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Nature Physics spotlights future of physics education

The March issue of Nature Physics, a premier academic publication, was all about education. Physics Education Research (PER) is a scientific field of study in which researchers collect and analyze data related to the learning environment.

“Physics curricula and education systems have remained largely unchanged for decades, and much can be done to improve them,” reads the issue’s editorial. “Nature Physics provides an overview of the current state of physics education research and offers recommendations on how to make learning environments more equitable and inclusive, diversify graduates’ skillsets and enable them to tackle important societal issues and challenges.”

The editors hand-picked contributors who focus on PER from varying perspectives. Ramón Barthelemy, assistant professor in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and founder of the PERU Group, was co-author of a comment titled “Racial equity in physics education research.” AtTheU spoke with Barthelemy about his contribution to the landmark issue.

Nature Physics doesn’t typically focus on education. Was this issue a big deal?

Yes, it is! The editors reached out to my wonderful colleague, Dr. Geraldine Cochran at Ohio State, who brought in a bunch of folks from the U.S. and Brazil. I was excited to hear that Nature Physics chose to include a racial equity perspective in their journal, and I was excited that Dr. Cochran invited me to participate.

How did you and your co-authors decide which aspects of racial equity in PER to include?

Dr. Cochran made the overall framework, and within that, each one of us brought our unique perspective. For me, it was really important that we at least mention LGBTQ+ communities, for example. We are very intersectional in the work that we’re doing. The main focus is race, but you can’t talk about race and ignore the sociocultural, sociohistorical, sociopolitical differences that really impact people.

A big focus of all physics education research is identity—how can we get all students to see themselves as physicists? When we talk about one identity category, we have to think about it in terms of other categories as well—gender identity, sexual identity, income level, whether your parents went to college or not, and so on. I was just happy to work with a group of people that recognize that it’s not just the one thing that affects us, it’s all things that affect our success in physics.

Why is identity an important aspect to the physics education research field?

Physics historically has had one of the biggest challenges in terms of not only diversifying representation in the field, but also diversifying the experience of being a physicist. When we look across the physics literature, we’re not seeing gains in the experiences of women, People of Color and LGBTQ+ folks that we’d like to see. The same issues that people talked about in the seventies and the nineties are the same issues that people are talking about when I and my colleagues interview them today in our own research. So, we have to keep this at the forefront of the broader physics education conversation, because physics just isn’t seeing the kind of change that we are seeing in other fields, unfortunately.

Ramon Barthelemy sits on a large block letter U that is wrapped in the LGBTQIA+ stripes of the colors of rainbow with brown, black, and pastel blue, pink and cream located on the university of Utah campus.

PHOTO CREDIT: College of Science

Ramón Barthelemy, assistant professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Utah.

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Why is identity important to physics education?

To succeed in physics, you have to be able to see yourself as a physicist. We need to make physics a place that anybody whose interested can participate in regardless of their identity. For us, it’s about how to bring down barriers not only in the classroom, but in the education system itself. We’re not just talking about the United States, but as a U.S. scholar I’ll talk about our country. It’s no hidden fact that in the United States, there is unequal access to K-12 schools. And if you have unequal access to K-12 schools, you don’t get the same opportunities to take AP calculus, AP physics, or AP statistics, which are the classes that set you up to study physics in the future. If we want to make physics more equitable, we need to make sure that our education system, particularly at the higher ed level, meets students where they’re at. It’s super important that we have programs that students can complete in five years regardless of their academic preparedness and background. Actually, our bachelor’s degree at the U is very flexible in physics.

But you can’t just claim that people from diverse backgrounds aren’t prepared well enough. It’s also about the cultural experiences when they get in the field. It’s about making sure that we actively work to include people of all different identities, that we have resources to support them, and that we make sure they’re able to participate in research and in the classroom. And there’s lots of ways to set up policies and practices that allow for that group to happen.

What are some ways to ensure that students of all backgrounds can succeed in the physics field?

Students can feel intimidated if they didn’t take as many advanced prep courses in high school as other students have. In the classroom, it’s critical that we lean into classroom models where students are creating the knowledge themselves, either through problem solving, discussion, or small group work. It’s also crucial to set up a culture at the beginning of the class, that it’s okay to ask questions. We’re all going to make mistakes. Even role modeling mistake-making is really powerful. I always tell my students up front, I’m going to make mistakes and let me know what I do so I can fix it. Then a couple times a semester, they’ll be like, oh, Ram, you got that integral wrong, or you forgot a negative sign. There’s actually a lot of power in students seeing professors make mistakes themselves so that the recognition starts to set in that, ‘Oh, even professionals and professors aren’t perfect or always right, because no one is.’

At the department level, we need to make sure that we bring in speakers from lots of different institution types, with lots of different personal and professional backgrounds. It can also be important to talk to students about your own story, particularly when we have first generation students. You don’t have to have the exact same identity as the students. It might be that both of them worked jobs as an undergrad. It’s actually not uncommon for professors to have never had actual jobs outside of academia. One of the first things I ask when I meet with students is, ‘Are you working?’ And then I talk a little bit about my background and how I worked throughout my undergrad. Anybody can do physics as long as you work at it and find mentors and opportunities.

Find the full comment in Nature Physics. The coauthors are Geraldine Cochran at The Ohio State University; Miguel Rodriguez and Ximena Cid at California State University, Dominguez Hills; Diana Sachmpazidi at University of Maryland; and Katemari Rosa at Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.