FFPER 2013 Working Group Report: Diversity Concerns in Physics

Ximena Cid, University of Washington;
Natan Samuels, Florida International University;
Kathleen Hinko, University of Colorado-Boulder;
Brandon Lunk, Elon University;
Ayush Gupta, University of Maryland, College Park

At the Foundations and Frontiers of Physics Education Research (FFPER) conference held in Bar Harbor, Maine, June 17 – 21, 2013, a working group of about 12 women and men of a variety of ages, professional levels, nationalities, and ethnicities voluntarily met over the course of three days to discuss diverse participation in the sciences. Concerns about diversity in physics have existed for decades, and in spite of actions being taken, we believe that more needs to be done to broaden participation in the sciences. Diversity issues related to people’s backgrounds and cultural associations are highly complex and include, but are not limited to, categories of: nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio­economic status, regional demographics, etc., as others in our community have described [See the June/July 2007 issue of Interactions across physics and education, (publisher: American Association of Physics Teachers), focused on diversity across physics.]. In its most simplified form, however, the overarching problem that we face in the physics community is a lack of diversity.

After fruitful and illuminating discussions, we decided to divide into two sub­groups: One subgroup (Allie, Blue, Robertson, Sawtelle, and Traxler) was to produce a resource letter that synthesizes the work on diversity done in various fields, for ease of access to physicists; the other subgroup (Cid, Gupta, Hinko, Lunk, and Samuels) would produce a position paper (this document) on current concerns about diversity in physics. These two documents would complement and strengthen each other. For the remaining manuscript, “we” often refers to the members of the subgroup that produced this document; at times, it refers to the community of physicists, of which we are a part.

Within the broader physics community, we identified three sub­populations characterized by similar, yet distinct sets of goals, practices, and cultural norms ­­ and thus distinct issues concerning diversity: Physicists, Physics Educators, and Physics Education Researchers. These three groups are interrelated, overlapping, and codependent, however, by making these distinctions, we can better address the ramifications that diversity issues have in each population. In order to focus on how these issues are currently playing out within each population, we considered three questions: 1) What are the diversity issues related to each group? 2) What is problematic or a cause for concern about these issues? 3) What can be done to address these issues, and thus promote change in the physics community. We consider the overlapping populations along with the responses to these questions to be features of a diversity landscape for the physics community. For this paper, we limit our discussions to diversity issues related to the traditional physicist population (attending to their roles both as researchers and research mentors).

Why is the lack of diversity a serious problem for physicists? The short answer is that the lack of diversity of the population leads to a lack of diverse ideas. Undergraduate physics majors and graduate students in physics are encouraged to engage in diverse research experiences, work with a plurality of research mentors, and pursue graduate studies or post­doctoral appointments at institutions different from where they got their previous degree. Ideally, this would enable these young physicists to gain a variety of experiences that could stimulate flexible thinking, promote the use of multiple perspectives, and prevent the intellectual stagnation of considering only singular ideas or methodologies early in their careers. We believe that the lack of diversity within our own field (with respect to gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) also has the potential to engender intellectual stagnation. By habitually attracting and accepting similar pools of applicants (which can tacitly discourage future scientists who are different along some of these dimensions), we severely limit our ability to develop and progress as a field. Physics departments also want to recruit and retain the most skillful and talented people. A sustainable culture of research requires a multiplicity of people’s wisdom and experience; a state that is difficult to attain in a homogeneous group. If we, as a community, are concerned about the diversity of ideas in undergraduate and graduate education, then it is fundamentally imperative that we consider the diversity of the population of physics students itself. Instead of dismissing this lack of diversity as emerging solely from a limited applicant pool, we encourage our colleagues to ask why is it that the application pool is limited in the first place? Linking physicists to physics educators and education researchers, this question speaks to the urgent need to bolster support at all educational levels so that students from all backgrounds can feel encouraged to pursue roles within scientific and physics communities.

Our purpose in writing this article is not to chastise, but to encourage and urge more communications and action. As such, we acknowledge that many physicists (and their institutions) do indeed care about these issues, and have taken steps to address them. Yet for many [of us?], this may seem daunting. Therefore we have tried to articulate our perspective on some aspects of the nature of the diversity concerns in physics and some potentially actionable steps.

