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By Leah Poffenberger
For many students, their high school physics experience will determine their attitudes about physics. This is particularly true for young women, as a 2017 paper shows that most women physics majors report becoming interested in physics—including as a career—in high school. The goal of the STEP UP program is to reach students during this formative experience and use researched-backed lesson plans to change cultural ideas about physicists and inspire more women to enter the field.
STEP UP is a national community of physics teachers, researchers, and professional societies dedicated to empowering teachers, creating cultural change, and inspiring young women to pursue physics in college. A July 17 STEP UP summit brought this community together virtually, along with nearly 200 new members: the first-ever cohort of STEP UP Advocates, a group of teachers committed to deploying STEP UP lessons in their classrooms.
The Summit gave new Advocates an opportunity to learn best practices for applying STEP UP’s curriculum, comprised of lesson plans on Careers in Physics, Women in Physics, and Everyday Actions for reducing marginalization in the classroom. Attendees spent much of the day in small group workshops with STEP UP Ambassadors—educators who have been involved in training and supported implementation of STEP UP in classrooms around the country—to build confidence in carrying STEP UP’s message to their students.
“I enjoyed gathering with other high school physics teachers who are preparing to implement the STEP UP lessons in their classes this upcoming school year,” said Catherine Garland, a teacher at Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn and a STEP UP Ambassador. “It was so helpful to hear different ways of implementing the lessons, work through questions as a group, and practice delivering different parts of each lesson. Spending time with other teachers who are equally committed to helping students shift their own physics identities is always energizing and inspiring!”
Highlights of the conference included the opening session, where Zahra Hazari, the Principal Investigator of the STEP UP grant, shared the motivations behind the program: disrupting inherent bias in the world of physics. She also presented research-based evidence for STEP UP’s ability to change student perspectives about who can do physics. Gabriela Gonzales (Louisiana State University, LIGO) also spoke in a plenary at the end of the day, and shared her work at LIGO and the search for gravitational waves. She emphasized that the people doing the work at LIGO were all ages and types of people. “We don’t all look like grey-haired men. There are young people who are [at LIGO] doing the science—that’s how you should imagine a physicist,” she said.
As a key motivational point of the day, attendees were able to hear from former STEP UP students, in the forms of letters or video messages, sharing what STEP UP’s lesson plans meant to them. One of those students, Adriana De Cardona, is currently majoring in biochemistry with a minor in physics at Florida International University and credits some of her success in STEM to the confidence she built in her high school physics teacher’s classroom. Her teacher, Andres Torres, is a STEP UP Ambassador who brought the STEP UP lesson plans to life.
“Mr. Torres was an amazing teacher. A lot of students seem to give up on classes senior year, but I would show up to physics class, and all I wanted to do was learn more,” said De Cardona. “The [Careers in Physics lesson] really hooked me—seeing all the things that physics applies to in the real world and how it can take you literally anywhere.”
De Cardoza also enjoyed the Women in Physics lessons, which gave her role models and more motivation to learn about physics. Torres’ inclusive classroom also helped her male counterparts in class to confront their own biases about who belongs in science.
“Mr. Torres cares about his students. He pushed for diversity in the classroom in the way of who gets to participate,” said De Cardona. “He wanted girls to get into science. A lot of time [girls might not participate] because there’s a bias from the teacher or the professor who thinks the girls aren’t into it. It was a very inclusive classroom.”
After a day online at the STEP UP Summit, the new STEP UP Advocates dispersed to bring the same lesson plans and hopefully the same results to classrooms across the country. Garland urges other teachers who want to get involved to jump in.
“The lesson plans and materials provided by STEP UP are backed by research! We know that they help to shift student physics identities so that more students can see themselves as ‘physics people,’” said Garland. “STEP UP provides support for any teachers implementing the lessons—we have Ambassadors who are ready to help in all parts of the country and in Canada, too!”
For more information, and to download the free materials appropriate for students in middle school through intro college courses, go to the STEP UP Curriculum page.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine