A College-Prep Engineering Curriculum:  Science

Posted on July 31, 2017 by Mark Conner

I am a firm believer that every student interested in pursuing a STEM degree should take Biology, Chemistry, and Physics in high school AND at least one science course each year.  Biology, Chemistry, and a first Physics course should be completed by the end of the junior year.  Doing so provides a broad science foundation and the opportunity for advanced study in one or more of these subjects, which I strongly recommend.  Which subject depends on several factors.

The primary factor in choosing advanced courses should be preparation for what students will see in college.  With very few exceptions, engineering students will be required to take one semester of Inorganic Chemistry and two semesters of Calculus-based Physics.  Students majoring in Chemical, Materials, and related engineering disciplines will be required to take additional chemistry and applied chemistry courses.  Biomedical Engineering students will have some additional chemistry and biology courses.  Undergraduate engineering courses like Statics, Dynamics, Thermodynamics, Fluid Dynamics, Heat Transfer, Strength of Materials, Electrical Circuits, Electromagnetics, and many more are essentially applied physics courses.  They involve the application of physics principles that are introduced in the required Engineering Physics 1 & 2 courses that engineering majors take (or should take) during their first three semesters of college.

With physics as the foundation for so many courses that follow, I encourage the vast majority of pre-engineering students to take two years of Physics in high school with at least one of those at the AP level and, if possible, calculus-based.  Students who are confident about pursuing degrees that have additional chemistry and biology requirements may be better served by taking upper-level chemistry or biology courses.

For far too many students, choices for advanced/AP science courses within their school are limited.  It is hard to find science teachers with the expertise to handle the breadth and depth of Advanced Placement courses, especially in the physical sciences.  Some schools elect not to offer courses for this reason, while others decide it’s better to offer a course with an unqualified teacher than not to offer it at all.  Many schools are also fighting the numbers game, making annual decisions about which courses to offer based on student interest.  Let me offer some thoughts if this is your situation.

  • Any advanced science course is probably better than no science course.  Take something.  College courses also move very quickly, much more quickly than AP courses, and students need to do what they can to prepare for the fast pace.
  • Do not limit your options to what your school offers. There are a growing number of online options for Advanced Placement science courses.  While students may not be able to get as full of a lab experience through this format, they can still begin developing an understanding of the concepts and principles that are the starting point for so many engineering courses.
  • Poor teaching is a distinct possibility … at every level.  It is still the responsibility of the student to get everything possible out of the course.  There are plenty of available resources to help with learning the material, from online tools like Khan Academy and YouTube to the most overlooked of all resources – the textbook!  Reading for meaning and understanding is an important skill that students need to learn early and practice often.

The consequences of being unprepared for the required science courses is a key reason why 60% of students entering college to study engineering leave college without an engineering degree.