10 April 2013

Strategies for Improving Diversity: A Summary of the AIP Assembly of Society Officers Meeting

Debra Elmegreen President, IAU

The American Institute of Physics, the umbrella organization for 10 professional societies (including the AAS) and 24 affiliate societies, hosted its annual Assembly of Society Officers on 4 April to discuss important issues of common concern to our members. This year’s foci included underrepresentation of minorities in the physical sciences, efforts and strategies to increase diversity, open access in publications and data, and science policy issues from the perspective of AIP and AAAS Science and Technology Fellows (along with a celebratory reception in honor of 25 years and 40 years of these fellowships, respectively). Minutes of the meeting and PowerPoint presentations are available online at http://www.aip.org/aip/assembly/2013/. Here I will summarize the minority issues, an area of longtime concern to the AAS. 

Roman Czujko, Director of the Statistical Research Center at AIP, noted that over the past 10 years the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in all fields has increased by 38% and the number of African Americans receiving these degrees has increased by 51%. Yet the number of African Americans receiving physics degrees is about the same as a decade ago, even though the number of physics degrees awarded has increased by 55%. Of astronomy degrees, 1.4% are earned by African Americans and 5.7% by Hispanic Americans (the numbers are 3.3 and 4.6 for physics degrees). Little progress has been made in increasing the percentage of minorities, despite a variety of focused efforts at the departmental and national levels. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) produce a disproportionate share of African American physics majors, but that production has decreased from 50% of the total a decade ago to about 40% of the total now. Factors such as economic recession and Hurricane Katrina have conspired to have a negative impact on the numbers of HBCU physics majors at a few key schools. 

Physics professors Ramon Lopez of the University of Texas at Arlington and Willie Rockward of Morehouse College shared insights regarding their African American and Hispanic students. Lopez remarked that the biggest leak in the physics pipeline is not K-12 but the first two years of college. He noted that his students frequently matriculate with poor math skills, needing to take college algebra. This puts them behind from the start if all physics courses are calculus-based; consequently, colleges that offer a non-calculus physics course can help get these students involved sooner. Undergraduate-to-graduate bridge programs were also cited as very successful efforts to improve retention of underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. 

Rockward noted that many students have part-time jobs, which take time away from studies. Making student jobs available within physics (or astronomy) departments is an opportunity to engage these students early on. Many minority students come from close-knit families and tend to stay near home. Many families are unaware of the usefulness of graduate school and urge their children to declare a major that makes them employable immediately after college. The perception is often that engineering is a better choice than physics (or astronomy). 

As a consequence, some schools are making concerted efforts to offer a broader selection of courses for a physics major than only those leading directly to graduate school; they retain the core intermediate-level mathematical physics, classical, E&M, quantum mechanics, and thermophysics/statistical mechanics courses but allow more options for the remaining major credits (multiple degree tracks), including, for example, biophysics, engineering, education, and biomedical courses (depending on what a particular college or university is able to offer). This is a particularly important strategy in states forcing closures of under-enrolled physics departments. These speakers encouraged other schools to consider a more flexible major to accommodate a broader range of post-college options, so that physics would be seen as a more attractive major. An interesting international study on the relevance of science education is presented in "The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) Project in England: A Summary of Findings."

Claudia Rankins from the NSF Directorates for Education and Human Resources and Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Dot Harris from the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, and Marlene Kaplan from NOAA’s Education Office and Education and Partnership Program discussed some federal agency programmatic efforts to improve diversity. Rankins emphasized the need to provide research opportunities to students. For small departments, this might be facilitated through collaborations with other small departments. She noted the need to provide better mentoring so students understand what possibilities there are with a physics major. She noted that the freshman physics curriculum is often stale and unexciting and recommended reading the recent study by a subcommittee of the National Academy of Sciences Board of Physics and Astronomy which examined the state of the undergraduate physics curriculum; the report "Adapting to a Changing World – Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education," recently released in draft form. Many of its salient points, supported by education research-based studies demonstrating better engagement in the class and improved understanding of retention of material through interactive learning methods, are applicable to astronomy education as well. 

Harris noted that the physics pipeline starts around 6th grade. By 2018 the majority of Americans under age 18 will be "minorities," mostly multi-racial. DOE hires among the most physicists anywhere and has a large diversity department. She made the important point that "if you don’t purposefully include, you exclude" and cited numerous DOE and government-wide diversity and inclusion efforts. She urged new education strategies to improve diversity. She and Kaplan noted opportunities for students and professors to work in DOE and NOAA labs; NOAA also funds cooperative science centers at Minority Serving Institutions along with scholarship, internship, and mentoring opportunities.

Roundtable discussions by the society officers about what our societies might do to help promote better diversity will be considered in the AAS Council meeting (one recent AAS effort, for example, is the newly revamped Shapley Lectureship which hopes to target HBCUs, colleges, and community colleges without astronomy programs). Meanwhile all departments and institutions can continue to reflect on these issues and brainstorm about what can be done at the local level. Increasing our diversity by making concerted efforts to reach out to more students in new ways is an area that many AAS members have tackled for a long time, but we have a long way to go to reach equity.