Science and math in the high schools: what do you need?

High school education makes a difference, but not quite in the way I’d hoped or expected. A recent correlational study looked at the effects of more discipline-specific education at the high school level on grades in college. That is, if a student took heaps of physics as a high school student, how much will it help her in biology, chemistry, and physics? We’d expect that it should help the student perform better in college physics — she has a head start, after all — but one might naively hope that better mastery of a foundational science like physics would also help with chemistry and biology. On the other hand, perhaps bulking up on biology in high school wouldn’t help much at all with physics. Let’s look and find out!

The results are a little disappointing: there isn’t much of a cross-discipline effect at all. You might be a physics wiz in high school, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be floundering in college biology. Here’s the summary chart, which isn’t particularly well-designed, but you can puzzle out the meaning. They looked at performance in three college disciplines, biology, chemistry, and physics, and correlated it with how much high school biology (orange), chemistry (green), and physics (blue) that the students had taken.

i-8458960467ca5ce28e352de6cc7caa0e-college_grade_diff.gif
Effect of high-school science and mathematics on college science performance. The more high-school courses a student takes in a given subject, the better the student’s college grade in the same subject will be. The average grade-point increase per year of high-school biology (orange), chemistry (green), and physics (blue) is significant for a college course in the same subject but not for a college course in a different subject. Only high-school mathematics (gray) carries significant cross-subject benefit (e.g., students who take high-school calculus average better grades in college science than those who stop at pre-calculus). Grade points are based on a 100-point grade scale. Error bars represent 2 standard errors of the mean.

Look at the first orange bar. That’s saying that students who had taken a year of biology in high school had a greater than a full grade point advantage over students who had taken no high school biology. A year of high school chemistry gave only a half-point boost in biology, while high school physics only nudged up biology scores a little bit. It’s not just that high school physics is worthless, either — look at the blue bar on the far right. High school physics was as effective at prepping students for college physics as high school biology was at prepping students for college biology. (The middle blue bar for college chemistry is a little troubling: more physics in high school hurts your grade in college chemistry. We shall console ourselves with the immensity of the error bars.)

i-d2b4775887e7c3613d3619ca6e958704-math_teachers.gif

Oh, and the gray bars in the graph? That’s math. Math is the #1 most effective preparation for doing well in all sciences, across the board; the more math you can get in high school, the better you’re going to do in any science class you might want to take. Look at those giant gray bars — it makes almost a 2-grade point difference to be all caught up in math before you start college. Parents, if you want your kids to be doctors or rocket scientists, the best thing you can do is make sure they take calculus in high school. Please. Failing to do so doesn’t mean your kid is doomed, but I can see it in the classroom, that students who don’t have the math background have to work twice as hard to keep up as the students who sail in with calculus already under their belt.

It’s why that xkcd cartoon to the right is so perfect. (It’s so good it almost — almost — makes up for this one).


Sadler PM, Tai RH (2007) The Two High-School Pillars Supporting College Science. Science 317(5837)457-458.

At least Don McLeroy is consistently stupid

We were just womping on the new president of the Texas State Board of Education for his foolishness about evolution, but it turns out he’s got the all the symptoms of full wingnut syndrome: he’s also a proponent of ignorance-only sex education.

It is strange that there’s this whole suite of positions that would seem to be unrelated, but almost always seem to be adopted wholesale. If you know someone is against evolution, you can pretty much predict their positions on abortion, stem cells, the death penalty, education, GW Bush, and homosexuality. I wonder what common force ties all those disparate ideas together?

