You can't judge a book, or a physicist, by the cover

Misty Bentz is the inventor of ‘Phynd the Physicist’, a game designed to open dialogue among students about inclusion

May 23, 2016
Faces in a crowd
Source: iStock

For the past few years, I have been teaching a required course for entering physics majors, “Gateway to Physics”, at Georgia State University. The course is intended to introduce students to the wide world of exciting physics research and (hopefully) kindle their enthusiasm for studying physics even as they work through their introductory courses.

To this end, we don’t spend time solving problems about balls rolling down inclined planes. Instead, the course is formatted as a seminar that meets once per week for two hours and is centred around visits from physics and astronomy faculty, each visitor spending an hour discussing their research and their physics subfield. The students also have semester-long group projects where they independently explore a physics topic to learn the current state of the field (past topics have included wormholes, spacecraft propulsion, extremophiles, quantum computing, biomimicry and skyscraper design). The last meeting of the semester is a “behind the scenes” tour of several physics research labs.

When I took over the course a few years ago, I wanted to address many of the stereotypes that students were likely to bring into the classroom with them. These include stereotypes about what science is and how science works, and also stereotypes about scientists themselves. In particular, our university is known for having a very diverse undergraduate population (roughly 40 per cent black, 30 per cent white, 10 per cent Hispanic, 10 per cent Asian, and 10 per cent other or unknown), which does not match the current demographics of physics faculty in the US (80 per cent white, 14 per cent Asian, 3 per cent Hispanic, 2 per cent black and 1 per cent other in 2014 according to the American Institute of Physics). The most visible examples of professional physicists that these students are likely to see are the faculty teaching their courses. I wanted to clearly demonstrate to my students that physicists are first and foremost people, and that any person is capable of becoming a physicist. While the reality is, of course, more complicated given the intricacies of our society and the additional challenges that various groups will face, my intent was to keep the message clear, simple and supportive at this formative stage of their personal journeys: that becoming a physicist is an achievable goal no matter who you are.

Rather than putting together a list of research studies, articles and arguments to convince my students of this fact, I decided to try to demonstrate it in a way that would have the students drawing their own conclusions, while also making those conclusions obvious to even the most passive observer. So I made a game, gave it a silly name, and decided to play it on the first day of class. I don’t remember spending more than a single afternoon putting the game together, and it is not based on any specific findings or recommendations from sociological studies or pedagogy. It also does not confront every box or label that we could apply to the people around us, but I did try to pick out some of the most visible categorisations that our field still struggles with: race, ethnicity, gender, cultural affiliation and religious affiliation. “Phynd the Physicist” is the result.

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The first class of the semester starts with the usual overview of the syllabus and goals of the course. We then move on to introductions. To kick things off, I start by describing my qualifications and experience as well as a few more personal details (home town, hobbies, etc). I also make it a point to accentuate the discrepancies in my appearance with the stereotypical “look” of a physicist – often this means that I am wearing a feminine dress and heels while I describe my degrees, the number of papers that I’ve authored, the number of citations that I’ve gathered and the total research dollars that I have been awarded. It is then fairly natural to point out to the students that the surprise on their faces is becoming more apparent the longer I talk, and we naturally segue into playing “Phynd the Physicist”.

The class is divided into teams and the teams are challenged to pick out the physicists based on appearance alone. Playing as teams encourages the students to talk with each other and begin working together right away in a low-stress and silly environment. I generally keep score to make things interesting, even though no prizes are awarded. Some of the example physicists that I have included in the game are fairly well known even outside the physics community (Queen guitarist and PhD astronomer Brian May is placed alongside Eddie Van Halen and Slash, for example) but many others are not. After all, the point of the game is to have the students realise that they cannot judge a book, or a physicist, by its cover.

I then ask all 50 students to take turns telling us who they are, where they are from and why they decided to study physics (or take the class, for the few non-physics majors that sign up). Finding shared home towns and interests helps to start building the community among the students and better facilitates the semester-long group projects. We finish the meeting by talking about science and various common misconceptions.

The rest of the semester is devoted to the group projects and weekly visitors, but early on I provide a non-exhaustive list of organisations (reproduced here) that support underrepresented groups in physics and astronomy. I encourage all the students to look into these organisations in more detail and briefly discuss the importance of having a support network and making connections within the field (as well as the possibilities for scholarships and other financial support). All the visitors are faculty in our department and I seek as diverse a group as possible within that constraint. I ask visitors to tell us a little bit about themselves to try to help them seem more like real people and less like teachers: where they grew up, what they do for fun, etc. We have quick visits from Society of Physics students and Astronomy Club officers to advertise these organisations and help the students to get plugged in. And I try to post a few interesting articles to the class messageboard when I run across them (here’s an example from last autumn) while encouraging discussion of the main points.

While I have not attempted to measure the impact of these activities in any quantitative way, for some students, the lessons have stuck with them so well that they describe them as some of the most surprising things they learned in the class in their end-of-semester essays. For others, I suspect that my class is a first drop in the bucket and that it will take additional introductions from other teachers, mentors and friends before they truly begin to confront their ingrained assumptions. My (perhaps naive and optimistic) hope, however, is that if I do my part, and others do theirs as well, we can help to create a more inclusive atmosphere in physics and astronomy, where different life backgrounds and viewpoints are expected, welcomed and valued.

Misty Bentz, is an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Georgia State University. Her blog was originally posted on the Women in Astronomy website.

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