FEd Summer 2001 Newsletter - Promoting Diversity in Physics

Summer 2001



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Promoting Diversity in Physics

Ramon Lopez

Ask most people to draw a physicist and they will likely draw an Albert Einstein-like figure - elderly, male, and white. In fact, for most of history this picture of the physicist was not far from the truth. While the physics community has been changing and becoming more diverse in recent years, Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans are still very much underrepresented in physics and in science as a whole.

Diversity in science is an issue with which we should all be concerned if we want healthy programs that can reverse recent enrollment trends. Physics departments all across the country are worried about the lack of majors. There were 3646 Bachelor's degrees conferred in the class of 1999, which is a forty year low [1]. And despite a 4% increase in 1999 in graduate enrollments, the 1262 Ph.D. degrees conferred in 1999 represent the fifth consecutive year of enrollment declines [1], despite the fact that more students are going to college.

Total enrollments in all post-secondary education institutions rose from 10,985,000 in 1976 to 14,345,000 in 1997, however a disproportionate amount of the growth came from increases in minority groups [2]. While white, non-Hispanics enrollment went from 9,076,000 in 1976 to 10,161,000 in 1997, enrollments of Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans went from 1,493,000 to 2,872,000 [2].

So if a large part of the enrollment growth is coming from minorities, how is physics doing in recruiting and retaining these students? In 1997, African Americans earned only 5% of Bachelor's degrees and 1% of Ph.D. degrees [1]. The numbers for Hispanics were 2% and 1%, respectively [1]. On the one hand, these are miserable numbers. On the other hand, the situation represents an opportunity to tap into a pool of students that can help keep physics departments afloat.

When considering how to attract these students into physics we have to consider several items. First, almost half of them start in 2-yr schools. They may have a very limited exposure to physics, and the idea of pursuing a degree in physics is likely to be a thought that not many of these students have ever had. This means that physics departments should establish closer relationships with 2-yr schools so as to expose students to possible careers in physics and recruit prospective students.

Secondly, more women than men are going to college (among whites as well, but especially among minorities), and, despite recent gains, physics has not done too well in attracting women into the field [1]. Physics departments should take advantage of resources provided by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (site visits, on-line reports, special APS sessions) to make their programs more accessible to women.

Third, the Hispanic community is geographically concentrated in the southwest, as well as a few other places (such as the Cuban community in south Florida). The southwest Hispanic community is overwhelmingly Mexican American with strong family ties that influence young people to stay in their communities. These students tend to think about going to college where they grew up. For example, about 80% of students attending the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) are Hispanic and from El Paso county. Similarly, many African Americans still elect to attend historically black colleges and universities. The APS Bouchet Award provides funds for the awardee to visit such institutions, but a broader effort by the physics community to partner with such institutions could help establish more opportunities for students interested in graduate school. And in fact many research programs (such as the NSF Science and Technology Centers) require minority-serving partners as a means to broaden the research enterprise and increase minority student participation in science.

Another pathway to these underrepresented students is through professional societies such as the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), the National Conference of Black Physics Students (NCBPS), and the recently formed National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP). Other groups that are broader than just physics, such as the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) or the American Indian Society of Engineers and Scientists (AISES) hold considerable promise. SACNAS, which is primarily biological in orientation, holds an annual conference attended by close to a thousand undergraduate students. The SACNAS meeting is a great forum for providing information about opportunities in physics to students.

Despite knowing these facts, significantly increasing minority enrollment in physics (or science in general) has proved very elusive. Recently, both NASA and the Geosciences Directorate of the NSF have launched diversity initiatives. The NSF/GEO initiative is particularly interesting because of the nature of the problem. The geosciences do not get their "fair share" of minority students, a situation that is similar in physics. A committee formed by NSF to examine the issue recommended undergraduate research as its highest priority as a means for encouraging students to pursue geoscience careers, and for retaining students in a science track.

Another NSF program that is trying to raise minority enrollments in science (and engineering) has also recognized the role of undergraduate research. The Model Institutions of Excellence program has provided significant opportunities and funds for students to get involved in research. At UTEP (which is part of the MIE program) this support for undergraduate research has proven very effective. This should come as no surprise given that more and more physics departments recognize the need for increased undergraduate research for all students.

The basic point is that the individual attention that students get when they do research has a lot to do with their attitudes about physics, aside from the excitement of doing research. For over a decade the APS has had a minority scholarship program that aims to keep bright students in physics. In addition to a very modest stipend ($2000), each student is assigned a faculty mentor and the department chair gets a $500 check to be used to benefit students. The attention that the APS awardees get from their department chair and the mentor has a lot to do with the success of the program (over 10 years more than 80% of awardees got a degree in physics). And so, while the physics community may try to do a better job understanding where our minority students come from, improving diversity in physics is still going to be done one student at a time.

Selected Websites

National Society of Black Physicists - http://nsbp.org/

Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science - www.sacnas.org

American Indian Society of Engineers and Scientists - http://www.aises.org/

NSF/GEO diversity initiative - http://www.geo.nsf.gov/geo/diversity/


[1] Enrollments and Degrees report, Patrick J. Mulvey and Starr Nicholson, AIP Pub. Number R-151.37, American Institute of Physics, August 2001

[2] Digest of Education Statistics, NCES-2001-034, National Center for Education Statistics, 2001.

Ramon Lopez is Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at El Paso. He was formerly Chair of the Physics Department at UTEP, and prior to that served as the APS Director of Education. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the Forum on Education.