Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy
Edmund Bertschinger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Why have physics bachelor’s degrees to African Americans not increased over the last 25 years like they have for other racial and ethnic groups? Why is physics lagging compared with nearly every other field of science and engineering? What steps can and should individual faculty, departments, and professional societies take to redress this inequity?
These questions are answered in a major report released in January, 2020 by the American Institute of Physics (AIP). The AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP), a group of physicists, astronomers, and social scientists, supported by AIP Staff and other researchers, conducted a two-year research study. Using a national student survey, interviews conducted at a meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists, a survey of departments, site visits to five high-performing departments, and the physics education and relevant sociology research literatures, TEAM-UP prepared a comprehensive report with guidance to the physics and astronomy communities.
Almost twenty years ago, the SPIN-UP report helped reverse the decline in undergraduate physics degrees leading to a more than doubling of bachelor’s degrees in the 2000s and beyond. Unfortunately, African Americans did not benefit from that rebound. The TEAM-UP report explains why. TEAM-UP gives a prescription for doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans in the 2020s.
The TEAM-UP report makes three simple points.
First, African American undergraduates have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to obtain physics and astronomy degrees as students of other races and ethnicities. Many African Americans who might otherwise pursue these fields are choosing majors that are perceived as being more supportive and/or rewarding, resulting in a loss of talent to physics and astronomy.
Second, the degree gap is due to the lack of a supportive environment for African American students in many departments, and to the enormous financial challenges facing them. The financial challenges affect not only individual students, but also the programs that have consistently demonstrated the best practices in supporting their success.
Third, solving these problems requires changing not only the way physicists train students, but how they think about training students. Specifically, we must be willing to learn from social scientists how to recognize and redress the systemic inequity that pervades physics and astronomy. The highest priority recommendations of the report are related to sensemaking and cultural change. Educational psychologist Seymour Sarason’s warning to K-12 teachers and administrators1 applies here: “To put it as succinctly as possible, if you want to change and improve the climate and outcomes of schooling both for students and teachers, there are features of the school culture that have to be changed, and if they are not changed, your well-intentioned efforts will be defeated.”
TEAM-UP focused on the experience of physics and astronomy majors in college and took a strengths-based, rather than a deficit-based, approach to their experience. The report centers the experience of African American students because students themselves are the best experts on their experiences. The project team sought to determine the keys to successful completion of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees, by focusing on African American students and the departments that are the most successful in graduating them.
Analysis of student surveys, interviews, site visits, the research literature, and expertise of task force members led to five key factors responsible for African American physics and astronomy student outcomes:
- Physics Identity
- Academic Support
- Personal Support
- Leadership and Structures
The report provides detailed support for the salience of each factor including student quotes. For example, the importance of physics identity (defined as how one sees oneself with respect to physics as a profession) is highlighted by a student who found their identity challenged:
“I’ve had two professors ask me why I’m in physics. They see how much I’m struggling. Like, ‘Why are you still a physics major? Why do you want to do this?’ Multiple times. It’s like, ‘Well, I’m here because this is what I want to do.’ They’re like, ‘You’re making your life difficult doing all this.’ It’s very discouraging when you hear [this].”
Another student gave a more positive account of how a professor provided academic support:
“There was one teacher that—really, honestly, I was going to give up on physics and she changed everything. I mean, she was so passionate about teaching, she knew a lot about physics education and research… She just kept checking in on me, and she would make comments on my test like ‘This is not so good. Come see me.’ Then she would email me like, “Did you see my comment? Come see me.”
An entire chapter of the report is devoted to a call to action with two urgent requests of the profession. One request is that the physics and astronomy communities address the enormous financial challenges facing African American students and the most successful departments in graduating them. Nationally, the median wealth of black families is one-tenth that of white families. Moreover, HBCUs have been particularly hard hit, as emphasized in a recent Issue Brief of the American Council on Education.2 The TEAM-UP report calls for professional societies to raise a $50 million fund whose investment income would go to support African American (and other minoritized) students with unmet financial need as well as departments needing help to implement the report’s recommendations.
The second urgent request is for physicists and astronomers to transform the norms, values, and culture of their fields. The authors have no illusions about the difficulty of this given the systemic ways in which exclusive cultures reproduce themselves. That is why so much of the report, along with its highest priority recommendations, are dedicated to sensemaking—a learning process of creating meaning around concepts and ideas through a variety of social inputs including dialogue with others—and to theories of change in higher education. Systemic change in higher education involves individuals, departments, and professional societies. The report lays out a multi-level map for change.
Can physicists change their thinking and learn to embrace culture? Yes! The five successful departments visited by TEAM-UP (Chicago State University, Georgia State University, Henderson State University, Morehouse College, and the University of Maryland College Park) each have multiple faculty who have done so and they are already practicing most of the report’s recommendations.
Moreover, physicists, more than most other professionals, relish the challenge of learning powerful new descriptions of nature. They did so a century ago with the development of quantum mechanics and more recently with the audacity to build LIGO. If physicists can conceptualize the electron as both wave and particle, they should be able to conceptualize their field as both producer of knowledge and product of culture. The TEAM-UP report provides guidance in developing this new vision. Insofar as it is an experimental report on the role of culture and society in physics, and it calls for a new way of thinking, the report may become the Davisson-Germer experiment of its time.
Edmund Bertschinger is Professor of Physics and a faculty affiliate in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies at MIT. With Mary James of Reed College, he was co-chair of the TEAM-UP task force.
- Sarason, S. B. (1996). Revisiting the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. New York: Teachers College Press (p. 340).
- Williams, K. L., & Davis, B. L. (2019). Public and Private Investments and Divestments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: American Council on Education. (Issue Brief, https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/public-and-private-investments-and-divestments-in-hbcus.pdf)