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Why are there so few black physicists? A new report describes what needs to be changed



The Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo : AP Images

A working group organized by the American Institute of Physics, a non-profit organization from other American physics societies, published the results of a study in which is examined why African American students are still underrepresented in obtaining bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy.

The National Task Force for Improving African American Physics and Astronomy Representation (TEAM-UP) students and chairs interviewed, African American students interviewed, visited five competitive faculties of university physics, and reviewed existing literature to determine which subject areas were affected factors contributed to or impaired the success of the students in physics. They identified five main influences: a sense of belonging to the community, self-perception as a physicist, academic support, personal support and the priorities of existing physics leadership.

The Task Force made a series of "far reaching and demanding" recommendations "that require philosophical and practical changes in the way the community educates and supports students. "Your overall goal" is to at least double the number of undergraduate physics and astronomy degrees awarded to African Americans by 2030. "

[S] The challenges of inadequate African-American participation in physics remain," wrote Shirley Malcolm, senior consultant at the American Association for Advancement of Science and leader of the MINT achievement change initiative, in the report's preface "The needle for African American bachelor's degrees in physics has hardly moved since 2006."

Malcolm's article described the sad state of the diversity in physics at the time: Black Americans received 3.5 percent of the Bachelor's degrees in physics in 2003, and this percentage has hardly changed since then although the total number of Bachelor's degrees in physics has doubled in the past 20 years.

These numbers surprised the hardly anyone involved in the preparation of the report. "For me it was no new information, especially because of my He had experience as a black physics student who had no black physics teacher during my entire academic career and was the only black student in many of my physics classes. Brian Beckford, Assistant Research Scientist and former Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the President of the University of Michigan, said Gizmodo. Beckford was previously head of the American Physical Society's (19459016) (19459007) bridging program, an initiative to support under-represented PhD students. in physics through mentoring and transition programs.

The Task Force report states that "African American students have the same drive, motivation, mind, and ability to obtain a degree in physics and astronomy as students from other races and ethnic groups," but advocate degrees decide in other areas that they consider desirable to be more inviting or financially lucrative. The reason is systemic; The underrepresentation of African-American students in physics and astronomy at the highest level is due to a system that does not offer these students a supportive environment, as well as to the major financial challenges that both students and faculties have faced in the past.

The report recommended that the physics departments "establish norms and values ​​of respect and inclusion through guidelines, physical spaces, programmatic offerings and all forms of communication with students and communicate consistently." They also suggested diversifying their departments Faculties of different races, ethnicities, genders and other social identities offer mentoring opportunities that focus on underrepresented students and encourage chairs to set standards in their department that value inclusion and create incentives for faculty members who actively support underrepresented students.

Task Force also points to the success of historically b colleges and universities (HBCUs) missing to support African American students. At the same time, HBCUs saw federal funding decrease by 42 percent for each full-time student from 2003 to 2015 (19459016). According to the report, it is 70 percent comparable institutions. The report estimates that the physics community has lost 150 African American HBCU students annually simply because of the challenges these schools face. They proposed that a consortium of science societies provide a $ 50 million scholarship to marginalized and underrepresented physics and astronomy students. The preliminary donation goal of these companies was to raise $ 1.2 million annually to reduce debt for African American undergraduate students.

Scientists who were not involved in the preparation of the report were happy with the results. "More than a decade after the first alert from Task Force member Dr. Quinton Williams, I am pleased that the worrying decline in black students who have a bachelor's degree in physics is being followed closely," said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein , Assistant Professor in Physics at the University of New Hampshire, said Gizmodo in an email. “'Diversity and Inclusion' is a popular topic of conversation, but the HBCUs' physics departments are struggling just like the black physics students. I hope the community recognizes this trend as the crisis it is, and I hope that special attention will be paid to the recommendations on HBCUs that have been used by black scholars in the past when other institutions refused to recognize our humanity becomes. “

] Beckford told Gizmodo that TEAM-UP's charges specifically target African-American students, although he believes many of the recommendations would benefit other student groups as well.

The Task Force encouraged physicists and astronomers to read and acknowledge this report. There is room for their own departments to better support African-American students.

Science and especially physics are creative areas in which it is necessary to look at problems in a new way. In order to drive research forward, it is crucial that scientists are more diverse. Studies tell different stories about this progress, depending on the group; The percentage of those receiving a bachelor's degree who identify themselves as Hispanic Americans has increased in all areas over the past 20 years, while the percentage of women and black students has stagnated. Involving these voices requires creating an environment in which they are welcome.


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