Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

A physics department fosters an inclusive environment

12 September 2019

The faculty at St Mary’s College of Maryland has introduced measures to prevent exclusionary and harassing behaviors toward women and minority students.

Erin De Pree teaches students.
Physics professor Erin De Pree (standing) works with a group of students at St Mary’s College of Maryland. Credit: Michelle Milne

The syllabus for physics professor Erin De Pree’s mechanics course at St Mary’s College of Maryland starts like any other. But after a list of topics and a schedule of assignments and exams, things get more unusual, with sections on academic accessibility, sexual misconduct, and discriminatory behavior. Laying out a clear set of behavioral expectations is one part of the physics department’s efforts to prevent harassment and encourage inclusivity.

A recent study reports that nearly three-quarters of undergraduate women in physics experience some form of sexual harassment, from unwanted advances to jokes about women being less capable in science. Women and minority students also face social isolation and numerous negative biases, which can drive them out of STEM fields. (See also the article by Jennifer Blue, Adrienne Traxler, and Ximena Cid, Physics Today, March 2018, page 40.)

Physics educators have proposed research-based strategies for combating those issues (see the article by Lauren Aguilar, Greg Walton, and Carl Wieman, Physics Today, May 2014, page 43), and some institutions have made moves to promote better departmental cultures. For example, this year more than 40 institutions have joined the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Action Collaborative on Preventing Sexual Harassment in Higher Education, which plans to develop a road map for preventing and addressing sexual harassment. But many efforts are still in their early stages. The St Mary’s physics department has been actively testing and implementing strategies for improving inclusivity for more than a decade. Its observations provide practical guidance for improving the culture in physics.

Honing a strategy

With five faculty members who teach about 35 undergraduate majors, the physics department at St Mary’s has a reputation for educational innovation. A 2016 report on career preparation for physics students attributed St Mary’s high overall graduation rate and good learning outcomes to a “culture of experimentation and collaboration, in which the faculty and chair continually learn both from each other and from national efforts.”

The culture of collaboration proved especially important in 2008 when the all-male physics faculty prepared for the arrival of the department’s first-ever female professor, De Pree. The members of the department researched issues faced by female faculty in STEM, such as social isolation and disproportionate amounts of service work, to ensure that no unconscious biases would prevent her success. That research, combined with the perspective De Pree brought when she came aboard, led the department to proactively change the student experience.


Percentage of 455 undergraduate female physicists who, in a recent survey, reported experiencing sexual harassment in physics. Nearly half the respondents said they had been victims of multiple kinds of harassment, including sexual comments, sexist remarks, and repeated unwanted advances.

Source: L. M. Aycock et al., Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15, 010121 (2019)

The professors had already restructured the introductory courses for physics majors to include more group work, with teams solving problems together on whiteboards, in response to studies showing that interactive group work improves information retention in physics classes. But they also realized that group work provides a chance to watch how students interact: Who’s talking? Who’s being interrupted? Who’s holding the whiteboard marker? Often the faculty saw white men taking charge and ignoring input from women and minority students. “It was better than just lecturing, but it certainly wasn’t as good as making sure that everyone is participating equally and that there aren’t people pushing other people out or insulting other people,” says Josh Grossman, the physics department chair.

Increasing student engagement required a trial-and-error process to find pedagogical strategies that improved student performance, as observed in class and measured on tests. The faculty read the latest research and attended workshops to learn tools, such as providing their students with formal feedback on teamwork, to try out in their classes. “Folks in the department tend to share a lot of ideas and have a lot of conversations: ‘This worked, this didn’t work,’” says Grossman. Working together, they gradually developed an evolving strategy to combat sexual harassment and improve the culture. Today that strategy involves three primary steps: communicating clear expectations, educating students on harassing behaviors, and reinforcing desired behavior.

