Strategies for improving diversity in the physical sciences

by Chris Crockett on July 3, 2013

Despite a variety of efforts at all levels, minority representation in the sciences remains stagnant.  This was one of the take-home-messages at the (relatively) recent American Institute of Physics (AIP) annual Assembly of Society Officers.

The assembly is an opportunity for member organizations (e.g., AAS) to come together and discuss common issues of concern. The first session of the meeting focused on the low numbers of minorities graduating from undergraduate institutions as physical science majors. Here are some of the highlights from the meeting, taken from a summary by AAS president at the time, Debra Elmegreen:


  • While the number of physics degrees awarded over the past decade has increased by 55%, the number among African Americans has not changed. In the same time frame, the number of African Americans receiving any undergraduate degree has increased by 51%.
  • Among graduates of astronomy programs, 1.4% are earned by African Americans and 5.7% by Hispanic Americans. In physics, the number are 3.3% and 4.6%, respectively.
  • African American undergraduate physics majors overwhelmingly come from “historically black undergraduate universities”. These institutions produce 40% of all African American physics graduates, down from 50% ten years ago. The decrease is attributed to economic recession and Hurricane Katrina having a negative impact at a few key schools.
  • Most African American and Hispanic students leave the physics pipeline in the first two years of college. Poor math skills among incoming students put them at a disadvantage in an entirely calculus-based physics curriculum.
  • The prevalance of part-time jobs among students takes time away from studies.
  • A strong desire by close-knit families to see their children declare “immediately employable” majors steers students towards engineering rather than physics or astronomy. Graduate school is not seen as useful in these communities.


  • Expose freshmen to non-calculus-based physics courses so students can become immediately involved while their math skills improve.
  • Offer a broader selection of courses for physics majors that allow for more employment options. In addition to the standard core courses (e.g., classical mechanics, thermodynamics), universities can be more flexible in the required credits such as courses in engineering, education, and biophysics. This point is expanded upon in The Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) Project in England: A Summary of Findings.
  • Improve student mentoring and teaching methods. Instructors need to be aware of current research in best pedogogical methods to create an engaging classroom as examined in the recent report: Adapting to a Changing World – Challenges and Opportunities in Undergraduate Physics Education.
  • Provide more opportunities for student research. Small departments can collaborate with other small departments to widen the possibilities for student research and mentoring.
  • Dot Harris, from the DOE Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, highlighted ongoing government-wide diversity and inclusion efforts. She also noted opportunities for students to work in DOE and NOAA labs.

While the AAS Council is considering these issues, it is essential that we all consider what we can do today to increase our diversity. As Dot Harris noted during her talk, “if you don’t purposefully include, you exclude.”

What efforts are going on at your institution to improve minority inclusion and representation? What can our governing and funding agencies do to help support and incentivize these types of activities? Let’s hear it in the comments!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nick Nelson July 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm

Just one point to nit-pick – there is evidence that working part-time actually improves student’s GPA and increased the average number of hours spent studying per week. Specifically, the study referenced below showed that students working 10-19 hours per week outperformed non-working students. I am not trying to argue that students from under-represented groups might have additional stresses placed on them that diminishes their ability to focus on school, but there is evidence that working part time is actually beneficial to students’ academics.

Dundes, L. and Marx, J. (2006). “Balancing Work and Academics in College: Why do Students Working 10-­19 Hours Per Week Excel?”, Journal of College Student Retention, 8(1) 107­120.


2 Anonymous August 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I am an African American, with an undergraduate degree in Physics from a historically black undergraduate institution and a Ph.D. from a larger research university. Bullet points #4 and #6 under “The Problem” are a slightly erroneous and certainly don’t apply to all minority undergraduates in physics. The math skills of I and my undergraduate classmates were never an issue and although I am from a close-knit family, no one thought of grad school as useless. Many of my family members have graduate degrees themselves. To me the lack of diversity issue falls simply under bullet point #3 under “The Problem”, which states that “African American undergraduate physics majors overwhelmingly come from “historically black undergraduate universities”.The issue is that physics and astronomy graduate programs at big research universities basically ignore physics departments at HBCUs and seem not to see them as fertile ground for grad student recruitment, when in fact, there are many strong students there. Same issue with REU programs. If you want to increase diversity among grad students in astronomy, departments will actually have to take the initiative to visit the physics departments of these schools, perhaps even give a seminar and meet with students to talk about opportunities in grad school. Unfortunately, many only give lip service when it comes to recruiting minority students. I obtained a Ph.D. from a top research university, and although they claimed in the department that they wanted diversity, they never really did anything to obtain it.


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