Why you’ve got to do well in math

PZ Myers describes a study published in Science correlating courses in high school with success in college-level biology, chemistry, and physics courses. As you might expect, success in college chemistry increases when you take high school chemistry, success in college biology increases when you take high school biology, and success in college physics increases when you take high school physics.

However, a high school course in one science doesn’t translate to better grades in a different science. That’s unfortunate, but didn’t really surprise me. Many high school level science courses cover a lot of topics in a small amount of detail and don’t focus on connections between the sciences or the overall scientific method.

However, there appears to be one high school subject that increases success in all three of the studied college sciences, and that’s … math! This is unsurprising to me. As someone who’s taught freshman chemistry full-time for seven years (has it really been that long?), I’ve noticed that students who are proficient with math almost always succeed in freshman chemistry, and those who really struggle with math rarely succeed. As I’ve said to other teachers:

Give me a student who knows basic math, and I can teach her chemistry. But don’t expect me to teach her basic math and chemistry in one semester.

That said, I think this study isn’t all that useful unless the researchers had some way to control for the effects of self-selection bias on the results. In our state, at least, these high school science and advanced math courses examined are optional, and only students who demonstrate high aptitude in math and science already (which would probably translate to success in college science) and who are on the college prep track take them.

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