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Exploring Science Outside the Classroom Key to Inspiring Future Black Physics Majors

Girl and parents with solar system model

Little girl and her parents sitting on a couch with a big solar system model in front of them

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Survey data from AIP Statistical Research underscores the importance of informal exposure to science for aspiring Black and African American physics students.

Just 3% of physics bachelor’s degree earners in 2020 identify as Black or African American. A multifaceted approach is required to increase representation of this historically excluded group. One avenue is engaging and inspiring young potential physicists.

According to new research from AIP Statistical Research, experiences outside of the traditional learning environment were strong inspirations for many of the Black physics students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2022. By understanding the influences that drew the class of 2022 to physics, educators can better reach and encourage the next generation of Black and African American students.

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Influences on Black or African American Physics Bachelors Decision to Pursue Physics, Class of 2022

AIP Statistical Research

AIP Statistical Research conducts an annual survey of students graduating with degrees in physics. The survey evaluates everything from students’ post-graduation outcomes to what inspired them to pursue a physics bachelor’s degree. Until recently, there was no ethnic or racial data collected by this survey, because so few degrees went to people of color and the 25%-30% response rate could not provide statistically significant or appropriately anonymized data.

“We typically don’t collect data we can’t or won’t use,” said AIP statistician Jack Pold. “We could not collect enough data to feel comfortable reliably reporting the data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. There has been an increase in both African American and Hispanic physics bachelor’s degree recipients in recent years, enough that we believed we may be able to cautiously report some data by race and ethnicity.”

By separating compiled responses by demographic information, AIP produced a graphic to showcase Black and African American graduates’ answers to the survey question “Did any of the following influences inspire you to study physics or astronomy?”

Those surveyed were asked to select any number of options such as movie(s) or television program(s), personal hobby, high school physics teacher or class, internet content, science literature (fiction and nonfiction), family or friends, college or university professor or class, and scholastic activity.

The responses underscore the importance of exposure to physics outside the classroom through informal educational opportunities, media and entertainment, and personal connections. Over half of the Black 2022 physics graduates who responded were inspired by informal educational experiences like museum visits or NASA programming. These results are consistent with previous understanding about the significance of parents, relatives, and friends in encouraging and inspiring Black and African American physics students.

Though the number of responses was relatively low, representing only 12%-14% of Black bachelor’s earners, this insight can help inform programs like TEAM-UP Together that are building a more inclusive, diverse field.

“These findings confirm what we’ve anecdotally known about the importance of family, friends, and high school teachers on Black students’ educational decisions, but it goes further to shed light on the extent to which specific experiences outside of the classroom motivate and inspire Black students to study physics or astronomy,” said TEAM-UP Diversity Project Manager Arlene Modeste Knowles. “This is exciting to us because TEAM-UP Together can use this data alongside the TEAM-UP data to develop effective programs that leverage these influencing factors to help students persist and reach our goal of graduating more Black undergraduates in these fields.”

Programs might consider supporting extracurricular science activities like science fairs and academic teams, encouraging independent student exploration of scientific hobbies and museums, and reaching out to parents — not just students — to garner interest in physics.

Science communicators and educators can reach students where they already are — online — via podcasts and YouTube videos. The entertainment industry also has a role to play, as their depictions of science are clearly influential.

“There is no single influence responsible for a person developing an interest in science,” said Pold. “We look forward to having a more robust dataset to draw from in coming years.”

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