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Science at Ames High: Path 3 and the way forward

Oliver Chen, Reporter

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By the eighth grade, Aidan Diggins-Kennedy knew his future belonged in STEM. With his strong interest in science and engineering, the challenge of a new, specialized science pathway for high achieving and STEM bound students made him a natural candidate. It came as no surprise that when applications for Path 3 science were opened later that year, Aidan was quick to apply.

 

Now a Junior, Aidan still enjoys science, hoping to pursue a major in engineering. Yet despite taking the most challenging science pathway Ames High had to offer, he found he would be unqualified to enter a majority of engineering schools.

 

“By default, there’s one less year to take AP Science, and because of that, you’re missing half a year of science,” explained Aidan. “To get into a college with a good engineering program, I need a full year of each science.”

 

Looking to solve this problem, Aidan found he could either double up on AP sciences, or take an extra semester of science. However, he said both solutions were problematic in their own right.

 

“It’s possible to double up in AP classes my Junior or Senior year, which really isn’t ideal with the busy schedule that many of these Path 3 students have,” said Aidan. “I’ve decided to take advanced chem with AP Physics next year to lessen my workload, but it’s still going to be a lot of work with the amount of classes I’m going to have.”

 

Now Juniors, Aidan’s class was the first to enter the Path system – a system implemented three years ago in the 2015-2016 school year in an effort to reorganize the way in which science was taught. Replacing the previous AP route, Path 3 introduced two years of new preparatory Pre AP classes, meant to ease students into AP science. The remaining two years were allotted for AP science – one less than the previous three. Among the three new paths, Path 3 was targeted towards high achieving and stem oriented students, covering the most content and requiring an 8th grade application.

 

Amongst the motivated students it was designed for, an abundance of Path 3 students now feel a disconnect between actuality and the needs of its stated demographic. As Aidan’s and other classes progress through Path 3, an increasing number of students find they are unqualified to a myriad of undergraduate and science programs. Students looking to take the previous 3 APs are met with scheduling difficulties.

 

“The path System makes it difficult for students looking to take all 3 AP science classes,” said one student. “Most science majors encourage or require a year of bio, chem, and physics.”

 

A strong majority of surveyed students echoed this sentiment. “There are a lot of issues in the path system, chief among which is the fact that it takes 2 years to complete the introductory courses,” said another student, who wants to go into engineering. “This means you have 2 years to preferably complete 3 full year AP courses.”

 

The previous system

Whereas motivated students in previous years could easily complete all 3 APs while pursuing electives, internships, and additional courses, equally motivated students face substantial obstacles in doing so.

 

Student A says scheduling issues unnecessarily punishes motivated students seeking extra challenge. “I was advised by my counselor to have two free periods for one 50 minute ISU class,” said Student A, “but where can I find that time if I double up on AP Science courses with their additional labs?” In response to these issues, Student A says they were compelled to drop the course.

 

“While I understand the appeal of having semester-long foundations in each type of science before entering an AP class, that kind of system also makes it impossible for students to take all 3 AP science classes without doubling up,” said sophomore Silvia Aydinyan. “People’s junior and senior years are full of other AP or ISU classes—now, instead of getting a head start on the rest of our high school careers, students are forced to pile another AP class atop an already packed schedule”

 

Longtime Chemistry teacher and science department head Aileen Sullivan said although difficult to swallow for some, changes to Path 3 were necessary to meet new standards and combat issues with the previous system.

 

“We had a system where 90 students start AP Biology, and at the end of the quarter there would be 75 left because it would be so hard, and then we’d have maybe 60 go on to AP physics, and then we’d have maybe 40 to 50 go on to AP Chemistry,” said Sullivan. “The only people that seemed to take AP classes were the ones who started as sophomores, then no one new would enter the AP arena.”

 

“We also need to all recognize that choices must be made. The choice of taking an Iowa State class while still in high school might be a larger priority over taking a science class,” said Sullivan. “I would just ask students to think about perspective – their perspective in selecting the courses they have, versus our perspective in serving the needs of our students,” said Sullivan.

 

“Maybe someone should drop orchestra so they can take an AP class. Heaven forbid, right? Or maybe not pursue an ISU class. It seems like blame gets placed in different places because of student’s perspective – but different choices could be made to alleviate that as well.”

 

What differentiates each science pathway is the needs of its students. Path 1 fulfills the needs of students seeking entry into business school or the workplace. Path 2 teaches the skills and content knowledge necessary for a majority of students. Acknowledging this underlying philosophy, Path 3, advertised as “Accelerated Science for Future Scientists”, does not satisfy the needs of those students.

 

The needs of intended Path 3 students are clear – a challenging system that teaches skills necessary for higher education, encourages students to challenge themselves, and as a basic requirement, qualifies future scientists for strong engineering and undergraduate programs. This is clear – even three years after its implementation, an overwhelming majority of Path 3 students surveyed still explicitly list the desire to take 3 APs as a reason for discontent.

 

Although the majority of Path 3 students have just entered their first AP, student drop off rates have decreased. Whether this was a direct cause of the preparatory classes however, remains unclear.

 

Compared with the 90 students entering in the previous system, AP science enrollment as a whole has decreased, with 40 – 50 students entering Path 3 each year, with a larger portion of previous students entering Path 2. Eighth graders entering a new system were possibly provided better information than classes previous. Regardless, a significant sum of students at risk of dropping out have simply chosen Path 2 ( now offering a single AP senior year ) over Path 3.

 

It was these students that Path 3 sought to prevent from dropping out – yet these students will not be taking the Pre AP classes designed to prevent them from dropping out. Students that were never at risk now must take Preparatory classes they don’t want or need. This result could be achieved by simply providing more information to Eighth graders, as was done to Path 3 students.

 

Some degree of sacrifice is always necessary – and students will always sacrifice time and effort to pursue AP and ISU classes. However, using this philosophy as justification to leave a flawed and ineffective system in place defeats the original purpose of the path system – differentiating instruction.

 

Path 3 students want the full year to complete each AP course. Path 3 must recognize this and fit the needs of the specific group of students it made an explicit effort to attract. However, that is not to say partial instruction of science knowledge before AP courses is unwarranted. If students want a head start on an AP class, resources should be provided so students can build their own background knowledge over the summer.  At the minimum, the Science department should allow opting out or doubling up of Pre AP courses.

 

Ames High consistently ranks in the top schools in the state academically, which shows in the drive and passion of our students and science department faculty. They, and our school, deserve a better system.

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Science at Ames High: Path 3 and the way forward