How can I talk about equity in physics classes?

posted February 6, 2021 and revised December 22, 2022
by Danny Doucette, Shinae Park and Moses Rifkin

Why should I talk about equity in my physics classes?

Why aren’t there more Black physicists? Or women physicists, disabled physicists, or LGBTQ+ physicists? And what can we learn about physics as a discipline if we try to sincerely answer that question? The Underrepresentation Curriculum supports instructors in exploring these questions and more in the physics classroom.

At every stage in our field (e.g., AP, college, grad school, and professors) there is a clear underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, disabled, LGBTQ+, and women physicists, and especially physicists who belong to two or more those groups. This underrepresentation reflects persistent and inequitable educational and academic opportunities and reminds us that the culture and field of physics contain deep injustices (for more, read this statement from AAPT).

As educators, we are all called to address this problem of inequity. Through our instruction we pass along the culture of physics to the next generation. Therefore, we have a duty to train the next generation of physicists to think and act in ways that oppose injustice in our field. Furthermore, guiding educational documents like the NGSS call for science instruction to include a focus on the interaction between science and society. And we have seen in our own classrooms that students have a need to talk and think critically about issues related to social justice.

The Underrepresentation Curriculum provides an approach to introducing discussions about equity into the physics classroom. This flexible, student-centered curriculum includes lesson plans and resources for high school and college science classes. Feedback suggests that the curriculum is valuable and appreciated by students and their families. While every classroom is different, we believe that the curriculum can serve as a useful starting-point for high school and university instructors who teach a wide variety of STEM courses, including physics.

How do I prepare myself to discuss equity?

Before introducing lessons about equity in physics, it is essential to reflect on your own positionality and background, on the identities and experiences of your students, and on the support and push-back you may expect from educational leadership and the community. While topics such as institutional racism, privilege, and intersectionality may be new to you, they are built on a long tradition of scholarship and lived experiences. Learning about systems of oppression in the USA and other colonial states is an on-going, lifelong process, so be sure to do your homework, especially as it relates to teaching physics (here are some starting points).

Where do I include discussions of equity in my curriculum?

Instructors often ask when it is best to fit these lessons about equity in physics into already-busy calendars. We provide some example timelines here. Some instructors will implement these lessons after exams or before school breaks. It’s best to schedule the lessons for a time in your school calendar when you have had the chance to build some rapport and trust among your students.

What is the structure of the Underrepresentation Curriculum?

The Underrepresentation Curriculum is structured with four “units”:

Unit 0 is a single, 20-30 minute activity to introduce the curriculum and set discussion norms

Unit 1 helps students understand the need to focus on underrepresentation of people from historically marginalized groups in physics

Unit 2 introduces a variety of lenses to understand the origins of underrepresentation, such as meritocracy, systemic racism, and stereotype threat

Unit 3 concludes by calling on students to put their new understandings into action

We recommend doing at least one lesson from each unit, but you should feel free to choose lessons that align with your expertise, your students’ identities and backgrounds, and other constraints.

How do I get buy-in at my institution?

Depending on your instructional context, it might be necessary to get buy-in and support from educational leadership before introducing lessons about social justice in your classes. For example, you may need to rely on your principal, school head, department chair, or dean to back you up if there are questions about what you are doing. It is also wise to ensure students (and their families, if you teach high school) are prepared for what is coming. We have compiled some advice for working with skeptics. While it’s useful to be prepared, there’s no need to be worried: the overwhelming response we’ve seen from our communities when we teach these lessons is enthusiastic engagement and excitement.

How should I approach instruction?

These lessons must build on inclusive and equitable pedagogical practice. Practicing culturally relevant education and supporting all learners is a foundational practice for all instructors. We have developed some strategies and resources to support you in engaging in year-round action that supports students from historically underrepresented groups. Teaching Tolerance provides good advice for responding to bias, when it comes up.

We recommend starting equity lessons with Unit 0. In this lesson, you will explain why discussions about equity belong in a physics classroom, address some of the concerns students might have, and lead a discussion to establish some discussion norms. This unit can be essential to developing student buy-in and setting the tone for future discussions that will allow for productive challenges without marginalizing anyone.

As you progress through the lessons in the Underrepresentation Curriculum, you will encounter and employ a variety of pedagogical techniques. These routines are detailed in a document that is linked from the lesson plans. These routines represent our best attempt to design and employ learning experiences for students that support honesty and group reflection without introducing undue risks or harms. One example routine is the Stand-Up Slip, in which students respond to a poll question and then represent the response of an anonymous classmate. Another routine is the human thermometer, in which students arrange themselves in the classroom to represent their opinion on a relevant topic. Depending on your context, it may be necessary to adapt the routine.

How does the curriculum wrap up?

When they learn about how inequity affects science and society, and when they learn how to name and describe social forces they see, students often express a desire to take action. For that reason, it is very important that any implementation of the curriculum concludes with projects in which students have the opportunity to leverage the resources at their disposal to make positive change. We’ve heard from instructors whose students engaged in a wide and creative variety of projects, including civic action around voting, letter-writing, assembling study groups to learn more about equity, creating posters and podcasts, promoting Black-owned businesses, and volunteering in many different contexts.

What support and community is available?

There is a strong and diverse community of instructors who are using the Underrepresentation Curriculum in their classes. If you are interested in joining the community, visit our website and join us on Slack. If you’re using the curriculum in your classes and willing to help us do a bit of research so we can make improvements and better understand how to teach students about social justice issues, please get in touch or use our surveys.

No matter what sort of physics class you teach--high school, introductory, or upper division--there is space to talk about equity. We hope this guide has been helpful in planning your own lessons!