.boxed { border: 1px solid green ; }


Adam Mills, President of the OAPT

Being a heterosexual, Caucasian male I am hardly an authority on diversity; however, my school community consists of many diverse cultures, races and religions. As such I have been attempting to make a conscious effort to better connect with my students, by ensuring that they gain an understanding that there do exist many physicists that are indeed non-Caucasian, non-male with various sexual orientations. This brief article will explore a few of the techniques, resources and ideas I am implementing in my classroom that you can easily incorporate into yours tomorrow!

Altruistically I am trying to diversify the images of people, the scenarios and the questions my students are constantly presented with to more closely align with their assorted cultures, genders and orientations. Selfishly, I am hoping it helps students understand that physics belongs to everyone, not just the white males like in the famous picture below, which will in turn encourage them to take Physics 12!

Figure 1: A picture of the Fifth Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons held in October 1927. Fun fact of the 29 Scientists that met to discuss the newly formulated quantum theory 17 went on to win Nobel Prizes.1

As with most ideas I have had in improving my teaching, a quick search of the archives of the OAPT Newsletters have shown Roberta Tevlin and Chris Meyer have already begun to pave the way. I encourage you to utilize the amazing resource created by Roberta Tevlin. This contains a spreadsheet showing over a hundred diverse physicists with accompanying videos. Furthermore, I would recommend you also read Chris Meyer’s article, which shows how he is addressing the gender imbalance or explore the Perimeter Institute resource like Escape the Forces of Nature.

Before I jump into some of my classroom strategies, I do wish to present you with some numbers I found while browsing through the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Statistical Research Center. This site contains a plethora of statistics. Although they are generated for the United States I would be surprised if the results were not similar for Canada. Based on the statistics found here it is clear that minority (or should I say, people of global majority) and women seem to be disproportionately dissuaded from pursuing the Physical Sciences in Postsecondary Education. The percentage of Bachelor degrees in the Physical Sciences obtained by African American and Hispanic Americans who make up nearly 32% of the population in the United States2 is below 10%, and for women who make up roughly 50.8%2 it has remained a static 20% for the past two decades. I firmly believe that in order to improve these numbers it is up to the secondary teachers to encourage all students to go into the physics sciences through the promotion of diversity within our classrooms.

As for my classroom, some of the ways I am promoting diversity within my courses are the following:

  • My scenarios are about them. Such a simple change can make a large difference. Rather than use specific names in any of my problems, they are always phrased in the following form: “You are measuring…’; ‘You and your friend are performing…’; ‘You have been hired to investigate…’
  • My classroom has more than just old white guys plastering the room as decor. I would recommend downloading the posters from the Perimeter Institute, which is an easy way to begin adding some diversity to your classroom environment, while simultaneously generating discussion on the contributions these women made to science.
  • The Diversity Challenge. This is an ongoing series of activities that I have my students complete. Usually I do these on a Friday, or when class will be shortened due to assemblies.
    1. Name the first three scientists you can think of. This will likely result in a laundry list which is dominated by white males. This is one of the subtle ways that minority groups get dissuaded. As mentioned earlier it is difficult for students to picture themselves as a Scientist since they are rarely presented with the opportunity to see people like them doing Science.
    2. Draw a picture of a Scientist. This will likely result in people dressed in white coats, glasses, and holding a variety of typical science apparatus. This then leads to a discussion of other places where science is done besides the laboratory. I also take this opportunity to begin to show them pictures of a diverse range of scientists that work both inside and outside of laboratory settings.
    3. Take home article. The students are given the article entitled ‘How Diversity Makes Us Smarter’ by Katherine W. Phillips. They need to come back to class the next day ready to share one comment or question they have regarding the article.
    4. Oral Project. I use this for a communication mark as well as addressing some of the aspects of Strand A in the curriculum. The students are asked to choose a Scientist from Roberta’s et. al. list mentioned earlier. They then need to complete some basic research about their chosen scientist and share it with the class. I will typically have two students share theirs each day for the next while until we are complete. They also need to generate a quick ‘hockey card’ style page giving a brief overview of their scientist which will adorn the walls of the classroom for the remainder of the semester.
Finally the AIP has a Physics History Teacher Guide with over 50 lessons ranging from 15 minutes to 90 minutes which demonstrate the various ways in which people from all over the world have helped shape our current understanding of physics. I have used a couple of them with some minor tweaks with pretty good success and I encourage you to check them out.

In closing, although these types of activities do take time away from ‘covering the curriculum’, I believe that there is more to gain from promoting the rich diversity of physicists than from making sure we hit every specific expectation in the curriculum. It is up to us as secondary teachers to model diversity in our classrooms to ensure that we are no longer allowing subtle biases to discourage our marginalized students from pursuing physics in both secondary and postsecondary education.

  1. https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/solvay-conference-probably-intelligent-picture-ever-taken-1927
  2. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI725219
©Ontario Association of Physics Teachers Contact the Newsletter