Smith College Earns Award from Physics & Astronomy SEA Change Program
Alexis Knaub AAPT
P/A SEA Change celebrates first awardee and opens applications for next cohort.
Smith College Physics Department has earned a Bronze Award from the Physics and Astronomy SEA Change Committee (P/A SEA Change) for their work to create a more inclusive and diverse physics department. This marks not only the first P/A SEA Change award but also the first disciplinary award in SEA Change.
P/A SEA Change is a collaboration among many physics and astronomy professional societies: American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), American Astronomical Society (AAS), American Institute of Physics (AIP), American Physical Society (APS), AVS (Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing), National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), the Physics and Astronomy Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research, and Optica. This is a disciplinary pilot program, funded by the AIP Venture Partnership Fund and based on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s AAAS SEA Change. The program’s goal is to support continual, data-informed systemic change in postsecondary STEMM education. AAAS SEA Change focuses on institutional-level change, while P/A SEA Change is tailored for physics and astronomy departments.
“In SEA Change, we understand the value of having ‘top down’ institutional and ‘bottom up’ disciplinary levels available to help drive transformation,” said Shirley Malcom, senior advisor to the CEO and Director of SEA Change at AAAS. “We are excited that the physics/astronomy team was first to come online with its SEA Change review and awards process, especially as the historic challenges to inclusion are so large.
“While Smith College Physics is the first department to go through the process, as the value of the assessment, reflection and action planning process is revealed, we expect that their experience can help point the way for excellence through equity in physics!”
Smith College Physics has been working through the P/A SEA Change assessment since May 2021. Their award demonstrates that smaller departments focusing on undergraduates, which is the majority of departments with physics and astronomy programs, have the ability to achieve a disciplinary award.
“This is possible, because literally, every single faculty member in our department is committed to the work,” said Gary Felder, Professor of Physics & Chair, Department of Physics at Smith College. “Everyone was willing to say, ‘Yes, this is something we are going to devote departmental resources to - time, money, and curriculum. This was also possible because Smith College prioritized it. Diversity, equity and inclusion are a priority here.”
The SEA Change process entails undergoing a self-assessment regarding department demographics, paying particular attention to race, gender, and the intersection between them. The assessment includes questions around policies and procedures as well as culture and climate. Both qualitative and quantitative data are encouraged.
The self-assessment supports the creation of a 5-year action plan that addresses some of the issues and leverages some of the opportunities; the action plan must have specific steps and metrics to demonstrate how an issue will be addressed. The self-assessment is also used to create a narrative that explains what was learned and how they made choices for their action plan. The narrative and action plan are part of the application for a Bronze-level award. A review panel provides feedback and recommends whether the application receives a Bronze-level award. The P/A SEA Change Committee, which consists of representatives from multiple physics and astronomy professional societies, ultimately decides whether to award a department. Awardees work on their five-year action plans, with regular check-ins. At the end of 5 years, they can reapply to maintain their status.
“Advancing equity is crucial to advancing the core goals of the department — they go hand in hand,” said Felder. “If we want to be a thriving, growing, welcoming, supportive Physics department, then we must be there for everyone. What’s more, the things we're doing to increase equity are improving the experience of the department for everybody.”
The P/A SEA Change program is not a one-size-fits-all approach, as departments can be incredibly different when it comes to resources and challenges. To ensure that the process is doable for many types of departments, the program has two diverse pilot cohorts. Pilot cohort 1 began on 3 May 2021, and pilot cohort 2 in winter/spring 2022. Thus far, 11 departments (5 in cohort 1, 6 in cohort 2) ranging in size, type, and location have engaged in the program and are making progress.
The program is recruiting for a third cohort. Interested physics and astronomy departments are encouraged to fill out this form by 22 November 2023.
“Right now, the future of the physics profession depends on physics and astronomy departments becoming more equitable and inclusive so that every student can succeed. Our expectation is that the Physics and Astronomy SEA Change project, the first national level award program centered around systemic change in DEI for physics and astronomy, will help to move more physics departments in this direction,” said Beth Cunningham, Chair of the Physics and Astronomy SEA Change Committee and CEO of AAPT.
The P/A SEA Change program enables physics and astronomy departments to use data to help pinpoint where they are, what they’re doing well, and where they can improve in regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Smith College physics’ successful Bronze-level application carries a lot of significance,” said Alexis Knaub, Director of P/A SEA Change. “As not only the first P/A SEA Change awardee but also the first disciplinary SEA Change awardee, this moment is important for both P/A SEA Change and other disciplines looking to create their own disciplinary SEA Change program.
“I commend Smith College for embracing the challenge of gathering data, reflecting, and creating a viable action plan to address equity for both faculty and students. They are leading the way and showing that yes, departments, even small departments, are willing and able to do the work to do better.”
Physics and Astronomy SEA Change
P/A SEA Change seeks to support postsecondary physics and astronomy departments in United States or U.S. territories by creating systemic, structural change regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). A pilot program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — known as SEA (STEMM Equity Achievement) Change — P/A SEA change is a collaboration of professional physics and astronomy societies: American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), American Astronomical Society (AAS), American Institute of Physics (AIP), American Physical Society (APS), AVS (Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing), National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), the Physics and Astronomy Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research, and Optica.
This program is funded in part by a Venture Grant from the American Institute of Physics.