Tag Archives: social justice

AAPTsm16 Reflections

After tweeting incessantly for the past six days, it’s time to reflect on the 2016 summer meeting of the AAPT. I saw a few themes emerge from the research and work that was being presented, but some important ideas also presented themselves through the structure of the meeting itself. What follows are just the opinions of a myopic, unread teacher.

Social Justice. On the final day of the PERC, symposiarches Moses Rifkin and Amy Robertson kicked off a discussion about social justice by asking the audience to define what the term meant in physics education. This was surprisingly difficult: is it levelling the playing field? it is educating students about inequality? are we talking about social reconstruction? In any case, we used a lot of different words through the conference(s) to talk about how we physics educators can address injustice. Geraldine Cochran called for us to think of education debt, rather than achievement gaps: I hope that is the language and mindset we adopt going forward.

There were multiple sessions and workshops that aimed to address issues of equity, including two that were unfortunately scheduled at the same time. The highlight, I think, was a session organized by Mel Sabella that included complementary and interwoven talks by Konstantinos Alexakos about safe spaces, by Ximena Cid about poor targeting of PER studies, and by Geraldine Cochran challenging the deficit model and proposing the debt concept mentioned above. Hearteningly, the scheduled 30-minute discussion session turned into a 90-minute huddle. There was a spirit of passion and community present that I have never seen before at AAPT.


Session DD morphed into this discussion that carried on for an hour past the scheduled end

That final session at PERC was a good conclusion for those who were present, I think, because it resulted in the production of some documents, and a call to action. I am looking forward to a round of “this is what I tried” posters at the meeting next year.

Gender. In the past, the discussion about gender has centred on the gender gap, with plenty of work showing that it exists, and some insightful research trying to understand the origins. To an extent, that continued this year, such as Melissa Dancy’s excellent work, below.


Melissa Dancy shows that female students who leave physics (yellow) are more likely to prefer interactive classes, but were also more likely to have experienced only lectures

However, given the relative power of white female physicists, it seems as if gender issues might be subsumed into the broader struggle for social justice. To be clear, I am not saying that the gender issues have been resolved, even theoretically; however, I think many people have started to view gender as a small piece of a bigger issue. Identity is a part of that big issue, and Katherine Rainey’s work — which is probably on the leading edge at the moment — shows the importance of developing a sense of belonging.

Progressive Policies. We saw a number of advances this year by the AAPT, including the adoption of a code of conduct, the establishment of gender-neutral bathrooms, and the creation of child care grants. These should be understood as commendable first steps, and I understand there is a proposal to extend the child care grants to include caregivers more generally, and several other positive steps.

I think the real benefit of the AAPT making these important and symbolic gestures is that it tells the members that this meeting was a safe space, where everyone is valued. Especially for those of us who work at markedly less-progressive institutions, that support is valuable and heartening.

I saw two key areas in which I would like to improve the accessibility of the conference. First, I saw that many people stayed in the youth hostel, about 5 blocks from the convention centre. The price of USD 37 per night for a dorm bed is markedly better than the rates for the suggested hotels (USD 99 and up). The popularity of this option, especially for visitors from abroad (like me), for high school teachers, and for those attending the conference out-of-pocket, suggests that the AAPT should think carefully about providing affordable options in the conference planning. Cincinnati doesn’t have a youth hostel, and I haven’t been able to find cheap accommodation in the downtown.

Second, the child care grants are nice, but not a complete solution given the difficulty of finding care locally, and the cost of bringing along a caregiver on a cross-country flight. Instead, I think we could come up with a child-minding option that (a) make the conference more friendly for families, and (b) bring some more joy and life to the conference for the rest of us. I understand there might be insurance issues in such a case.

Spaces. Interpreted both physically (ie: classrooms) and more broadly (ie: the learning context), the concept of students’ learning spaces arose several times. For one, we need to provide spaces free of gendered or racial cuing. The spaces also need to be designed to be comfortable for students. There is the question of how to establish safe spaces. And there is also the matter of the analysis of spaces, as a way to examine non-content learning.

Standard Problems Suck. Steve Kanim spoke at the Physics Teacher Camp about the role of math and problem-solving in physics. The slide speaks volumes. Kanim’s solution is the TIPERs, and he generously arranged for a book of these for all the attendees.

On the other side of the conference, Beth Thacker reported on traditional learning and problems in unequivocal language.


