Making physics more inclusive at Stanford

Physics faculty and students are working together to make their department a more inclusive community through clubs, courses and events.

It was no surprise when, in 2016, a Stanford University survey of undergraduates revealed physics as among the least diverse departments at the university – also the case for physics as an academic field nationally. But, deeper analysis of the survey responses revealed a telling and crucial difference between the answers from incoming students and those on their way to graduation.

POISE students during a trip to Monterey, where they visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Students in the spring break program “Physics Outreach through Inclusive Science Education” (POISE) during a trip to Monterey, where they visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Image credit: Courtesy of Josie Meyer)

“Many students from all backgrounds and identities come to Stanford excited about physics, and this interest does not strongly depend on race or gender. But we lose a larger number of Black, Latinx and Native students, as well as women of all races, in the first two years of undergraduate study,” said Risa Wechsler, a professor of physics and of particle physics and astrophysics at Stanford University. “A lot of that is due to the lack of community and overall climate. People from underrepresented groups often do not feel welcome in physics classes.”

For Wechsler, who is also director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, this issue is personal. Even she experienced doubts about her place in physics early in her studies and career.

To address this problem head on, Wechsler and six other physics faculty members formed the Equity and Inclusion Committee, which also includes students, research staff and postdoctoral scholars. While the committee was formulating a strategic plan, students formed the group Physics Undergraduate Women and Gender Minorities at Stanford (PUWMAS) and Wechsler joined Heising-Simons Foundation’s Physics and Astronomy Leadership Council. That position, which aims to help the foundation diversify physics in the United States, provided her with grant money that she could use to fund local projects.

The fact that these efforts are helmed and helped along by so many people, representing various areas of the Physics Department, reflects a larger trend in the field.

“In the last five to eight years, there’s been a growing awareness about the importance of identity within the physics community,” said Lauren Tompkins, assistant professor of physics and member of the Equity and Inclusion Committee. “Your identity affects your experience as a physicist and even the physics that you do. If we can acknowledge and understand that, it makes us better physicists.”

Groups, classes and a book club

PUWMAS was one of the earliest results of this current push for more inclusive physics at Stanford. Undergraduates Deepti Kannan, Nicel Mohamed-Hinds and Manisha Patel founded the group with the mission to “promote diversity in physics by uniting and uplifting minority voices” and “provide opportunities for personal, academic and career development.” In service of these missions, the group organizes social events, a lunchtime speaker series, a mentorship program and professional development workshops on topics such as CV/resume writing, negotiation and interviewing.

“Developing this kind of group involves risk and took incredible effort but it has paid off,” said Wechsler. “It’s only two years old and I feel like they have transformed the atmosphere for undergrads in the department.”

In 2018, PUWMAS won an Office of Student Engagement Campus Impact Award. Upon their graduation this year, the founders received the department’s first-ever Departmental Service Award for their efforts.

Amidst the success of PUWMAS, co-founder Patel and inaugural director of diversity and education Josie Meyer, BS ’19, brought Wechsler and Tompkins another idea for further development, focused on the fact that students who leave the department often do so between winter and spring quarter. Led by Meyer and Patel, and advised by Tompkins and Wechsler, the team created a pair of initiatives. Physics 93SI: Beyond the Laboratory: Physics, Identity and Society is a new student-taught course that explores issues of diversity and culture in physics directly, drawing directly from disciplines as varied as history, anthropology and critical race theory. Physics Outreach through Inclusive Science Education (POISE) is an optional extension of the course where students spend spring break developing an hour-long workshop for high school students while learning and applying lessons about inclusion in science.

“We want the students to see that they can pursue their love of physics and still make a social impact in the world,” said Meyer. “One reason for leaving the department frequently cited by underrepresented minorities is that they feel physics is not relevant to their communities, and I hope POISE changes that.”

POISE was offered for the first time in 2019, supported by Wechsler’s Heising-Simons funding. It included field trips to Bay Area museums, labs, companies and Pinnacles National Park. At the end, students taught workshops about the physics of sound and music, spacetime and the universe, and the physics of earthquakes to students at San Lorenzo High School. One unintended advantage was that all of the POISE students were in their first or last years of undergraduate study, which created natural opportunities for mentorship and access to perspectives from students who were in high school last year.

“Having a science class where students were asked to reflect about their experience allowed them to bring their whole selves to their work in a way that was empowering,” said Tompkins, who is the faculty advisor for 93SI, POISE, PUWMAS and the Stanford University Physics Society.

In a broader effort, the Equity and Inclusion Committee also created the Equity and Inclusion reading group, which has met twice a quarter since early 2018 and is open to anyone interested in equity in STEM. Each meeting features a speaker from the department talking about themes related to the latest reading.

Just the beginning

Now, Meyer, Tompkins and Wechsler are assessing how the first year of POISE went and what it might look like in 2021. They have also been interested in efforts centered on incoming potential physics students. Ideally, students would know right away about the community the department is building and improving – and reach out to the department about what more they might do.

POISE students at San Lorenzo High School, where they presented their teaching projects.

POISE students at San Lorenzo High School, where they presented their teaching projects. (Image credit: Courtesy of Josie Meyer)

“We want to have the best people in the world involved in this research, but also I really believe that it is a human right to understand how the universe came to be,” said Wechsler. “So, we need to think very deliberately about having a scientific community that includes the whole world’s population. And we’re not there.”

Meyer graduated in June but stayed over the summer as the department’s Equity and Inclusion intern. Some of her work so far has included developing training for future POISE leaders, constructing a “Tools for Practical Allyship” workshop series and developing a midterm assessment for progress on the Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.

“Students should feel empowered to create positive change within the Stanford physics department and for the rest of their careers,” she said. “Over the past few years, undergraduate students have led the way toward a more inclusive climate in the physics community and I hope we can inspire the next generation of leaders to do the same.”

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