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By Allison Gasparini
A task force report published last month by the American Institute of Physics offers a framework for addressing the persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy. It maintains that faculty, academic departments, and professional societies must embrace new ways of approaching the problem in order to bring about the “systemic changes” it argues are needed to make significant progress.
According to statistics cited by the task force, between 1997 and 2017 the proportion of physics bachelor’s degrees awarded to African American students dropped from about 5% to 4% as the overall number of physics bachelor’s degrees awarded in the US doubled. The report also notes that during this same period the proportion of African American students earning bachelor’s degrees in other STEM fields increased.
To investigate the failure to improve diversity in physics and astronomy, AIP formed a 10 member study panel in 2017 co-chaired by Mary James, a physics professor and dean for institutional diversity at Reed College, and Edmund Bertschinger, a physics professor and former equity officer at MIT. In calling for action, the task force sets the goal of at least doubling the annual number of African Americans who earn bachelor’s degrees in the fields by 2030.
Based on surveys of students and site visits to five departments, the task force concludes that financial challenges are “one of the greatest difficulties” that face African Americans seeking to study physics or astronomy. In addition, they observe that departments that have demonstrated the most success in supporting African American students also face financial challenges themselves.
Accordingly, the task force calls for physical science societies to establish a $50 million endowment dedicated to supporting minority students with financial needs in physics and astronomy. Half of the endowment would directly support African American students and the remainder would support other financially marginalized groups as well as departments’ implementation of the task force’s recommendations. Among its department-level recommendations are for faculty to help alleviate individual students’ financial burdens by providing employment opportunities connected to their major, such as paid research internships and teaching assistantships.
In parallel with increased financial support, the task force also calls on department faculty to ensure their academic support systems recognize students’ capabilities and build on their strengths. The task force states that academic support too often is “approached from the student deficit model — the idea that minoritized students have, as a consequence of their identity, learning challenges making them less capable than others.”
The task force also stresses the importance of developing students’ sense of “physics identity,” which it defines as “how one sees oneself with respect to physics as a profession.” It states physics identity is strengthened when there are same-race faculty members to serve as role models and when students are “routinely invited and financially supported to participate in established activities of the profession.” However, it also states that “lone champions” are not enough to effect needed cultural changes within departments, and that departments should create incentives for all faculty to foster a supportive environment.
The task force also observes that developing a sense of “belonging” is important for mitigating phenomena such as stereotype threat, wherein a minority student’s fear of confirming a negative stereotype creates anxiety that harms their performance. Among their recommendations for fostering physics identity and belonging, the task force suggests professional societies form a consortium dedicated to addressing “identity-based harassment,” using the recently launched Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM as a model.
The author is a writer for FYI.
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