A New Human

A few years ago, everyone was in a tizzy over the discovery of Flores Man, curious hominin remains found on an Indonesian island that had a number of astonishing features: they were relatively recent, less than 20,000 years old; they were not modern humans, but of unsettled affinity, with some even arguing that they were like australopithecines; and just as weird, they were tiny, a people only about 3 feet tall with a cranial capacity comparable to a chimpanzee’s. This was sensational. Then on top of that, add more controversy with some people claiming that the investigators had it all wrong, and they were looking at pathological microcephalics from an isolated, inbred population, and then there were all kinds of territorial disputes and political showboating going on, with the specimens taken out of the hands of the discoverers, passed off to a distinguished elderly scientist whose lab damaged them, etc., etc., etc. It was a mess of a story, and the basic scientific issues are still unsettled.

Now the leader of the investigators who found the specimens has written a book, A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mike Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzee. I’m coming to this a bit late — Afarensis reviewed it already this spring — but finally got far enough down in my pile of books to encounter it.

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A mission for Wikipedians

So it seems that ScienceBlogs has a wikipedia entry, but there’s not much there, and of course it’s a little dodgy for Sciencebloggers themselves to write the entry. If anyone wants to improve on it, please do. Katherine Sharpe, our blogmistress (she’s the one with the whip, but it’s a nice whip), has dumped some basic information on the discussion page, so it ought to be fairly easy for someone to check the info and clean it up.

Nature and The Simpsons

The journal Nature has an interview with Al Jean, executive producer of The Simpsons, specifically on the use of science and math as sources of humor in the show. (But we know the truth: The Simpsons movie is about to come out, and Nature is selling out. They even ask at the end what they can do to get a reference to their journal in an episode.*)

You can read the whole thing — they’ve made it publicly accessible — but I have to quote their stereotype of a scientist.

But we make fun of everything, so if a scientist appears on the show we make fun of them too. Generally our depiction of scientists is that they’re insular and have bad social lives, and say things in an obscure fashion that isn’t always comprehensible to the layman. From my limited experience in the scientific world I wouldn’t say it’s completely off the mark.

That last sentence is called “understatement,” I think. Sweet jebus, the description fits me perfectly! I feel like going home and hiding in the basement with a book full of acronyms from molecular biology now.

*Everyone knows the real pressing question is how to get a Pharyngula reference on the show. Come on, it’s almost as obscure as some of their math jokes!**

**Just not as funny, which is probably the major obstacle here.

Another reason not to waste time debating creationists

Comments are still trickling in and I still get email about this article, where I explain why debate is a poor strategy for dealing with creationists. I definitely don’t argue that we should avoid engaging the public, but that there are a number of reasons why the debate format doesn’t work for resolving conflicts between legitimate science and discredited malarkey. However, I missed one.

Some of you may know that a couple of commenters here resolved to have an off-site written debate on the dependency of the universe’s existence on, specifically, the Abrahamic god. The debate is at the Topical Octagon, but after The Physicist AKA Equus Pallidus put up his first rambling shamble of a post, the debate was terminated for a very common reason: plagiarism.

There is almost no creative, original work on the creationist side. I sometimes wonder if the only reason that ID gets so much attention is that one thing the ID creationists did accomplish was to infuse a collection of new arguments into their side’s corner — over and over again, the same old arguments, even down to the same words, show up in creationist debates. It’s like the scholarly tradition in creationism is a glorified version of cut & paste, lifting paragraphs from other works and stringing them together, and Behe and company at least provided some new source texts from which to steal words.

Although IDists don’t have much new to add. The last talk I heard by Behe was virtually identical, right down to the same old jokes, to the first talk I’d heard from him, ten years before.

What? Royalty doesn’t come with common sense?

Those European countries seem to have relics of old feudal hierarchies still prancing about, which we (and they) mostly seem to ignore except when they do something amusingly silly. The latest royal clown is Princess Märtha Louise of Norway, who is opening an “alternative therapy center,” which is loony enough, but now we learn that this particular center is going to specialize in harnessing the power of angels. She claims she got in touch with the angels through her experience with horses.

I hadn’t known there was a connection. This makes My Little Pony look a little more ominous.

She’s fourth in line for the Norwegian throne. I hope she isn’t applying her wacky quackery to the first three — is this part of a cunning plan?