Skip to main content
Illustration of a black student looking off into space
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova

Boosting the representation of Black students

A study conducted by the TEAM-UP task force provides a road map for doubling the number of African Americans obtaining bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy.

On June 10, thousands of academics around the globe halted their usual work to reflect on the systemic racism present in their fields and communities and plan ways to eradicate it. Scientific societies, universities and publishers joined in on the strike, which adopted the hashtags #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #Strike4BlackLives. 

The strike, which occurred in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd, has brought conversations about the racism facing Black academics to the fore. 

“We recognize that our academic institutions and research collaborations—despite big talk about diversity, equity and inclusion—have ultimately failed Black people,” wrote members of Particles for Justice, one of the groups that organized the strike, in a statement. “Black representation among physics faculty is non-existent at most institutions, and it is widely known that Black students often feel unwelcome, unsupported and even unsafe in their physics departments and predominantly white campuses.” 

Black students face obstacles throughout academia, but many of these issues are particularly pronounced in physics. The figures paint a telling picture: Although the number of Black undergraduates earning bachelor’s degrees more than doubled between 1995 and 2015, in physics, the number of degrees awarded to Black students dropped from 5% in the late 1990s to 4% in recent years.

TEAM-UP—a task force put together by the American Institute of Physics, a federation of physics societies—recently completed a two-year study aimed at investigating the key factors stymieing the success of African American students in physics. The group’s detailed findings and recommendations, which were published this January, provide insights as the scientific community grapples with ways to stamp out systemic racism in academia. 

“It has been heartening to see so many copies of the report downloaded from our website and for its recommendations to become part of our community’s dialog on racial justice in the physical sciences,” says Arlene Modeste Knowles, TEAM-UP’s project manager at AIP.

The TEAM-UP task force, which convened at the end of 2017, included two AIP staff members and 10 academics from various backgrounds, disciplines and career stages. Their study involved multiple lines of assessment, including surveys and interviews with students, visits to physics departments with a good track-record of attracting and retaining African American students, and an extensive review of the literature. The primary goal of the report was to provide a roadmap for community-wide efforts to double the number of bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy awarded to Black students by 2030. 

Brian Beckford, a particle and nuclear physicist at the University of Michigan, says that one of his main reasons for joining the task force was that he believes that persistent underrepresentation of Black undergraduate students in physics is a solvable problem.

“If we just take some of the effort that we put into our experiments—trying to detect undetectable particles like neutrinos, searching for rare processes—and we put it into trying to figure out solutions to a needed systemic change, we would be very far along in solving this,” he says. 

In their report, the task force concludes that Black students do not lack the drive, motivation, intellect or capabilities to obtain degrees in physics or astronomy. Instead, they are turning away from astronomy and physics because of a lack of supportive environments and because of the financial challenges facing both students and the departments that have consistently demonstrated the best practices in supporting their success. 

The team pinpointed five key factors contributing to the success of African American students: belonging (feelings of inclusion or exclusion within a department), physics identity (students’ ability to perceive themselves as future physicists or astronomers), academic support (effective teaching, mentoring and strengths-based support that enables student success), personal support (means to lift the burden of financial stress, which disproportionally affect African American students) and leadership and structures (university departments prioritizing and creating supportive environments for African American students). 

Beckford says that one of the responses he found most striking was a student who said they felt a “constant feeling that I am a representative, therefore I must be flawless.” 

Beckford says he has heard this time and time again from African American students he’s mentored—and has felt it himself. “I think it’s a culture issue that makes students feel this pressure to be exceptional, out of the fear that [their performance] reflects on every other student that may be given the opportunity to join the department, to get this fellowship,” he says. “It’s quite a bit of pressure that they’re carrying around.” 

The task force provided specific recommendations about how to effectively address each of these factors. These include: creating and communicating norms that boost a student’s sense of belonging and eliminate identity-based harassment, providing services to African American students that focus on their strengths, and establishing a $50 million endowment to provide support for students facing financial hardship and for departments implementing the report’s recommendations. 

“I hope that people will take away the important message that African American students are as capable of successfully earning their physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees as other students ... [and] come to understand that the environment, culture and available resources for these students must change in order to better support them,” says Modeste Knowles. “I hope that departments will be motivated to implement the recommendations so we can increase not only the number of African American bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy, but also the participation and success of African American students in these fields.” 

Although it is too early to assess the full impact of TEAM-UP’s report, there are already signs that the group’s recommendations are being both considered and implemented. 

Several institutions—including historically black colleges and universities—are already practicing many of the recommendations in the report, and faculty members in physics and astronomy departments are reading and discussing the report with their colleagues, Modeste Knowles says. 

Using funds provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, the group now plans to run two workshops to discuss and share strategies to pursue the goal of doubling the number of African Americans earning bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy by 2030. Participants will include AIP and its affiliate societies, other scientific societies and faculty members from university physics and astronomy departments.  

“What I hope people take away from the report is that there are really no more excuses,” Beckford says. “The only thing left to do is act.”