Creating a Better Culture: Student-Led Physics, Math, and Astronomy Inclusion Initiatives
SOPHIE VAN DIJKE
Science, engineering, math and technology (STEM) has historically been a field of study with notable gender disparities, whether it be in academia, research, medicine, or similar professions. While the recent century has seen great strides in the participation and recognition of women in the STEM, there remain large disparities, particularly in the areas of physics, math and astronomy. In UT, statistics from the Fall 2017 semester show that undergraduate physics, math, computer science and astronomy remain the areas of study with the fewest percentages of female students.
This disparity in female students to male students in physics, math and astronomy are more than just statistics. They become prevalent in the day-to-day of many students, creating a culture that some students are hoping to change. Sophia Macias is a second year Physics major here at UT Austin who has experienced such disparities in her department and is working to change the climate to be more inclusive through collaboration with fellow students and faculty in her department.
“There is a general consensus in the PMA [physics, math, and astronomy] community that the culture and climate is nowhere where is needs to be,” Macias said. “There have been multiple accounts of discomfort within the PMA building, as well as a general lack of communication.”
While Macias has been able to find community and solidarity through the student organization Undergraduate Women in Physics, she, along with many other students in PMA, hope to impact change throughout the department through three primary initiatives.
The first initiative is to include more female LA’s and UGTA’s in the PMA department. Macias said that, despite knowing from professors that women consistently perform better in physics classes compared to men, there are only two female physics LA’s- possibly as a result of imposter syndrome within the PMA community. The students working on these inclusion initiatives hope to increase the amount of physics LA’s and UGTA’s by making a more concentrated effort to reach out to high-performing females in these courses and advertising these positions to minorities in the PMA department.
The second main initiative is to create a peer advising within the physics major. “These peer advisors will act as liaisons and registration advisors, but, moreover, they must also be sensitive to the gross gender, racial, and class inequalities faced within the PMA building,” said Macias. “They should be able to console overwhelmed students, be active in the department and have demonstrated involvement in PMA student organizations, provide research, career, and academic guidance, and other many other crucial services.” Currently, this program will only be in place for the physics major, however they aim to branch out to astronomy and mathematics once it is firmly established in the physics department.
Finally, the third main initiative is to make the PMA library a more collaborative and inclusive space. Something prevalent in the PMA community is a lack of cohesiveness, leading to a fragmented and disconnected culture within the department. Currently, there is no space in the PMA department where undergraduates can come together to collaborate. To resolve this issue, students are working with the PMA library to create a collaborative space to foster community within the department. “Most PMA majors do not use the PMA library for collaborative purposes because the current space does not promote collaboration, and we think it is a great space to create a sense of community in PMA,” said Macias.
While Macias has experienced unique challenges in the Physics department as a first-generation Latina student, she remains hopeful for change in the PMA department. These initiatives have garnered wide support from undergraduate students in all three majors, faculty, and university administration. Large discussions have been held to discuss problems and progress within the department, spurring an important dialogue that has not been done on this scale before.