Many states look to North Carolina and its Research Triangle Park as the model for attracting high-technology industries. But a recent report from the American Institute of Physics says that the state lags badly in preparing its own K-12 students to succeed in college majors in science and engineering that lead to well-paid careers at Research Triangle Park and elsewhere.
The Institute of Physics' Science and Engineering Readiness Index (SERI) compares states by how well they prepare their K-12 students for the challenging undergraduate majors in science and engineering. The index is inspired by a 2007 research paper from the University of South Florida that demonstrates that taking physics and calculus in high school is important for success in bachelor's degree programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as the STEM fields).
A student completing a calculus course in high school is seven times more likely to earn a bachelor's degree in a STEM field than one whose highest math is Algebra 2, and twice as likely as one who stops at Pre-calculus. The story in science is similar: a student who completes a physics course in high school is twice as likely to earn a STEM bachelor's degree as a student whose highest science course is chemistry.
The SERI authors incorporated Advanced Placement results for calculus and physics, the percentage of high school graduates who take physics (as measured by the Institute of Physics), certification procedures for high school physics teachers, and results from the eighth-grade science and math tests of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (often called the "Nation's Report Card").
The SERI index rated North Carolina "Below average." Massachusetts earned the "Best in the nation" rating, while Mississippi was labeled "Worst in the U.S."
In the Southeast only Virginia rated "Above average." Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee were rated "Average." South Carolina joined North Carolina at "Below average," and Alabama and Louisiana were rated "Far below average."
The bottom line is that, although North Carolina seeks to be a leader in high-tech industry, the industry's innovators - its scientists and engineers - are more likely to come from other states.
While the math components of North Carolina's SERI rating are near the national averages, the state's rating is hurt by the low percentage of students who take physics: the state's physics-taking rate is fourth lowest in the South. We believe this shortfall is due in part to policies that encourage students to avoid physics in high school.
Graduation requirements discourage students from taking physics. Students need complete only three science courses - biology, environmental science and an elective - to earn a high school diploma or to be admitted to a UNC-system college. Lack of good physics teachers and Advanced Placement courses in other subjects actually pushes high school students to skip physics.
Instead of being the capstone course for future scientists and engineers, high school physics has become "The Course to Avoid" for students in North Carolina. The SERI data suggests that by merely requiring high school biology, chemistry and physics for admission, the UNC system could increase its production of STEM graduates.
North Carolina cannot continue to recruit high-technology jobs if North Carolina graduates cannot perform them. The Science and Engineering Readiness Index shows specific points where North Carolina can improve the preparation of students to fill those jobs.
David Haase is a professor of physics at N.C. State University and member of the National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics. Paul Cottle is a professor of physics at Florida State University and the vice chair of the American Physical Society's Forum on Education.