High School. The AAPT didn’t promote the excellent physics teachers camp as widely this year, unfortunately, and I met several high school teachers at the AAPT that didn’t know about it (and likely would have attended if they had). It is a wonderful initiative, and certainly the best PD available for teachers like me.

Sadly, high school teachers seem to be fading from the scene. I saw fewer neat-teaching-idea talks than ever before, as the PER tradition continues to dominate the sessions. Steve Nixon’s talk about strategies in high-needs classrooms was a particularly effective exception.

Competition. A few speakers extolled the virtues of competition in the classroom, but I didn’t hear the counter-arguments anywhere. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Accelerometers Everywhere. Rebecca Vieyra was on hand to show us more of the Physics Toolbox, and Colleen Countryman had a poster about MyTECH. Lab4u had a booth in the exhibition hall demonstrating something similar. UIUC debuted a device called the IOLab that holds sensors and communicates wirelessly with a USB stick. PASCO’s new Smart Cart was a hit, too. I think accelerometers and other smartphone-based sensors have hit the mainstream now. Surprisingly, I didn’t hear anything about Google’s new offering, Science Journal.

Other educational technology seems not to have caught on quite as well: many people professed ignorance of Desmos and I didn’t see even a single presentation or poster about PhET.

Labwork. At the end of the PERC, the audience was asked to suggest growth areas for the community. Saalih Allie (actually on the panel) suggested that lab work, more complex than theoretical physics, deserves attention in the future. Perhaps, after last year’s focus during PERC, the AAPT community decided to give the study of practical skills a rest.


Two Submission Types. Perhaps I am becoming cynical, but I found that most of the posters I saw fit into one of two categories: (a) those that attempted to document some sort of project that was undertaken, but don’t generate many take-aways, and (b) those that address questions that could be answered in a single sentence, but don’t actually say that conclusion clearly. I think the history of PER comes from the desire to improve the physics 101 course, but just as we’ve moved on from that target, it’s also time to move on from that methodology.

Demos. Physicists still like demos. This lecture hall had a rotating stage, to allow for twice as many to be set up!

In my recent TEDxRiga talk, I called demos “snake oil”, unless they are being used carefully to provoke curiosity and engagement. I think we risk being too enamoured with the big booms (apparently there were some of these at the PASCO picnic!) and lose sight of the fact that students need active engagement in order to develop understanding.

Dianna Cowern (Physics Girl) gave a talk about demos. Her view is that they stimulate curiosity, which is what she aims to do with her channel.

IB and AP and A-levels. I attended a session on three college-at-high-school curricula. It seems that all three have gravitated toward the same curriculum and assessment model, with subtle distinctions (although it is unclear the IB and A-levels were ever very different). Of the three, the AP is the more progressive, with the recent revision sacrificing breadth for depth, and resulting in an unpopular drop in grades at many schools as the exams stiffened up.

I think that all three programmes suffer from a lack of transparency in how they design their curricula, and in how they design and implement their assessments. The assessments all attempt to go slightly beyond standard problems, but are nonetheless comprised primarily of the same. The AP does better than the others here, too, having documented much of their revision, and releasing the free-response portions of the exams. I saw that Boston University is doing a program that brings AP physics to students in schools that don’t offer it, by blending online learning with a weekly on-campus session.

Physics or Physics Education? I missed much of this discussion, but gather that there have been some existential questions raised about PER. Essentially, I think, is the question of whether the techniques of physics research are going to provide much more insight into physics education, or whether we need to turn fully to the learning sciences in order to make progress.

Saalih Allie advocated for “humble theories”, which need not attempt to describe phenomena fully, but nonetheless provide contextual insight and can be pulled together to make a patchwork understanding at some point in the future, if needed. This is probably a reasonable stance to promote, given (a) the physicist’s obsession with finding fundamental truths, and (b) the complete lack of anything like absolute truth in the social sciences.

Culture. I talked briefly about border-crossing, but I don’t think the cultural dimension is on many people’s minds right now.

Community. In a broad sense, the community of the AAPT gives me faith in the power of human institutions to come together and make progress in our field. At the same time, I felt like the PER community was missing some faces this year, Joe Redish among them. Perhaps we are witnessing the changing of the guard, and will see the emergence of leaders for the second generation of PER over the coming years.

I think the most valuable thing the AAPT does is provide a community for its members. I am over the moon to have had the opportunity to spend time with people I deeply respect and admire, and I cannot wait to continue that conversation online over the coming months.

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.