Executing the plan

From the start, all students taking a physics class learn about the expectations for collaboration and respect, through the syllabus and a discussion on the first day. Then, at the beginning of the second semester of the introductory physics course, the faculty devotes a class period to a diversity workshop from Angela Johnson, a professor of educational studies at St Mary’s who researches the experiences of women of color in STEM fields. Johnson defines terms such as sexual harassment and microaggressions—subtle indignities and insults that are based on gender or race—and describes the detrimental effect of negative stereotypes on academic performance.

St Mary’s physics students are expected to internalize those lessons. When a student exhibits negative behaviors during group work, the professor steps in to point them out. For example, a professor might mention that one member of the group is consistently being pushed away from the whiteboard. De Pree emphasizes that there is always the assumption of good intentions. “I am assuming that anything anyone does is an accident,” she says. “Nobody woke up that morning and said, ‘All right, today we’re going to be sexist.’” The correction is about making the student aware rather than accusing. And the corrections go both ways. “I encourage the class to come and talk to me if I’m making mistakes,” De Pree says.

Students doing lab work.
St Mary’s College of Maryland physics students work on a laboratory exercise. Credit: Michelle Milne

The faculty also prefers global rather than local corrections. De Pree says she once taught a gender nonbinary student who was being regularly misgendered. Now, at the start of the semester in every class, St Mary’s physics professors hand out notecards on which students write their names and preferred pronouns. The professor goes around the room and reviews the pronouns for all the students. The department then compiles a reference list for the faculty and staff that is updated every semester. “Not only did this strategy make it clear to everyone the priorities of the department,” says De Pree, “but also it didn’t single out a professor, and it didn’t single out the student.”

The professors are proud of their efforts, and some students share their enthusiasm. “All the professors that I’ve met are very dedicated to making the learning environment as safe and as conducive to learning as possible,” one female physics major says. “They just want you to get a good physics education.” But some students shrug when asked about the efforts or aren’t even aware of them. The professors know there are some who feel the diversity workshop is a waste of time. Every year after Johnson’s lecture, “there is always at least one and sometimes two white men who are upset and concerned,” De Pree says. When those students ask about the class returning to physics topics, she replies, “That was physics.” “Physics is a community endeavor,” she says. “And part of that is learning to work with people.”

The professors acknowledge that time devoted to combating harassment is time that could be devoted to more traditional physics topics. But Michelle Milne, a member of the department since 2013, doesn’t see it as lost time. “If the culture is bad, none of the other content learning happens,” she says.

Take-home lessons

It’s difficult to quantify the effects of the faculty’s inclusion efforts because the number of students is small, and the move to group work happened at the same time. But Grossman says the department’s rate of growth in the number of degrees awarded has exceeded the national average, and performance on standardized tests has risen. Additionally, half of the current female physics majors are women of color—up significantly from past years, when there were often none.

“I am very impressed with what St Mary’s is doing,” says Meg Urry, a physics professor at Yale University who has written and worked extensively on women in science. But it’s not the only way, she emphasizes. “People can see it as kind of a cafeteria of options” for creating a welcoming environment, she says, “and they should do what works with their style and circumstance.” Not every professor can lead a good discussion about identifying microaggressions and standing up for your classmates. Faculty members and department leaders can pick another entrée, such as mentioning the contributions of women and minority scientists and hiring more diverse faculty members. For example, St Mary’s once all-male physics faculty now consists of three women and two men.

If you’re a faculty member, what can your department do? The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s consensus study on sexual harassment provides a long list of recommendations, including moving beyond legal compliance to address culture, measuring progress with data, incentivizing change, and making the entire academic community from students to faculty to administrators responsible for combating sexual harassment. Some of the strategies from St Mary’s can be implemented as easily as adding to a syllabus and stepping in when you see bad behavior.

No matter the strategy, the result can have a positive impact. “Improving the culture isn’t just about improving the culture; it’s also about improving the science,” says Urry. “We’re losing talent. These are people who could make great contributions.”

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal