Students who had more math courses in high school did better in all types of science once they got to college, researchers say.
On the other hand, while high school courses in biology, chemistry or physics improved college performance in each of the individual sciences, taking a high school course in one science didn't result in better college performance in the others.
Philip M. Sadler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia surveyed 8,474 students taking introductory science courses at 63 U.S. colleges and universities. Their findings are reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science.
Science educators debate the effect of the order in which students take science courses. Since the 1890s biology has tended to come first, followed by chemistry and then physics.
Some educators argue that physics should be taught earlier because it will help students understand the other two science areas; others say having chemistry first will help in learning biology.
But in this study neither was the case.
Using a scale of 0-to-100 points, Sadler and Tai found that every year of high school math a student took added 1.86 points to their grade in college chemistry. Taking chemistry in high school added 1.72 points to the college grade, but taking biology or physics in high school had no significant impact on the college chemistry grade.
Likewise, students taking college biology got a 1.84 point boost for each year of high school math. Taking high school biology got them an extra 1.35 points, but high school chemistry and physics had no significant effect.
And for physics, each year of high school math added 1.28 points, high school physics gave a 1.32 point boost, while high school biology and chemistry had no impact.
"I was surprised," Sadler said in a telephone interview. "I had a very open mind about whether this kind of early preparation would pay off."
"The most important thing for high school science teachers is to make sure there is lots of math in whatever science course they teach," Sadler said. "Math is so important in college science."
The paper does note that other variables not measured in their study may also have an impact, such as a student's interest in a particular subject and their parents' occupations.
Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, welcomed the paper as a source of new data for making decisions on science teaching.
"The correlation with math makes sense," he said.
But Wheeler, who was not part of the research group, cautioned that a correlation isn't necessarily the same as cause and effect.
The research was supported
From the National Science Foundation
Student Results Show Benefits of Math and Science Partnerships
Students' performance on annual math and science assessments improved in almost every age group when their schools were involved in a program that partners K-12 teachers with their colleagues in higher education.
While an earlier study tracked schools that began work in the first year of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Math and Science Partnership program (MSP), the most recent study followed more than 300 schools participating in partnerships that began to be funded during the program's second year.
Participating school districts found that a significantly higher proportion of students scored at the "proficient" level or higher on state math and science assessments in the 2004-2005 school year than they had in 2003-2004. The only exception was in science at the middle school level, where student performance stayed the same (see accompanying chart).
Progress among elementary math students was particularly noteworthy, with student proficiency rising by more than 15 percentage points from one school year to the next.
The MSP currently supports 52 such partnerships around the country that unite some 150 institutions of higher education with more than 550 school districts, including more than 3,300 schools in 30 states and Puerto Rico. More than 70 businesses, numerous state departments of education, science museums and community organizations are also partners.
"Teachers don't just have to learn more math and science," says Joyce Evans, a program manager in NSF's directorate for education and human resources. "They need to learn to become an expert resource for their colleagues."
Established in 2002 to integrate the work of higher education with K-12 and to strengthen and reform mathematics and science education, MSP was enhanced in 2004 with the addition of teacher institutes for the 21st century.
While NSF has funded development programs for teachers since the 1950s, the MSP teacher institutes not only have an intense focus on subject matter expertise but also an emphasis on leadership development. More than 3,000 teachers participated in 12 such institutes around the country in the 2006-2007 school year.
Typically teachers work intensively with higher education faculty in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines during the summer months to gain deep content knowledge, earn necessary certifications or degrees and receive mentoring from their higher education colleagues. The goal is for participating teachers to become school- and district-based intellectual leaders in mathematics or the sciences.
Student outcomes are beginning to parallel growth in teacher knowledge gained from participating in the Teacher Institutes. For example, in the 2005-2006 school year, a population of students with teachers who took part in the Rice University Mathematics Leadership Institute performed better on both the Texas state mathematics assessment and the Stanford 10 mathematics assessment (a national standardized test) than students of non-institute teachers in the same grades at similar schools.
Findings of the Houston Independent School District's research and accountability department indicated that students of institute participants outperformed comparison students on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, with the most significant gains noted by low-performing students of institute participants, who made dramatic strides toward reaching the proficiency standards. Students of institute participants also showed growth on the Stanford 10 mathematics assessment, indicating that their learning of mathematics progressed more than that of the general national population.
"The institutes are helping us build capacity, bringing teacher-leaders in the STEM disciplines to districts around the country," says Evans. "This will continue to benefit their math and science students."