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Moving from High School to College Science

When a college freshman doesn't do well in a first-year science course, whose fault is it?

There's a lot of interest in how to better prepare students for the rigors of undergraduate study, and how to measure those skills. But this week I was reminded that it's probably important to examine the general disconnect between how various subjects are taught at the high school and college level, with science in particular.

The issue came to mind when I wrote about the debate over whether it's better to focus on teaching science in more depth, or breadth. A new study, to sum it up quickly, says the answer is depth. Near the end of the story, I quoted Francis Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. I'd asked him why students taught science by teachers using a "breadth" approach, covering a lot of topics, didn't do better in their freshman year college classes, according to the study.

He basically said that while it was fair to look at shortcomings in high school science teaching, not enough attention gets paid to how college-level science is taught. College science courses are heavily oriented toward lectures and covering reams of material, he said. The goal often seems to be to weed out people who don't have the skills to pursue college science majors, Eberle told me, rather than attempting to nurture and build the skills and interests they already have.

Eberle's organization, of course, represents the K-12 teacher's perspective. But he's not the only science advocate I've heard make this argument about college science instruction. And he raises an important issue, particularly at a time when policymakers are keenly interested in boosting the number of students who pursue "STEM" careers. What if the "STEM pipeline" as it's sometimes called, is springing leaks at the entry-level undergraduate, rather than high school level? If anyone can point me to any useful data or studies on this point, I'd like to see it.

Of course, some researchers, such as Linsday Lowell and Hal Salzman, have argued that schools and college are in fact producing enough STEM-focused students already. The larger fault, they say, lies with graduate programs and private-sector companies, which don't do enough to convince them to stay in the field.

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