Social Justice in Physics

Moses Rifkin does a superb 6-day unit on social justice in his physics class. Here, by arguing against it, a Fox News correspondent makes it clear why social justice is needed:

I wanted to do something similar to Moses, but I had two constraints:

  1. Since I teach IB physics, and already don’t get enough contact hours, I couldn’t devote more than a class period to it.
  2. Since I teach at an international school in Northern Europe, the social justice issues experienced by my students and in our culture will not necessarily be racial in nature.

Thus, I tried to lift out my favourite parts from Moses’ curriculum, and recontextualize everything to be more universal in nature. Our discussions ended up primarily focusing on sexism, with class, religion and disabilities as other sources of examples and discussion.

We started with some ground rules, directly pilfered from Moses:


Second, I introduced the idea of stereotype threat. Two students had studied this in a psychology class, but had difficult explaining it. I gave an example (as a North American in Europe, I fear being seen as monolingual, and am disinclined to practice languages as I struggle to learn, thus learning less well). The students brainstormed examples in pairs, then shared out. This took about 15 minutes.

Third, I had students randomly select from a list of social groups. They used their computers to quickly find and research two physicists from that social group. In a circle, they shared who they found and I probed with questions like “how did you find this person?”, “how did you choose this physicist?”, “had you heard of this person before today?” and “was it hard to find physicists in this social group?” Our list of social groups (the last two were suggested by students during our discussions):

women, men, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, young, old, disabled, able-bodied, Christian/Muslim/Jewish, Eastern religion, European/American, not European/American, upper class, lower class

This led fairly naturally to a discussion of why some of these social groups are under-represented among physicists. I asked the students to make hypotheses to explain the under-representation, and then to offer counter-examples for the hypotheses, if they could think of any. Our hypotheses were that the distribution of physicists:

  • represents the population
  • is determined by the geographical location of universities and research institutions
  • is determined by the populations access to education
  • is determined by social expectations
  • is determined by history/politics

These were all seen to be unsuccessful as a complete explanation. Next, we switched directions, and looked at the barriers for people of under-represented social groups. Some good arguments were presented here, including the effect of expensive tuition at university, the impact of stereotypes, and the role of religion. I was able to cap-off these arguments by labeling these effects as the essence of institutional sexism, racism, classism, ablism, agism, homophobia, etc.

We finished with the Implicit Association Test about gender and science. I told the students that they need not share their scores, but many were keen to talk about it, so I know that we got a variety of results that approximately conform to what one would expect from a mixed group.

Before we left, I tried to introduce the idea of privilege, and especially of white privilege, but I think this fell flat, like everything does when you’ve got two minutes until lunchtime.


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