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574. That was the number of pre-proposals submitted to the NSF in its recent solicitation to address Broader Participation in STEM education. (NSF INCLUDES, which true to government-speak is actually an acronym, although what the actual words are escapes me.) The solicitation specifically called for approaches that could address sticky problems in education from an organized, multi-faceted approach. The realization being that isolated interventions do not touch enough of the issues that drive complex problems like underrepresentation in physics. One might affect localized impact, but truly “fixing” a problem requires an approach that addresses various aspects of complex social issues to be identified and collectively addressed.
Reading the solicitation, we kept saying – Gee, that is exactly how we run PhysTEC or the Bridge Program – trying to implement solutions in complex environments with lots of human interactions messing up our nice clean physics. But of course, that is why education is also so much fun and so challenging – just try and get someone who doesn’t think like you to understand a complex abstraction that, while it predicts nature, forces you to think in ways that confront your perceptions of reality.
This is probably where US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts mistakenly thought that physics was just about equations. Sure, it has equations, but it has people too, and those people think differently, and learn differently, and if we want them to understand how to solve Lagrangians or the Navier-Stokes equations, we also need to understand how they approach learning these in the first place. In this regard, it does matter what your background is, and it does matter if you have a support network helping you. I hope our discipline is up to the challenge of understanding those cultural differences, those human differences, those “I’m not quite like you” differences that sometimes get in the way, and sometimes create new things where there was nothing before. Diversity brings new challenges, but it also brings new approaches.
Oh yes, I was also happy to see in the INCLUDES solicitation a mention of a model program that prospective applicants should consider: “a disciplinary organization launches a major initiative designed to significantly improve the diversity of PhD graduates in that discipline,” the APS Bridge Program! I think maybe our discipline is up to the challenge.
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.