To take or not to take: What academic path is best?

December 7, 2019 — by Jeanette Zhou and Aaria Thomas

Junior Irith Katiyar remembers how he struggled to decipher the challenging language of William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” in his English class last year. He had a hard time deciphering the metaphors, similes and allusions peppered throughout the passages. He also struggled to see how understanding writing from 400 years ago would help him in his future career.

Katiyar’s problems seeing the relevance of some subjects are hardly new; students have complained about subjects such as Latin and algebra for decades and specialize their schedules to avoid subjects they don’t like in favor of ones they see as more linked to their futures.

In Katiyar’s case, STEM classes like PreCalculus Honors, AP Biology and AP Chemistry are the ones that dominate his transcript.

“I don’t think that English or history would have much of a benefit for a STEM major,” Katiyar said. “I’m better at science than English or history, and I think that I should take harder classes in subjects I’m better at and that I’m interested in.”

Katiyar plans to major in computer science and minor in another science, so he has chosen to double up on his science courses, taking both AP Chemistry and AP Biology this year.

“If you like these areas that you’re specializing in, it’s good because you can dive deep and see if you really like this and then you get to focus more on that,” Katiyar said.

Katiyar first discovered that he enjoyed computer science when he was in middle school during a coding activity. When he got to high school and could choose what courses he would take he began specializing his schedule to reflect his interest.

There may be evidence to support Katiyar’s position that students would do better if they focused on subjects that interest them. 

According to a poll done by Gallup that covered over 500,000 students in 1,700 schools, only 4 in 10 high school students say they feel engaged in school, which the article attributed to too much of a focus on following curriculum and not taking student interests into account.

    Junior Tiffany Huang has also narrowed her schedule to focus on fields she is interested in this year. With AP Art History, AP Music Theory and yearbook filling up her schedule, Huang is taking no science classes this year.

“The most prominent thing is that I don’t have any time in my schedule with seven courseload-heavy classes,” Huang said. “But I’m also just not really interested in science because STEM is not something that I would want to go into.”

Huang, who is considering a major in graphic design or sound art, believes that students should be well rounded; although she doesn’t take science classes this year, she plans on taking AP Physics next year.

Geometry, Precalculus Honors and Sequential Math 1 teacher Savita Agrawal also thinks that students should be well rounded in the courses they take because math classes are important for STEM and humanities. She states that although the math concepts may not always be applicable, the skills that are used to solve problems are.

“Unless you are going into machine learning or artificial intelligence, it's not about knowing the formulas and derivations because, nowadays, you can Google those things,” Agrawal said. “It's more about how you approach the problem, how you're building strategies to solve the problem, how you face challenges and how you keep trying and trying. I think all those skills really help you be successful in any environment later in life.”

Class of 2018 alumna Elicia Ye, currently a computer science major at UC Berkeley, is applying the concepts she learned in high school math to the field she went into.

“I was pretty surprised that Precalculus helps with my major,” Ye said. “Matrices, vectors, probability, polynomials and everything I did in Mr. Yim’s class the entire year is single-handedly saving me in the classes for my major.” 

While Ye finds many of her high school classes beneficial for her classes at Berkeley, she believes high school students choose courses based on what they think will look best on their college applications, rather than their personal interests.

“I think we choose our classes by filtering out non-APs and Honors first instead of looking at the subjects first,” Ye said. “In high school, it was more stacking up classes that looked good for applications. Both are motivations, but one is intrinsic and the other extrinsic.” 

According to registrar Robert Wise, there are currently 1,428 enrollments of Saratoga High students in AP courses, which is significantly more than, according to College Board, the California state average of about 214 enrollments per high school.

Ye, who originally planned on majoring in media studies, thinks that if high school students specialize, they should know exactly what their goal is and why they find it meaningful.

“I distinctly remember talking to Mrs. Satake about switching out of AP Physics and AP Computer Science because I thought I was sure  that I would not do engineering,” Ye said. “I was definitely aware of stacking AP humanities classes like APUSH, AP Lang, APGOV, AP Psych and AP French. 

While Ye has graduated high school, she still finds that in college, the peer pressure of taking certain classes, whether they are helpful or not, still exists, although in a slightly different context.

“I still feel pressured to take classes that I’m not necessarily interested in because either my friends are taking them or they are supposedly useful for a sector in the industry or for a specific area in research,” Ye said. 

For senior Jason Hong, two extracurricular activities — History Bowl and Quiz Bowl — have been hugely influential.

“My favorite part of Quiz Bowl and History Bowl is getting exposed to and learning new things in academic fields that I probably wouldn’t have heard of otherwise,” Hong said. “It’s really important for people of this day and age to be educated about a variety of subjects so that we can make educated decisions.”

Hong, who joined both History Bowl and Quiz Bowl in his freshman year, loved how he could answer questions with the trivia he knew.

“Even if I go into a STEM-related career, the information I learn in History Bowl will help me gain a better and bigger perspective of the world,” Hong said. “Depending on if I choose to major in STEM or History, the information could also translate into my major.”

After being admitted to Berkeley, Ye found out that the media studies major she originally picked wasn’t what she was she expected it would be, with more of an emphasis on analyzing media over creating it. She ended up attending an info session by John Denero, the Giancarlo Teaching Fellow in the UC Berkeley Electrical Engineering Computer Science department, and felt like it was something she could consider as a major.

“Even though I didn’t take AP CS in high school or have previous programming experiences, I thought I would feel challenged academically and personally in exploring the field,” Ye said. “Obviously, there is a part of me that will always hold onto my dream of becoming an investigative reporter, but college is a time to try out new things, learn to interact with people different from your high school friends, and push yourself.”


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Photo of the week

Due to the lightning complex that occurred in the week of Aug.17, Santa Clara County is currently surrounded by wildfires, covering the city of Saratoga in heavy smoke. The air quality was in the range of 100 to 200 for the past five days, forcing SHS to close down. Photo by Selina Chen.


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