Race, Ethnicity, Equity and PER: A Working Group Summary from FFPER

Angie Little, Michigan State University, and Stephen Kanim, New Mexico State University

FFPER chart

Figure 1. The Identity Wheel Exercise. This is a modified version of Ayush Gupta’s identity wheel; many versions
of the identity wheel can be found online.

What role do physics education researchers play in supporting the field of physics to be a place where all people thrive, a place where we work together to make racism, sexism, able-ism, LGBTQIA-isms, classism, and other – isms unwelcome in our community? To break off a smaller piece of this question, we, the authors, organized a working group focused primarily on race and ethnicity at the 2015 FFPER conference. Before going into the details of our working group, it is important to acknowledge our other colleagues in PER with long-standing commitments to organizing dialogue around race and ethnicity. The conversations we had at FFPER were made possible by their ongoing work.

Our intention with this working group was to discuss race and ethnicity both as they relate to our roles as educators and as education researchers. We hoped to increase the amount and quality of discussion around these issues at the FFPER meeting. We also wanted researchers to consider the impact of speaking (or not speaking) to race and ethnicity in their own research. Although our goal was to focus mainly on race and ethnicity, we sometimes branched out into discussing other aspects of identity. About one-third of the conference attendees joined our two-day working group, suggesting that this issue is one that many are concerned about.

Although both of us have worked on equity issues in physics, neither of us are experts on researching or facilitating dialogue on race and ethnicity in particular. To prepare, we drew heavily on Parks and Schmeichel’s survey article: “Obstacles to Addressing Race and Ethnicity in the Mathematics Education Literature.” The article highlights the need to consider race and ethnicity not just as boxes to check on demographic surveys, but as nuanced constructs in relationship to broader U.S. culture as well as particular university and classroom cultures. We asked our working group participants to read this article before attending as well. Additionally, we consulted with colleagues more familiar with having thoughtful discussions around identity to develop facilitation strategies. That being said, we communicated to our working group our still novice-level in the area of race and ethnicity dialogue and research.

We began our working group with an identity wheel exercise (See Figure 1, above), asking participants to fill out how they identified and then reflect on what aspects of their identities were most salient to them in their day-to-day life. We then discussed the exercise and our reactions to it. Our participants brought up the idea that they likely had some privilege along whatever dimensions of their identity that they thought about least often (e.g. many of those that put “white” into the race box did not think frequently about their race). We also asked participants to discuss how it felt to list aspects of their identity into boxes in this way. As physics education researchers, we sometimes use race and gender demographic boxes to bin students, and it is important to consider when our research questions might call for more nuanced discussions of strands of students’ identities.

The goal of our second meeting was to spend time listening to undergraduate students, primarily students of color, speak about navigating life on campus. To meet this goal, we watched excerpts from two videos (“If These Halls Could Talk,” by Lee Mun Wah, and “Ivy League Trailblazers,” by Natalia Osipova) where college students described their experiences with race and ethnicity, and as first-generation students, respectively. In the first set of excerpts, students of color shared the frustration and anguish of trying to be understood and acknowledged on campuses where the faculty and students are predominantly White. In the second video, first generation students (both students of color and white students) across Ivy League universities organized a conference where they could come together to discuss their experiences and support one another. We chose to show this second video to highlight the importance of considering undergraduate students as able partners in working on equity issues. The videos were emotionally difficult to watch, as students shared openly and deeply about issues of race and class affecting their college experiences.

At the end of the workshop we asked participants to reflect on what specific actions they could take to promote equity, and what we as a Physics Education Research community could do to make progress on equity issues. A consensus developed that we should continue this community conversation at future PERC meetings, and we should also invite experts from other fields who have experience supporting effective communication and research about race and ethnicity. At the 2016 AAPT Meeting, there will be a ‘Talking about Race’ workshop that was spurred into creation by participants of this working group. In addition, participants planned to pursue opportunities to publish articles about race and ethnicity in physics education.

The working group time was very valuable for us, and we hope that it was valuable for the participants. The PER community is not timid, and at many meetings we are willing to discuss issues on multiple levels: not just as intellectual research constructs, but relevant in personal ways to one’s students and oneself. This group was no different, and we were pleased and impressed that people were willing to express personal viewpoints and experiences, and were willing to be vulnerable in order to promote more genuine communication. It was clear that we could have continued these very interesting and often emotional discussions for much more time than was budgeted, and we hope to move the conversation forward at future meetings.

Angie Little is a researcher at Michigan State University. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. While there, she co-founded The Compass Project, an APS award winning equity program in the physics department. Little is also a Core Organizer of the recently formed Access Network, an NSF-funded national network to support idea-sharing across equity programs in undergraduate physics. She serves on the APS Committee on Minorities.

Steve Kanim is an Emeritus Professor of Physics at New Mexico State University. He is active in the field of PER, currently serving as Chair-elect of the PER Leadership Organizing Council. His recent research focuses on helping students to develop the skills necessary for the flexible and generative use of mathematics that is essential for physics.

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.