WOODSTOCK, Georgia—Students at River Ridge High School tinker with 30 Honda engines and use computers lined against the walls to study the engines’ mechanics.
At first glance, this might look like shop class. But it’s much more sophisticated than that. It’s an Advanced Placement course in physics, and it’s brand new this fall, part of a privately funded, nationwide drive to increase the number of girls and nonwhites ready for college-level work in science, technology, engineering, and math.
“They seem to be pretty excited to be doing this,” says Darrell Herring, the school’s principal. “The kids are excited, and the parents as well, that we’re looking at these classes and saying, this is what you’re going to need” for a job in technology later.
This AP physics class—River Ridge High has also added two AP chemistry courses, one in calculus, and one in environmental science—is among hundreds in science, technology, engineering, and math starting up this fall at 533 schools nationwide with $5 million from Google for textbooks, classroom equipment, and teacher training.
The schools were chosen because they did not previously offer AP courses that, standardized test results indicate, female and nonwhite students were perfectly qualified to take and pass. All are in low-income communities, or have large proportions of racial minorities or students who qualify for subsidized meals.
These kinds of schools are far less likely than those in affluent suburbs to provide AP courses, especially in science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s one reason more than 630,000 high school students who have a likelihood of passing an AP class were it offered graduate each year without ever taking one, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The problem is particularly acute among blacks and Hispanics. Only one in three take AP math, for example. Only about 7,000 black and Hispanic students pass AP calculus each year, but 123,000 would be predicted to pass if the classes were available to them. More than six percent of white kids pass AP courses in math or science, versus fewer than two percent of blacks and Hispanics.
Meanwhile, boys outnumber girls by two to one or more in the AP courses that cover physics and differential and integral calculus, and by four to one in computer science, the College Board says.
Some students “just don’t have the opportunities that other kids have,” says Herring, whose school on the outskirts of Atlanta is 26 percent nonwhite. “It goes back to support. If you have a teacher of a kid who’s doing well in class, that’s the one that gets recommended for AP courses. But what about the kid who has the same potential, but hasn’t had the support, just from the nature of where they live and what’s available to them?”
That void results in a torrential leak from the pipeline of future technology workers. About 60 percent of students who are good at science decide by the time they’re in the eighth grade not to pursue a STEM career, the president’s council reports.
“There are hundreds of thousands of talented students in this country who are being left out of the STEM equation,” says Jacquelline Fuller, director of giving at Google.
Students who take AP math and science in high school are more likely than those who don’t to go on to degrees in physical or life science or engineering, research shows. Passing scores on AP tests can also be applied for college credit, saving money on tuition.
Already, he’s heard several students enrolled in River Ridge High’s AP classes talking about careers as “imagineers” at the Walt Disney Company, Herring says.
“That to me is a big step,” he says. “Kids this age usually say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do.’”
Still, many of the 800 high schools invited to apply for the Google money didn’t take it.
“When you start talking about Advanced Placement classes, what do kids and parents think? They think, ‘Can I pass that course? Can I still get a scholarship?’ They think it might hurt their grades,” Herring says.
“Then you’ve got to get a buy-in from your teachers that any kid should be able to take Advanced Placement classes if we get them there. The culture has to change.”
Even if it does, he concedes, a system that pays, in part, for schools by cashing in cereal box tops seems unwilling to increase the availability of challenging science courses.
“There’s a level of frustration there. But I’ve always been one to say, ‘Here’s what we need. How do we get it?’ We need to go barking up some trees to see if people want to help. And if you ask, you’ll find there are lots of people who want to help.”
Photo courtesy of the College Board