APS News

August/September 2019 (Volume 28, Number 8)

Education and Diversity News

The STEP UP Movement is Changing the Face of Physics

By Annelise Roti Roti

Physics is missing out. Women are still a minority of our undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals. And yet, I’m sure you know a young woman who would be a great physicist. What barriers might she face on her journey? What would it take to keep her on that path? We believe the STEP UP project, a recent effort by APS and its partners, can ensure the success of many women in physics, and our initial results agree. “I used to abhor physics, but then I saw how physics was so great and so amazing and it completely changed my mind,” said Laura, a young woman from a Miami area school who experienced the STEP UP curriculum. This is why the STEP UP movement needs your help to get a specially designed physics curriculum into the hands of thousands of high school teachers. If you know a high school teacher, talk with them. Ask them to join our movement by registering for STEP UP and encourage them to use the lessons in their classrooms.

In 2017, the National Science Foundation recognized the innovative nature of this project and granted $3 million to APS and its partners Florida International University (FIU), Texas A&M University-Commerce (TAMUC), and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The project’s leaders then spent two years developing and testing research-based classroom strategies and demonstrated that our materials can impact the lives of thousands of women. High school classrooms are vital: although young women make up half of high school physics students, only 20% of those who enter college intending to major in physics are women, and only 20% of those who ultimately graduate with an undergraduate or graduate physics degree are women. Clearly the place and time to act is in high school (see chart). High school teachers are critically important in inspiring young women to pursue physics careers, so the project also made sure that teachers were part of every step of the curriculum development process.

The piloting and experimental phase of our classroom strategies and lesson plans was critical to creating the robust intervention we have now. Researchers and teachers worked together to draft, pilot, and revise the STEP UP materials: 2 lesson plans, a guide to ‘everyday actions’ that teachers can take to shift classroom culture, and suggested guidelines for classroom discussions. These were intentionally designed to help teachers motivate students to continue their studies in physics and illustrate the power of a physics degree. A series of in-person development meetings and pilot testing in classrooms from 2017-2018 led to these initial conclusions:

  • STEP UP’s lessons inspire, on average, 2.2 young women per classroom to shift their interest towards pursuing undergraduate physics.
  • The lessons enable young women to see themselves as physicists.
  • After participating in this intervention, students in the class are positively influenced to pursue physics careers (“Examining physics identity development through two high school interventions,” Cheng et.al, 2018 PERC Proceedings, doi: 10.1119/perc.2018.pr.Cheng).

This also led to polished content that was ready for a quasi-experimental study, which was conducted in the 2018-2019 academic year. Detailed results are forthcoming and will be made available on the STEP UP website, but initial results are in alignment with previous findings. As the STEP UP program continues to be introduced to more classrooms, we will be watching for an increase in women entering college with a declared physics major, with critical time points of fall 2019 and fall 2020. A nationwide increase in the number of women pursuing physics is expected based on our positive research results; however, this is highly dependent on the curriculum being broadly implemented by teachers.

Step Up Graph

Over the last two years, the project has grown from a plan to a nationwide movement. What started as a group of about 10 researchers and around 20 teachers is now a network of more than 1,000 community members. STEP UP representatives have given talks at meetings, conferences and workshops attracting 450 teachers, as well as faculty, students, and other supporters who are all ready to spread the word about STEP UP. We also kicked off the STEP UP Ambassador program, with 48 teachers chosen to represent the project, through an in-person summit in Provo, UT in July 2019. Each ambassador will be recruiting and supporting 25–35 new teachers through workshops in their local area. A map of the Ambassadors’ locations is available on our website (STEPUPphysics.org). In addition to the summit this summer, we presented at the AAPT Conference and the Physics Education Research Conference (PERC). We continued to spread the word by reaching out to supporters, partner organizations, and engaging on social media. These efforts are all aimed to put STEP UP materials in the hands of as many of the 26,000 U.S. physics teachers as possible.

This push will help to change the face of physics, but we can use your support. Please talk with a high school physics teacher and ask them to join our movement. APS has the materials to support your outreach—please visit STEPUPphysics.org to find talking points, promotional materials, and email templates to use in recruiting teachers. Let’s give more young women the chance to see the power of physics. Ultimately, we will all reap the rewards of a physics community that is more diverse and striving towards its full potential.

The author was Project Development Intern for STEP UP and is now PhysTEC Program Coordinator. This article was co-written by Anne Kornahrens (STEP UP Project Manager, kornahrens@aps.org) and Raina Khatri (FIU Project Manager).

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

August/September 2019 (Volume 28, Number 8)

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Articles in this Issue
2020 APS Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research Awarded to Myriam P. Sarachik
Physical Review Research Publishes its First Papers
APS Membership Unit Profile: The Division of Soft Matter
APS Innovation Fund: Inaugural Winners Selected
Seven Apker Award Finalists Show Off their Research Skills
Matthew Blackman Named 2019 PhysTEC Teacher of the Year
John Robert Schrieffer 1931-2019
Education and Diversity News
This Month in Physics History
Outreach and Public Engagement
Office of Government Affairs
FYI: Science Policy News from AIP
Letters to the Editor
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