American Physical Society 2022 Excellence in Physics Education Award for TEAM-UP Task Force

Kevin Corlette

The American Physical Society (APS) awarded the 2022 Excellence in Physics Education Award to the TEAM-UP Task Force. Bo Hammer, the Executive Director of the Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Innovation (IMSI), was a leader in founding and directing TEAM-UP prior to his arrival at the University of Chicago. 

In 2018 and 2019, TEAM-UP conducted a study to examine the reasons for persistent underrepresentation of African American students graduating in physics and astronomy. The task force identified five factors responsible for success in physics and astronomy for African American students and provided corresponding recommendations to address each of the factors. The goal of TEAM-UP’s recommendations is to double the number of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees awarded to African American students by 2030.

Hammer was the Senior Director at the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and Staff Liaison to the AIP Liaison Committee on Underrepresented Minorities (LCURM). LCURM proposed that AIP fund a national task force to address the decline in African Americans earning bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy. Hammer, along with TEAM-UP Project Manager Arlene Modeste Knowles, assembled a team of 10 volunteers with the purpose of creating evidence-based recommendations for the physics and astronomy communities to increase African Americans earning degrees in these fields.

Since the 1950s, AIP has collected information on the number of people teaching and studying physics and astronomy. In the late-1990s and early-2000s, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in physics and astronomy was at an all-time low. AIP aimed to increase that number through a national initiative focused on educational, mentoring, and student culture in physics and astronomy departments at colleges and universities in the United States. As a result, degrees earned in this field doubled in about 15 years.

However, this was not the case for all students. While degrees earned were increasing, the fraction of African American students earning bachelor’s degrees in physics was unchanged and, in some cases, had decreased. In other departments across campus, African American students were earning bachelor’s degrees at a higher rate than the overall student body. The question was obvious: What was happening in physics? What was causing African American students to walk away from physics and succeed in different fields?

Physics and astronomy departments typically have small student bodies, which means that faculty should know each of their students, their education plan, and their future career goals. Beyond education, particularly given the small class size, faculty should know their students as individuals and help them successfully graduate. From the task force’s observations, Hammer summarized the situation, “African American students don’t need fixing; oftentimes it’s department culture that is broken, and so faculty need to own it.  And fix it.”

TEAM-UP, the National Task Force to Elevate African American representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy, set out to quantify their observations. They conducted site visits of departments who were the top awarders of bachelor’s degrees to African American students. Of these departments, the majority were at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). They found that HBCUs were carrying a disproportionate burden in educating African American physics majors. In other cases, university departments would have one faculty member who strived to support diversity within their department’s student body. In these cases, TEAM-UP observed that when this faculty member would leave the department, many of the programs that they put into place would cease. 

For there to be any long-term change, Hammer explained that the effort must be integrated into the department as a whole. The “lone champion” model is fragile; the burden of change cannot be carried by one individual.

The goal of the TEAM-UP report is to at least double the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually to African American students, to at least 500 degrees in physics and 25 degrees in astronomy each year by the year 2030. Hammer notes that even at 500 per year, that’s less than one African American bachelor’s degree per degree-granting physics department in the US. The TEAM-UP report presents their evidence and details a roadmap for departments to self-evaluate their own culture and steps to change their culture with the goal of increasing bachelor’s degrees earned by African American students. Currently, there are 47 TEAM-UP university departments that have committed to supporting the task force’s recommendations to create a supportive environment in physics and astronomy. Realizing TEAM-UP’s goal will be a crucial step in equalizing representation of African Americans in physics and astronomy.