Equity and Inclusion

Summary of goals for equity and inclusion

In my experience, physics tends to be viewed as an inaccessible subject to those who are first entering college, be it because the mathematics is seemingly too difficult or the problems too unrealistic, especially for those who did not learn about the subject in high school. Moreover, I have seen firsthand how varied the secondary physics education of incoming undergraduates can be – I had classmates at Davidson College who took IB physics, but I also had classmates who never previously encountered the subject! Students in introductory physics with little previous background tend to struggle more and even consider other fields of study as a result [1]. The disparities in background training in physics that make success in the introductory classroom more difficult, in addition to systemic racist and sexist structures in science, contribute to the lack of diversity and opportunity in physics. This in turn continues to lead to the loss of important contributions in research and teaching from students who, would they persevere beyond lower-level courses, could be just as successful in physics as those who more confidently approached college physics due to greater educational access.

It is my aim as a physics professor to help undergraduate students from any background in physics, cultural upbringing, gender, race, or more – as long as they are interested in learning physics and scientific methodology – to overcome their preconceived notions of the discipline of physics, develop skills to approach problems scientifically, and learn about our shared world, solar system, and universe. To make progress toward this end, I will work to:

  • Pay attention to and address the needs of each individual student in the classroom and lab,

  • Highlight structural racism and consequences thereof in the practice of physics in my courses,

  • Include the valuable work of physicists from diverse backgrounds in my course content,

  • Advise students to, as appropriate, utilize campus resources and find funding opportunities, especially for those with financial difficulties,

  • Invite students from a variety of backgrounds into research projects, and advocate for mentored students through finding and funding opportunities to fully experience the process of research, from data collection to presentation before scientific and general audiences alike, and

  • Treat every student with dignity and as a collaborator in the pursuit of knowledge.

An equitable introduction to physics

Growing up in a rural town and attending a small county public school in North Carolina, I never learned about PhD programs and research careers; the highest esteemed professions among my classmates and local community members were law and medicine, not a lifelong dedication to the Academy. Fortunately, I did learn physics in high school one semester from a wonderful AP Physics instructor. I attribute my initial excitement with the subject, as well as an understanding early on that physics could be accessible to anyone who is interested and willing to wrestle with challenging material, to her enthusiasm and accessibility. Thankfully, I was given an initial exposure to the subject that would prepare me for the challenges of my first semester in college physics. However, I have seen first-hand as an undergraduate and now a graduate that many students in the American public school system do not often walk into the introductory physics classroom with any background knowledge or tools to solve physics problems, but instead come with a preconceived fear that the mathematics will be too demanding and the subject too mundane and unrealistic. In fact, I have seen this first-hand with my Berea College students in an algebra-based physics course; the students have waited to take the course until their junior or senior years out of necessity for pre-medicine purposes, not necessarily interest, and came into the course with fears about the mathematics needed to perform well.

According to Carl Wieman's recent editorial discussing his group's research [1], the disparities in American public school physics education, which I have observed in a small way, significantly impact students' success in introductory physics coming into college. Those with little, no, or poor prior exposure to physics need more guidance initially but can ultimately be just as successful in physics as those who had an excellent physics education prior to college. It is my sincere hope that students in my lower-level courses will come to see physics as an accessible discipline, if not their long-term discipline of study. And I also, of course, hope to encourage more advanced physics students as they encounter more difficult, yet intriguing, materials and methods. One example of how I have applied this principle so far is by helping a student in my modern physics course finish my class material over the last several months to earn a final (passing!) grade; he began to fall behind in great part because of going home due to the pandemic. The lab instructor and I worked to ensure that he achieved the course’s learning outcomes, if only a little late. And as a Visiting Professor at Berea, I have been working on the side with a few students in introductory and advanced classes who are struggling a little more than their peers to stay on track with course material.

A diverse physics population

By my second year as an undergraduate at Davidson College, I began working and spending recreational time with peers from more diverse backgrounds in education and culture than I ever had before in my home town. In a liberal arts environment, I was exposed to multidisciplinary ways of approaching the world and problems, and I witnessed passion for change at Davidson and beyond. I began to pay more attention to the fact that while the diversity of ideas was clear, the grand majority of my physics cohort was composed of white males. As a graduate student in a time of social unrest, I have learned more about the injustice that plagues our history and whose vestiges mar academia today by, for instance, using #BlackOutSTEM on Juneteenth last year to study the American Institute of Physics’ TEAM-UP report [2] (many recommendations for faculty in this report motivate my goals) and attending numerous discussions about anti-racism in higher education.

The process toward anti-racist physics and academia more broadly will require steps that help all students feel like (and know that) they belong in the physics community. One practical step to take, though it certainly has its nuances, is to implement more information about physicists from minoritized communities and their contributions in my courses. Highlighting the works of, for example, Marie Curie when discussing radioactivity, Rosalind Franklin when looking at x-ray scattering images, or Elmer Samuel Imes when examining a diatomic molecule model can help students find relatable role models as they pursue their studies in physics and thus identify more strongly with the discipline and its community. For students with whom I research, for example, I can encourage participation in conferences of the National Society of Black Physicists, attendance at talks of the Forum on Diversity and Inclusion at the APS March Meeting, and campus activities that highlight societal issues and potential solutions.

[1] C. Wieman, It's Not "Talent," it's "Privilege", APS News 29, 9 (Oct 2020); S. Salehi, et. al., Demographic gaps or preparation gaps?, Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 020114 (2019).

[2] TEAM-UP Project Report, American Institute of Physics, 2020.