This assignment picks up from where the Podcast Reflection assignment in the last module left off. After listening to the podcast, many students described interest in learning more about how the field of physics and astronomy are implicated by the history of science; further, what the physicists and astronomers can do about it.
Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, a faculty member at Rutgers University describes that,
I think also we have to organize our advocacy work and our political work and our economic work around people that are the most vulnerable. And race is one way, not the only way, but one very important way to do that…This concept of race can help you identify and predict patterns of the things going on right now.
The American Institute of Physics has done just that. They have used statistics to trace who is getting physics and astronomy degrees in the United States over time, based on race (and also gender). This pattern-searching helps physicists and astronomers know the extent to which their disciplines are excluding persons based on race.
NOTE: Astrophysics is a disciplinary branch of physics and is why this assignment regards both astronomy and physics, not astronomy alone.
There are many ways to enter understanding the extent to which the fields of physics and astronomy are implicated by and implicating exclusions of persons based on their ethnicity and race.
Number of Bachelor’s Degrees Earned by African-Americans
One is by examining how physics & astronomy contrast with other physical sciences, in both the number of degrees awarded, and the change in these numbers over the time. In the table below, there are two major columns. The first is how many people overall earned undergraduate degrees in each physical science discipline, and the second is how many of those degrees were earned by those identifying as African American.
Notice from the above statistics, note that…
from 2005 to 2015, astronomy saw a much larger growth in the number of African Americans earning astronomy degrees (67% increase) compared to physics degrees (4% increase)
in 2015, approximately 2% of all physics and astronomy degrees were awarded to African Americans (175/7,329 and 10/480).
Is awarding 2% of all undergraduate physics & astronomy degrees to African Americans reasonable? There are many ways to answer this question. However, the reason the above statistics are worthy of consideration is that many people believe that America provides (or should provide) equal opportunities for every person. There is an assumption that if there are equal opportunities, then the outcomes will be equal. To judge whether physics & astronomy is offering equal opportunities to African Americans, then it might be helpful to know the percentage of the United States Population identifying as Black in 2015 was 13% according to the U.S. Census. Links to an external site.The ratio of African Americans earning physics & astronomy degrees (2%) is not close to the 13% of persons in the United States identifying as Black, and so one might infer that there does not seem to be equal-opportunities/equal outcomes for all persons in the United States.
NOTE: Identifying as Black is not the same as identifying as African American. However, the only category the US Census has that might encompass African Americans is “Black” and so it is used as a rough estimate in the above narrative.
Comparing Statistics Between Number of Persons Excluded by their Ethnicity & Race (PEERs)
Another way to examine patterns in the demographics of physics & astronomy degrees over time is to compare whether there are general increases for all PEERs over time. If there are increases over time for all PEERs, then we can hope for the best – that the numbers of degrees earned will continue their upward climb toward equal outcomes while we (the scientific enterprise) continues to enact strategies that make our disciplines more inclusive. If not, then there might be something unique about physics & astronomy that is particularly exclusionary to some PEERs and not others. Indeed we see that this is the case.
In the table above, Merner and Tyler (2019) make comparisons between shifts in undergraduate degrees earned by Black/African Americans and Hispanic persons, over two academic years, 1994-1995 and 2016-2017. In this table we see that the ratio between these two academic years (2016-2017 compared to 1994-1995) suggests that for Hispanics, the increase over time is greater in more recent years (the ratio is greater than 1). In contrast, the percent-increase is lower (ratio less than one) in recent years for all physical science and engineering Black/African Americans. The greatest drop in the percent increase in recent years is in physics degrees awarded to Black/African Americans. In reflection of this statistic, AIP cites that “In order to not lose ground [in comparison to other disciplines], physics would have to double the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans.”
Source: Merner, L., & Tyler, J. (2019). African-American Participation Among Bachelors in the Physical Sciences and Engineering. Focus On report of the American Institute of Physics Statistical Research Center, August 2019. College Park, MD: American Institute of Physics. weblinkLinks to an external site.
The above statistics, and additional statistics about what to do to make physics & astronomy more inclusive are discussed in the American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP report titled, “The Time is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy.”
Click to Access the TEAM-UP reportLinks to an external site.✎ EditSign
While many of the data and recommendations provided in this report pertain to important changes that faculty (like me) and departments can and should exercise, as a student you might be especially interested in pages 25 – 32, which describe statistics & strategies that classmates can take to support their African American classmates.
You can also learn more about what to do to make physics & astronomy more welcoming to African American women by viewing this Module’s videos.
After reviewing the above statistics, report, and video, write a 250 or more word response to the following questions:
Do you think that the American Institute of Physics’s study on on the racial breakdown of physicists and astronomers in the United States is an important study to conduct?
From the provided resources in this module, what new thing did you learn about how the fields of physics and astronomy could improve their supports to persons of color in their disciplines
Include a citation, e.g., report page number, video minute-number. This citation shall not contribute to the word count.