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Teaming Up for Change
Teaming Up for Change
Kendra Redmond, Editor
It’s been two years since Radiations highlighted the work of TEAM-UP, a task force convened by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) to study why African Americans are dramatically and persistently underrepresented in physics and astronomy.1 In 2020, TEAM-UP published “The Time is Now,” a report identifying two overarching reasons for the disparity―historical injustices and unsupportive environments―and calling on the community to at least double the number of physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees awarded annually to African Americans by 2030.2
Now, through a collective initiative called TEAM-UP Together, SPS and other national physics and astronomy organizations are pooling their resources and expertise to advance this goal. Currently, the lead partners in TEAM-UP Together are AIP, SPS, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Astronomical Society, and the American Physical Society. They are also engaging important and especially relevant organizations, such as the National Society of Black Physicists in this work.
“We want to leverage the resources, tools, expertise, and experience that all of these organizations bring to the community,” says Arlene Modeste Knowles, the TEAM-UP Diversity Task Force project manager. The organizations have worked independently on many different projects to increase diversity in physics and astronomy; TEAM-UP Together aims to harness their efforts for collective impact, says Modeste Knowles.
The initiative has two main components: game-changing scholarships for African American undergraduates majoring in physics or astronomy and funding for departmental efforts that yield successful outcomes for African American undergraduates in those fields. In April 2022, the Simons Foundation and Simons Foundation International awarded a $12.5 million five-year grant to the AIP Foundation to implement this plan. Much of that money will go directly to supporting students.
One of the key TEAM-UP findings is that “financial stress is particularly high for many African American students given the documented enormous racial wealth disparities in the US.” TEAM-UP Together hopes to directly impact retention with $10,000 scholarships for African American/Black students majoring in physics or astronomy at accredited higher education institutions. The scholarships are for one academic year, and awardees can reapply each year they’re an undergraduate for up to five years.
Scholarship applications are being accepted on a rolling basis for 2022, and TEAM-UP Together will support up to 37 scholars this academic year. The scholarships aim to ease the unjust burden on African American physics and astronomy majors to balance demanding coursework, time-consuming and often low-paying jobs, and other obligations, says Modeste Knowles.
Another key TEAM-UP finding is that physics and astronomy departments are often unsupportive environments for African American students. TEAM-UP found that fostering a sense of belonging and physics identity among African American students is vital to keeping them in the major, as is effective teaching and use of a strengths-based (rather than deficit-based) approach to academic support.
Since releasing its findings in 2020, TEAM-UP has been educating departments on how to better support African American students. Teams from nearly 50 US physics and astronomy departments have committed to creating more supportive environments for African American students, attending TEAM-UP implementation workshops, and developing strategic action plans to improve outcomes for African American students in their departments. TEAM-UP Together will build on this work and offer financial support for effective departmental efforts and programs. The lead partners are currently inventorying their resources and formulating a cooperative approach to supporting programs that improve outcomes for African American students. More details on their efforts will be forthcoming.
The underrepresentation of African American students in physics and astronomy is “not a matter of their capability, it’s a matter of resources and encountering people and environments that are barriers to participation,” says Modeste Knowles. She says that some students are discounted from these fields in introductory classes because they don’t come in with a strong math and science background―but that’s no fault of their own, it’s often a result of structural inequality and racism. The academic community needs to change its mindset to one of nurturing the curiosity and potential of interested students and making it a priority for them to succeed in the majors. “But until we change hearts and minds, we need to start changing policies, procedures, and practices,” says Modeste Knowles.
1. K. Redmond, “A Problem with Physics,” Radiations, Fall 2020, 11, www.sigmapisigma.org/sigmapisigma/radiations/fall/2020/problem-physics.
2. TEAM-UP, The Time is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Physics Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy (College Park, MD: American Institute of Physics, 2020), www.aip.org/diversity-initiatives/team-up-task-force.
TEAM-UP Together Scholarships for African American/Black Undergraduates
Applications for $10,000 TEAM-UP Together scholarships are being accepted for the 2023–24 academic year.
Application deadline: March 15, 2023.
- Awards are for current African American/Black undergraduate students who are physics or astronomy majors or prospective majors at accredited US colleges and universities.
- Scholarships will be awarded based on need and commitment to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physics or astronomy.
- Students are welcome to reapply each year they are eligible.
- Funds are for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment necessary for pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
For details and to apply, visit www.spsnational.org/scholarships/teamup.
Team up with TEAM-UP
You can help make physics and astronomy more supportive of Black students, even if you’re not currently in a department. Below are some ideas―if none of them resonate with you, draw on that problem-solving nature to come up with more!
Read the TEAM-UP report and watch archived TEAM-UP webinars that dig into its findings. Both are available at www.aip.org/diversity-initiatives/team-up-task-force.
Share the TEAM-UP report with others in the community who might benefit from its findings and recommendations.
Promote the TEAM-UP Together scholarship
Share TEAM-UP Together scholarship information with your alma mater, local departments, undergraduate interns at your workplace, and local high school physics teachers. Encourage eligible students you know to apply at www.spsnational.org/scholarships/teamup.
Support your colleagues of color
Suggest colleagues of color for Member Spotlight and Hidden Physicist features in Radiations by emailing sps [at] aip.org and for other recognition opportunities.
Check in with physics and astronomy departments
While sharing information on the TEAM-UP Together scholarship, ask questions: Do you have any faculty of color? Do you have any students of color? What efforts are underway to improve the department culture and recruiting efforts to this end? What help do you need?
Reach out to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly Black institutions (PBIs)
Do you have relevant internships or job opportunities? An interesting career story or research finding? A cool lab? Expertise in Python, machine learning, spectroscopy, or another skill or tool? Contact physics and astronomy departments and offer to give a talk, host a workshop, or lead a lab tour, in person or virtually.
Voice your support for TEAM-UP Together
If you belong to a TEAM-UP Together lead partner organization (SPS, AAPT, AAS, or APS), send them a note of support and ask how you can help, or send a letter to the editor of one of their publications to show your support more publicly.
Look at your own spaces
Look around, whether you’re a department chair, business owner, principal investigator, community group leader, board member, or teacher. Are there people of color in your spaces? Are your communities supportive of them and considering the impact of institutionalized racism? If the view is homogenous, evaluate why and initiate change. Reading the TEAM-UP report is a good place to start.