Social Justice in Physics

Emily Bernhardt Social Justice in Physics was not introduced to Latin’s curriculum until this year, explaining why most upperclassmen and parents were unfamiliar with this “unit of study.” One of our teachers met the designer of this unit at a conference and proposed the idea of teaching it to the freshman class. It was explained to freshman parents that the unit covers “power dynamics, systemic racism, white privilege, and the shortage of people of color and women in the field of science, especially physics.” There were no graded assessments in the form of tests or quizzes, but students were required to complete an anonymous survey that focused on comparing the treatment of black and white people in modern America. The survey asked the students to answer each question with “believe” or “do not believe.” Other homework included various readings and a writing piece entitled “Examining our Biases.” The purpose of the unit is to explain that “being aware of bias is important to many aspects of life, but specifically maintaining objectivity and conducting good scientific research.” Though the physics teachers explained the overall goals of Social Justice in Physics to students and parents alike, many still had lingering questions. “Why is it solely focused on blacks?” one Latin parent wondered. “If the concern is just with the plight of African-Americans in American physics programs, then describe the program as such.” Though the physics team intended for African-Americans to be used as an example to express data, some thought that the class should’ve spent more time talking about other minority groups. “Latin seems to only acknowledge two different races,” a ninth grader suggests. “It would be nice to talk about other underrepresented groups.” Many agreed that the title of the subject was misleading or “almost-but-not-quite dishonest” as this parent stated. Other recurring questions included, “Why is this supplementing the instruction of physics?” and, “Wouldn’t this subject fit more comfortably into a history or social studies class?” Many agreed that the unit did not fit into the physics curriculum. A different freshman stated that, “My parents and I didn’t sign up for social justice, but instead for me to learn about physics.” Some felt “shut down” by the survey and topics in general, expressing concern that their opinions weren’t being listened to. Another recurring complaint was that “we ended up repeating the stuff we learned [in the wellness unit entitled Being Your Best Self].” Despite the numerous negative reviews, the ideas taught during Social Justice in Physics received some positive feedback as well. Freshman Robert Kelly views the unit as “extremely important” and states that “the fact that so many people think that we don’t need to discuss race and are so uncomfortable doing it clearly shows that we are not talking about it often enough.” Julian Lee-Zacheis, another freshman participant, has “found many of these issues are very much present in [his] life at our school, and [he] can only imagine the experiences that others have.” He also argues against those protesting that the unit does not apply to physics, explaining that the statistics used during the class provide a “much broader picture” than telling stories. At a grade level meeting, the physics team informed the freshman class that their feedback will be welcomed. The unit will continue to be taught to freshmen in the future. Because Social Justice in Physics covered such serious and sometimes controversial topics, the large amounts of disagreements were not shocking. Although not all students saw the relevance in the lesson, the physics team undoubtedly reached their goal of starting discussion throughout the freshman grade and beyond. As they said during the freshman grade level meeting addressing the topic, “the conversation never ends.”]]>