Thursday, November 7, 2019

Physics and Astronomy STEM Equality Achievement (SEA) Change Department Awards

By Arlene Modeste Knowles and Beth A. Cunningham

Over the last two years, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has developed the STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change Project which supports systemic, structural institutional transformation around diversity and inclusion in colleges and universities. It does so by encouraging, assisting and recognizing academic institutions that commit to and engage in the difficult work of removing structural barriers to success for women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, people with disabilities, and others who are marginalized in STEM fields. In the SEA Change process, inclusion, and its valuable impacts, are measured by the experiences of students and faculty, as well as by data. The SEA Change Principles can be found here: https://seachange.aaas.org/principles/. Three universities were the first recipients of SEA Change bronze awards in February 2019: Boston University, University of California, Davis, and University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Concurrently, AAAS has been working with science, engineering, and mathematics professional societies to develop SEA Change Departmental Awards parallel to the SEA Change Institutional Awards in a broad range of disciplines. These awards would foster and support structural change around diversity and inclusion within academic departments. After all, it is within departments where much of the activity that directly affects individuals within the campus community is carried out. Departmental awards would be important vehicles and incentives for inspiring faculty to lead change within a department and the collective impact of several departments within an institution working toward or holding award status, would further incentivize the institution to pursue a SEA Change Institutional Award or the next award level. In fact, for institutions to progress to the next level SEA Change Institutional Award, they must have at least one department that has been awarded a SEA Change Departmental Award, thus the two award structures are interdependent.

For the past two years, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) has led a coalition-based working group comprised of representatives and staff from the American Institute of Physics (AIP), AAPT, American Astronomical Society (AAS), American Physical Society (APS), AVS (Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing), National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), the Physics and Astronomy Division of the Council on Undergraduate Education, and OSA (The Optical Society). This working group has been laying the foundation to establish a framework to pilot the first SEA Change Departmental Award, which will be for physics and astronomy departments. This Physics and Astronomy Working Group’s (WG) goals have been to assess community interest, develop a physics and astronomy departmental award application based on the SEA Change institutional award that addresses the specific needs of our community, design a pilot program, and begin to draw up working agreements among our professional societies, and with the AAAS.

To gauge community interest and assess the viability of a departmental award around diversity and inclusion, the WG conducted two focus groups with physics department chairs from departments varying in size, terminal degree, and geographical region. The group was enthusiastic about the possibility of applying for such an award and saw SEA Change as a means for garnering resources for furthering their own diversity and inclusion strategies. The award was seen as a way to gain recognition for the work that they have done and wish to continue. All chairs expressed that they were willing to participate in a pilot of the program.

Our recent work has been to formalize the working relationship between the physics and astronomy societies with a charter, and establish a memorandum of understanding with AAAS. This has been some of the most important work to date as it requires each of the professional societies represented in the Working Group to adopt the spirit and ideals of SEA Change; not only for the WG itself, but for the broader fields that we represent. Through this program, we hope to support and encourage physics and astronomy departments in their efforts to improve their departmental policies, practices, and procedures impacting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Our next steps are to finish developing the departmental assessment, obtain more extensive feedback from physics and astronomy departments, and establish the infrastructure for overseeing the awards process. We anticipate conducting a pilot project with 2-3 physics and astronomy departments in about a year. This pilot program will act as a proof of concept for the SEA Change departmental award program, test the departmental application and award structures, and refine the oversight and funding model. We expect that the Physics and Astronomy Working Group and project personnel will work closely with departments to assist them in completing their assessments and developing their SMART (SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented) action plans. Further, the physics and astronomy disciplinary societies have a wealth of programs and resources available that departments may use in the application process and the implementation of their plans.

Though there is still much work to do in order to launch the SEA Change Departmental Award program in physics and astronomy, we believe that the effort is worth it. It requires motivated departments to undertake an honest assessment of their practices, policies, numbers, and environments, and to then use that knowledge to develop and implement a plan to improve. This, and the commitment to positive change, is exactly what is necessary to broaden participation and increase the number of women and underrepresented groups in physics and astronomy at all levels, from undergraduate students through faculty members.

Arlene Modeste Knowles is the Diversity Task Force Project Manager at the American Institute of Physics. Now managing the TEAM UP project, Arlene formerly managed and coordinated many diversity programs for the American Physical Society including the now retired, Scholarships for Minority Undergraduate Physics Majors, and the National Mentoring Community, a mentoring program to increase the number of minority physics bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, Arlene worked closely with the ad-hoc APS Committee on LGBT+ issues to elevate the presence of LGBT+ physicists within the APS community, and to help them produce the first ever, LGBT Climate in Physics Report. She also served on the Program Management Team of the multi-million dollar grant-funded, APS Bridge Program, and has been instrumental in moving several APS diversity initiatives forward.

Beth Cunningham is Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree, a Master of Arts degree, and a Doctor of Philosophy from Kent State University. In 1989, she joined the physics department at Bucknell University as an assistant professor, attaining full professor in 2002. She was named associate dean of the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2000. In 2006, she was appointed as Provost, Dean of Faculty, and Professor of Physics at Illinois Wesleyan University. At AAPT since 2011, Beth provides leadership on a number of physics education initiatives including faculty and K-12 teacher professional development and diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics education.

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