken a physics course.  Many strong students do not take calculus or physics, and there are high schools in Florida that do not offer calculus or physics.

Does this matter?  If it’s important that we prepare students for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, which are the most promising careers in our technological society, then a study published by a group from the University of South Florida in 2007 gives a resounding answer of “YES!”

The study followed the 1999 high school graduating classes of every high school in Florida, and the results are summarized in the two figures shown below.

The first figure shows how the “attainment rates” (percentage of high school graduates earning degrees) for a bachelor’s degree in any field (top panel) and a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field (bottom panel) depend on the math courses taken by students in high school.  Students who take Trigonometry or Precalculus boost their attainment rates for earning bachelors’ degrees in any field, and taking calculus does not boost the rate very much.  But if we zero in on bachelors’ degrees in STEM fields, taking calculus more than doubles the attainment rate over stopping at Precalculus.

jjmi redraw page 1 v1Now on to high school science classes.  The usual high school science sequence is biology-chemistry-physics.  The USF results show the importance of taking a physics course instead of stopping at chemistry.  Taking physics not only doubles the attainment rate for bachelors’ degrees in STEM fields, it also doubles the attainment rate for all bachelors’ degrees.  Taking a more advanced science course – such as an Advanced Placement course in chemistry or physics – boosts the attainment rates even more, especially for bachelors’ degrees in STEM fields.

Basic RGB You might also want to take a look at an article from the magazine The Physics Teacher that discusses these results and more.  You can download it by clicking the link below.

physics teacher


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