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Fostering Inclusion and Teaching Equity in a Modern Physics for Engineers Course

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Engineering Physics and Physics Division Technical Session 1

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Engineering Physics and Physics

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Paper Authors


Jessica R. Hoehn University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Jessica R. Hoehn is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Colorado Boulder. She received her PhD in Physics Education Research from CU, studying ontological, epistemological, and social aspects of student reasoning in quantum mechanics. Dr. Hoehn's current research interests include connections between epistemology and group work in learning physics, the role of writing in lab classes, and students' epistemological views about experimental physics. Generally, Dr. Hoehn is interested in valuing the messiness of learning and fostering equitable and inclusive educational environments.

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Noah D. Finkelstein University of Colorado, Boulder

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Noah Finkelstein is a Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado Boulder and conducts research is in physics education, specifically studying the conditions that support students' interests and abilities in physics - developing models of context. In parallel, he conducts research on how educational transformations get taken up, spread, and sustained. He is a PI in the Physics Education Research (PER) group and a co-director of CU's Center for STEM Learning. He co-directs the national Network of STEM Education Centers, is building the STEM DBER-Alliance, and coalitions advancing undergraduate education transformation. He is involved in education policy serving on many national boards, sits on a National Academies' roundtable, is a Trustee of the Higher Learning Commission, is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and a Presidential Teaching Scholar and the inaugural Timmerhaus Teaching Ambassador for the University of Colorado system.

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Physics and engineering educators are increasingly attending to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our educational environments (e.g., Rambo-Hernandez, et al., 2019; Daane, Decker, & Sawtelle, 2017). Creating classroom cultures where students feel included and supported is crucial for students’ sense of belonging, identities as scientists and engineers, and learning. Even further, we can empower students to examine who has access to, and is included in, the scientific community. We consider investigations of who does physics to be a part of physics itself, and build on a growing effort at the K-12 and introductory physics levels to include these discussions in our upper level classrooms.

We present on a two-pronged instructional approach in a Modern Physics for Engineers course in which we: a) construct an inclusive environment through course structure, policies, and practices and b) implement an academic unit engaging students in explicit discussions around representation and diversity in STEM. In order to create an inclusive environment, we focus on four elements—community, voice, agency, and representation—embedded throughout every aspect of the course. The second prong involves a two-day in-class unit. Part one—“What is science?”—focuses on the role of models, theories, and interpretation in the process of science, and concludes with students investigating science as something done by a community of people. In part two—“Who does science?”—students explore data on representation in STEM fields (e.g., AIP Statistics, 2019) and engage in an activity to make sense of the data, followed by a discussion around why representation matters.

In this paper, we describe the goals and implementation of this integrated approach to fostering inclusion and teaching equity in a Modern Physics class (N=120). We also discuss outcomes, from both student and instructor perspectives. On the first iteration, 50% of students responded positively and on the second iteration, 80% of students responded positively; we present examples of student feedback and describe the continual refinement of our implementation over the course of three years. We present results, drawing from students’ written work on homework, exams, solicited weekly feedback, and survey questions directly probing these topics, and argue that this approach has been beneficial for students’ understanding of the nature of science, sense of belonging and identity, and learning. We argue that all of our classes should create inclusive environments, and at least some of our classes should include units on equity. We provide one example of how to strive for each of these, addressing practices, challenges, and opportunities for physics and engineering educators.


AIP Statistics (2019), Statistical Research Center,

Daane, A. R., Decker, S. R., & Sawtelle, V. (2017), Teaching about racial equity in introductory physics courses, The Physics Teacher, 55(6), 328-333.

Rambo-Hernandez, K. E., & Morris, M. L., & Casper, A. M. A., & Hensel, R. A. M., & Schwartz, J. C., & Atadero, R. A. (2019, June), Examining the Effects of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Activities in First-Year Engineering Classes, 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Tampa, FL,

Hoehn, J. R., & Finkelstein, N. D. (2020, June), Fostering Inclusion and Teaching Equity in a Modern Physics for Engineers Course Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34684

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