It can be easy to think, “if I can succeed in physics, so can anyone.” However, the idea that hard work is sufficient for guaranteeing success (the Horatio Alger myth) assumes that everyone shares the same cultural experiences. Indeed, it can be difficult to relate to the challenges that individuals from underrepresented groups face throughout their pursuit of education. Have you ever been the only woman in a class of men or the only underrepresented minority in a class of white middle class students? For some of us, this scenario may be very difficult, if not impossible, to relate to; that is, unless we imagine a different world. What would it feel like to be the only white person in a class of all Latino students or the only male in a room of female colleagues? Furthermore, consider what it would be like to take a course in which society expects your cultural or socioeconomic group to underperform – and for you to be aware of that stereotype. These are probing questions, but as we are trained as physicists, not social scientists, the idea of “community” lies outside of our expertise. How are we to change the culture of physics if, as individuals, we do not feel comfortable with or understand how to approach the problem?

What steps can be taken to address these issues? We think that the first step is to create a personal connection to the problem of diversity. Unless people have personal connections with understanding diversity, then it is very unlikely that this issue will appear on their everyday agenda We can each start with small steps and small reflections: what connections do we see in our circle that have issues with diversity? What population of students are most prevalent in our own institution? What kind of posters line the hallways in our department; do any of them have representations of diversity? Simple visual cues can also have subtle impacts on the welcoming environment to students. Understanding where our students are coming from is vital in understanding how we can improve the physics cultural environment.

It is to the benefit of the physics community that we help our students grow and develop into contributing members, regardless of their backgrounds. Every person has a history and challenges that are uniquely their own. Maybe the very notion of categorizing via demographics and the stereotypes that come with that (even well intentioned) could be harmful. Those who have made it to a physics undergraduate program have had enough motivation and desire to explore physics in the first place and should not be isolated simply because they belong to a specific demographic.

An alternative would be to try to understand individuals (students and/or colleagues) without making a priori assumptions about their experiences of needs based on their visible gender/ethnic identity. For example, the black student need not necessarily be “at­risk” or need remedial instruction. If a student needs help, they should have the option of asking for it (and receiving it) instead of it being forced upon them. This point is not to suggest that at-risk students should be ignored, it simply means that we should acknowledge that they are already well aware of their differences.  And, of course, there is the more complex topic of the tacit value structures of society that are built into what we recognize as successful, and how we measure “at­risk.” More often than not, students have much more to offer than can be measured by standardized test and even prior course grades.

Who is responsible in our community for addressing diversity issues? Our answer is that all of us can make at least small changes for the betterment of our community and our field. While the biggest efforts towards improving diversity may come from senior members of departments or labs, junior members, including faculty, post­docs, research scientists and graduate students, can and do deal with diversity as part of their professional activities. If, as a physicist, you hire researchers, mentor students, interact with colleagues, serve on committees, participate in outreach, or teach classes, diversity issues are present.

We believe that individual faculty members can have a significant impact. As physicists, we can strive to connect our research to larger social relevance and to ideas/topics relevant to diverse communities. Consider your mentoring activities: have you made connections with a local high school to help broaden the impression of what it means to be physicists? Do you encourage openness to ideas in your group meetings, and is there a safe space for members to ask critical questions? If on an admission committee, how could you consider candidates as potential researchers/teachers/colleagues instead of primarily focusing on their SAT or GRE scores?

Finally, as part of making first steps, we consider: Is there a way to expose ourselves to different types of environments, cultural practices, etc.? Exposure is a powerful tool in creating a personal connection.

The takeaway message for our community is that we need to incorporate the human aspect into the practices of physics. We should talk to students about who they are as a person instead of simply what they know as an entity. We, the physics community, should be concerned not only with the broader impact clauses included in our grants, but with creating a new generation of physicists that represent the diverse populations that surround us in the world at large.

Finally, the body of work that tries to understand, dissect, and investigate diversity issues within science is growing. The AJP Resource Letter on this topic (in preparation by the other sub­group of this working group), will be a good starting point for an interested physicist. Please look for it in the coming year.

Members of the “Diversity in Physics” working group included Saalih Allie, Jennifer Blue, Amy Robertson, Vashti Sawtelle, and Adrienne Traxler, in addition to Ximena Cid, Natan Samuels, Kathleen Hinko, Brandon Lunk, and Ayush Gupta.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.