Chad links to an article about a study that shows that good preparation in high school math helps students perform in all science disciplines in college, whereas studying one science in high school doesn't help their performance in other science disciplines in college.
There are a few conclusions that are drawn. The article quotes people who suggest that the "Physics First" movement— that argues Physics should be taught first, with biology and chemistry later— doesn't hold water. Chad resonates with the article, having observed that college students often have woeful preparation in math, and that this disadvantage cripples them and prevents them from moving on.
Let me propose another, cynical interpretation.
First, though, I do want to agree that a solid grounding in math is essential. I have observed, and have heard other faculty comment, that students come into college not understanding algebra. Oh, they probably scored well enough on standardized tests, and they know some of the tricks ("cross-multiplying" is a word that I hear students use a lot), but they don't really understand it. They recognize some of the patterns and know what to do, but by and large they don't know what they're doing. If you really understand algebra, you no longer think about cross-multiplying as a technique, because it becomes obvious.
My mother taught high-school biology for many years. In her last few years of teaching, she moved into the middle school, and was teaching 8th grade physical science. One of the biggest concepts she tried to get across was the concept of density. She told me, dismayed, that many students wanted to memorize the three equations density=mass/volume, mass=density*volume, and volume=mass/density... even though, of course, they are just very simple algebraic manipulations of the one "definition of density" equation. She said, here they are in their pre-algebra classes (or, for the more advanced students, actual algebra classes) doing much more advanced things, solving quadratic equations, but they don't remember, or instinctively recoil at, doing the much more basic algebra that takes density=mass/volume into mass=density*volume.
It's an issue.
But let me suggest that there is another thing underlying the results of this study. That is, high school science is, in general, not taught the way it should be... and, college science is, in general, taught assuming students learned nothing in high school science.
A couple of years ago, I gave a question on a sample test (not a real test, just a study guide) in my astronomy class that used the concept of density. (I was trying to get at an understanding of the fact that while stars themselves are very dense, galaxies have a very low density in comparison.) After I'd passed this out and students had a chance to look at it, one of the students asked me a question in that partially-aggressive manner that students use when they want to accuse you of something "unfair" without coming out and staying it. The question was, "Have we talked about density in this class?" (OK, it could have been more aggressive; I've had other students ask questions akin to, "When have we talked about density in this class?")
My answer was, "No, but according to the admissions requirements you all took at least two years of science in high school. Density is a concept you learn in middle school science."
The assumption that many, or most, students have is that when they come into a college science class, they are approaching science ab initio. Certainly English (and other) professors complain about how woeful student writing skills are... but we do assume that students come into college knowing how to put together a complex sentence. Even in math, while students believe "too much math" is a valid condemnation of a science course, in their math classes it's assumed that they know arithmetic, and indeed algebra is at many Universities considered to be a remedial course which doesn't satisfy any math requirements. And, yet, they come into science classes assuming that it's OK to have learned nothing in high school science. If college science teachers (at least in classes for non-majors) try to base or draw on any knowledge that they should have learned in high school, they're in trouble.
This is a problem. Without impugning the very good high school science teachers out there (including my mother and some friends I've had), I do have this idea that a lot, if not most, of the high school science teaching out there is done poorly. Too many students have the idea that science is about memorizing facts and answers. Where did they get this idea? From each other, certainly, but I suspect also from standardized tests and from their high school science classes. Ideally, a good high school science class should impart, at least to the students who do well in the class, something about the process of doing science, and about what science is. Ideally, also, college classes would impart and test the same things. Alas, this is too rarely true. Too many non-majors college classes are also about memorizing and regurgitating facts and answers. If you remember some of them from your high school class on the same topic, you do well. If, on the other hand, both high school and college classes did a better job of teaching thinking in the scientific mode, then I predict that the results of this study would be quite different.
I personally have no opinion on the "Physics First" movement. I sort of like the idea of teaching high school science in the biology, chemistry, physics order, because that's the order of "how advanced of math is needed," and as such it makes sense for students who've had more math to take chemistry and then physics. The "basis in physics" that the movement is after should be coming in a junior high "introduction to physical science" class. All of these classes should be basing what they do on things that students have learned previously; process, and a mode of thinking. College classes should be assuming that students did indeed learn something in high school.
There's a lot of stuff to know in science, a lot of facts and answers. But what's both harder and more satisfying is learning the scientific mode of thinking, learning how to take given facts and correlations and how to draw conclusions or understanding from them.