Thanks to Arlyn DeBruyckere and Mike Van Antwerp for explaining more
details of how the trimester schedule is set up in their schools.
I have a few more comments.
I note that a big goal of trimesters is to provide more electives for
students. It is not obvious to me why this is desired. Additionally,
it is obvious to me that we physics teachers have something to be
Mike Van Antwerp said, "... our state requires Earth, Bio, and either
chem or physics. Our students would be required to take 8 trimesters of
science. This would leave 2 electives for them. We currently offer an
environmental science, Genetics 1 & 2, zoology, physiology, botany, and
AP chem classes. We are thinking of adding an integrated science class
as well and offers a third trimester of the different sciences as
additional course of study."
Goodness! Over seven existing electives (it's not stated how many
courses comprise AP chem) and thoughts of adding four more, for more
than eleven electives? Also notice that of the existing electives, all
of them other than AP chem are biology (assuming environmental science
is taught by a biologist). Is this a coup d'etat pulled off by biology
Why do we need so many electives, and why are they always biology? Is
it simply because the number of licensed and employed biology teachers
grossly outnumber the licensed and employed physics teachers? Is the
proliferation of electives motivated by some sound educational benefit?
Is it demanded by students and/or parents? Is it part of furthering the
reputation of a school that can afford it? What gives?
Although schools around here are not on trimesters, I see a similar
trend... the creation of science electives, and these are totally (or
vastly predominantly) biology courses.
In Ohio, the graduation requirement is 3 years of science, one of which
has to be life science and one of which has to be physical science. In
a school that teaches general science (usually labeled as physical
science), biology, chemistry, and physics the typical student selected
physical science and biology, then had to choose between chemistry or
physics for the third course. Not wanting to take such difficult
courses, we started seeing a proliferation of electives; usually
environmental science, anatomy and/or physiology, zoology, botany. Not
every school has all of these (like Van Antwerp's school) but most
schools have one to three of these electives, and they are biology
As a result, enrollment in chemistry and physics has plummeted. Is this
what we want?
Another sad thing I notice, and I have written about it before, is that
students headed to college to major in science (especially pre-med
hopefuls) believe that taking extra biology in high school is better
(i.e. more useful for college) than taking high school chemistry and
physics. About half the pre-med hopefuls coming to Bluffton have not
had HS chemistry, and about three-fourths have not had HS physics.
Their quantitative skills in science are practically nil, and of course
when they take the required college chemistry and physics they are
seeing these subjects for the first time. Not a good situation. Take a
look at med-school entrance requirements... Typically one-year of
general college biology, one year of general chemistry with lab, one
year of organic chemistry with lab, one year of physics with lab, and
often we see analytical chemistry and physical chemistry appearing, as
well as biochemistry. Med-school requirements are predominately
chemistry, and require as much or more physics as they do biology.
One thing I am saying is that a big problem with electives is that
students don't choose electives wisely. Another thing I am saying is
that we exacerbate the bad-choice problem when almost all science
electives are biology electives. It gives students the idea that
biological science is most important... why else would there be so many
biology electives and so few chemistry and physics electives?
If we really want to provide HS graduates with some set of science
skills that every citizen ought to have, wouldn't we want to be more
proscriptive of the courses taken rather than less proscriptive? Why
all the electives?
Michael D. Edmiston, Ph.D.
Professor of Chemistry and Physics
Bluffton, OH 45817