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Teaching Activities for Physics Inclusion Resources

Even among STEM disciplines, physics stands out as unusually white- and male-dominated. American Institute of Physics (AIP) reports that only 14% of physics faculty are women, and 6% are underrepresented minorities. AIP’s Rachel Ivie studied the “pipeline” for women in physics, and has identified the transition from high school to college as the most important “leak point” for women.

Physicists believe that the principles of physics are universal, but it is not always easy to discover contexts in which it is straightforward to calculate results using these universal concepts. This is especially true in introductory physics, where students have limited background and mathematical preparation.

We are approaching this problem by addressing inclusiveness in the calculus-based introductory physics course, where the curriculum has the impact on the largest number of students. It is essentially the gateway to the physics major.

Liberal arts colleges have a special role to play in this large project. The smaller classes and closer student–faculty interaction that liberal arts colleges encourage make liberal arts colleges more productive of scientists than larger schools. According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistices (NCSES), liberal arts colleges comprise five of the ten colleges with the highest institutional yield of PhD scientists (two of the five are ACM colleges).

We are developing a database of materials for use in the calculus-based physics class that illustrates the important concepts of introductory physics, but in different contexts that we hope will interest a broader range of students. These include problems, in-class activities, and test problems, as well as paper and discussion topics. By making these broadly available on the web, we hope to increase the number of women and students of color who major in physics, and eventually increase the diversity of the physics community.


During the grant period, we expect to complete three goals:

  1. Complete problems and other materials to cover the topic of dynamics.
  2. Develop and begin a program to recruit faculty from other ACM colleges to use and evaluate our materials in their classes.
  3. Submit a proposal to the NSF IUSE program to fund the remaining three years of the project.

The relatively high teaching loads at liberal arts colleges put pressure on faculty, particularly young faculty, to develop teaching materials. Our materials, which are chosen to fit into a standard introductory physics syllabus, will make it easier for faculty to substitute inclusive ideas into a class with minimal disruption, and broaden the appeal of the class to women and underrepresented minority students.

By focusing on attractive and interesting problems, we hope to enhance the attraction and interest of homework assignments for students, and emphasize the applications of physics for diverse students. Our other activities (in-class activities, laboratory exercises, paper topics, exam questions, etc.) will further emphasize this appeal. Because our materials are chosen to match the curriculum of a typical introductory physics class, it will be easy to fit them into a class without any major restructuring.


We plan to work with faculty at other ACM colleges to encourage them to try our problems and evaluate their effectiveness. We are also reaching out to high school teachers to use our problems (modified for high school use), and reach this important group of physics students. All our materials are available on the Web, for use by any faculty.

Spring 2017: Whitten and Gosnell taught two calculus-based introductory physics classes at Colorado College; in one class we used materials from TAPIR, in the other we used conventional materials from our textbook. We compared the responses of the two classes by conducting focus group interviews with students of color, white women, and white men. We are currently analyzing our results.

Summer 2017: Whitten and Gosnell will work with Blaha to create a plan to recruit physics department faculty in other ACM colleges to use and evaluate our materials.

Fall 2017: Our problems will be used in two high schools by Baker and Goetz. We will consult with them during and after the class to learn how to modify these materials for use in a high school physics class.

2017-18 Academic Year: Whitten and Gosnell will visit Carleton and consult with Blaha to learn how to introduce our materials into classes at Carleton College. In the fall of 2018, when Blaha returns from Sabbatical, she, and perhaps other Carleton faculty, will use our materials in their classes.


We plan for this project to take four more summers, starting in 2017 and running through summer 2020. In this time we will have completed all the topics for the first semester of a typical physics class. We have completed problems for Kinematics, Momentum, Rotational Motion, and Energy. In the remaining four summers, we plan to cover Dynamics, Fluids, Waves and Sound, and Thermodynamics.

Note: We are seeking funding only for the summer of 2017 and the 2017-18 academic year. In the fall of 2017 we are planning to submit a proposal to the NSF Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program to support the remaining three years.

By the fall of 2020 we expect to have completed the project. At this time, we will publish our materials in a suitable form, as a small book of supplementary problems, a disc or an alternate format. We plan to continue to support the website indefinitely.

This ACM project will run from date of award to May 30, 2018.

May 2017

  • Whitten, Gosnell, and Bhattacharyya brainstorm contexts in which dynamics problems of various sorts might occur.

June 2017

  • Bhattacharyya works out problems from our brainstormed list, researching actual appropriate numbers and adding a photograph to connect each problem with the real world.
  • Whitten and. Gosnell meet weekly with Bhattacharyya.
  • Whitten, Gosnell, Blaha and Thomas Skype twice to discuss current problems.
  • Whitten and Gosnell work with Stephen Getty (Director of the Colorado College Quantitative Reasoning Center) and Joseph Taylor (Principle Scientist at Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) to analyze results from focus group interviews.
  • Whitten and Gosnell work with Daniel Wiencek (User Support Specialist at Colorado College) to update and integrate the Physics for Everyone website with TAPIR website. (Note: the two websites are different for historical reasons. The original project was called “Physics for Everyone,” but when we began TAPIR we decided to separate the two projects.)

July 2017 

  • Whitten, Gosnell, and Bhattacharyya attend American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Summer meeting to present results of summer.
  • Whitten, Gosnell, and Blaha plan next steps with ACM institutions.
  • Whitten, Gosnell, and Blaha identify contacts at two to three institutions to invite to learn more about this project.
  • Whitten and Gosnell work with Baker and Goetz to modify materials for use in high school classes.

Fall 2017

  • Whitten and Gosnell prepare NSF IUSE proposal (due date anticipated in early November 2017).
  • Whitten and Gosnell visit Minnesota to consult with Blaha and Goetz.

Outcomes and Significance

In the period covered by this grant, we plan to work with a student to create a full set of problems and other materials testing the concepts of dynamics (Newton’s laws, circular motion, friction, etc.) These problems, after being vetted by the faculty, will be added to our website.

At the AAPT summer meeting, we will present a poster of our results. We have identified Kobi Bhattacharyya, a rising sophomore physics major of South Asian descent, who is planning to spend the summer working with us.

We will create two plans to achieve the following:

  1. Incorporate our materials in the classes of Blaha, Baker, and Goetz.
  2. Recruit faculty from the other ACM colleges into our projects, so that they can use and evaluate our materials in their classes.
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