The modern era of science education began when the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite on October 5, 1957. Sputnik's launch confirmed America's fear that the Russians were getting ahead of us technologically and that this technical superiority would be the doom of the country unless the trend was reversed.
The general consensus was that education was to blame for the situation; therefore the solution was better science and mathematics education.
The same cry is being renewed today. Companies are saying that we have a shortage of good mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. They claim they have to hire from China, India, and other foreign countries in order to fulfill the demand for researchers, engineers, and computer professionals. Not enough students in the U.S.A. are being properly prepared to serve in those professions.
This all leads to an extreme emphasis on science in American schools. Some science is required in every state for every student to graduate. It doesn't matter whether you are preparing yourself to be a brain surgeon or to write romance novels - you still have to take science.
You would think that at home we would have the freedom to pick your subjects. But look at the minimum science requirements for graduation from a representative sample of states. Note that one credit is the same as one full year of classes:
|AL|| 4 credits
|AK|| 2 credits
|AZ|| 2 credits
|AR|| 3 credits
|CA|| 2 courses
|DE|| 3 credits
|FL|| 3 credits (2 with lab)
|HI|| 3 credits
|MA|| Determined locally
|NY|| 2 credits
|TX|| 2 credits
The National Center on Educational Outcomes website (education.umn.edu/nceo/TopicAreas/Graduation/StatesGrad.htm) has links for each state that give that state's graduation requirements. You can check your state there. Please note that these are currently in flux and that the trend is towards requiring a minimum of three years in science.
Most states require at least 2 credits of science just to graduate with a high-school diploma. Many specify what courses these credits have to be - usually biology and a physical science. State requirements are the minimum needed for graduation. Every student has to fulfill them, even someone who wants to write poetry for a living.
The minimum isn't enough for most of us. Most of us want our children to go to college and colleges almost invariably want more than the minimum. You can't predict which colleges require how much. Princeton University, an Ivy League school, requires two years of lab science. On the other hand, University of Mississippi, a state school, specifies that they want three years of science and they list the possibilities: Biology, Advanced Biology, Chemistry, Advanced Chemistry, Physics, Advanced Physics, or a rigorous Physical Science course. Two of these have to be lab courses.
Boston University wants three years of science all with lab components. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute wants three years of science. University of Missouri at St. Louis wants three years of science including one lab science course. Alaska Bible College wants four years of science. See any pattern here? I thought not. You need to check the requirements for each individual college to which your child might apply.
If you are looking on the Internet, you will most often find the requirements for application under the admissions department. For example, to check admission requirements for M.I.T., I went to mit.edu. They have a link for admissions on their home page. On the admissions page I chose "Undergraduate." Then I chose "for Parents;" then "Applying." On the "Applying" page, I chose "High School Preparation" and that brought up a section of the page that told me that, among other things, a student applying to M.I.T. should have a year each of biology, chemistry, and physics.
Similar exploration should locate this information in just about any college website you try.
When Should I Start Planning My Child's High-School Science Curriculum?
If you are going the vocational/technical route, you can take your time and just fulfill your state's requirements. But if you plan for your student to go to college, you need to determine what the requirements are for the school(s) you want to prepare him for as early as possible. That way you can plan so that you can systematically get everything finished before the end of senior year.
Count backwards. Physics-senior year; Chemistry-junior year; Biology-sophomore year; and most likely physical science or other junior high science-freshman year. The big Christian curriculum publishers, e.g., BJU Press, already follow this sequence.
If you have no idea if, or where, your son or daughter will want to go to college, just play it safe. Have him or her take four science courses and let at least two of them be lab courses.
In states that require more credits in science than they require lab science, you can branch out into sciences other than the "big three." For example, you could take a course in astronomy as an elective. Or, if you have taken biology, marine biology, botany or zoology could serve as advanced biology courses.
Apologia Educational Ministries has done us a service in adding several of these courses to its already excellent line of textbooks.
Some states allow computer science to count as a science course. When considering this option, you need to make a distinction between "computer literacy" and "computer science."
Computer literacy courses are mini-elective courses on a par with typing and library science. You learn how to start up the computer and use a keyboard and mouse to navigate and enter data. You also learn how to use a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word, and maybe a spreadsheet program like Excel. You will probably also learn how to handle email and to do research on the Internet. Computer literacy is a good college survival skill, but it belongs under language arts, not science.
Computer science courses assume you are already computer literate. They introduce to computer architecture and how a computer works internally. They teach programming, traditionally in C++, but more recently in Java. AP Computer science is an excellent science course for an aspiring computer science major to take as a science elective. Unfortunately it doesn't count as lab science.
What About Evolution?
If you get your curriculum from a secular publisher you will invariably get evolutionary biology and big-bang physics along with it. If this is a problem, you can buy your science from one of the Christian publishers.
There is a downside to this you should know about. College admissions officials in the University of California system recently began refusing to accept high-school biology courses that teach biology from a creationist or intelligent design framework. A lawsuit is currently in the works challenging the university's practice, but if the UC schools win, you will probably see similar policies springing up in other state colleges.
Colleges that don't teach evolutionary biology are extremely rare. We sent one of our children for dual credit to a local Christian college for biology and she got into an argument with the professor because he was teaching evolution as truth. If you want your child to end college believing that God created the universe, they need to be thoroughly convinced of the flaws in the evolution model before they go to college. Either use a secular course, debunking the evolution as you encounter it, or use a Christian course and teach evolution using creationist materials.