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Integrating Race, Gender, and Indigenous Knowledge in the Introductory Physics Curriculum

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Engineering Physics and Physics Division Technical Session 2

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Paper Authors


Eswara Venugopal University of Detroit Mercy

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Associate Professor of Physics,

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In recent years, there has been growing awareness of the need for inclusive physics curricula to help address the lack of diversity and representation in the field. The call for papers on the topic of “Diversity, inclusion, equity, and access in the physics classroom” by the Engineering Physics division reflects this trend.

Integrating social issues into the physics curriculum has the potential to “change the culture of science to be more welcoming and inclusive” by broadening the cultural contexts in which scientific knowledge is created and science is practiced. Yet, many efforts at creating a welcoming environment in introductory physics focus on inclusive pedagogies that aim to address the diversity of learners and learning styles. In these cases, the curricula remain largely intact, unaffected by the deeply social nature of the traditional physics topics – mechanics, electrodynamics, energy principles and so on – taught in these courses. Creating assignments, fostering reflection, and promoting class discussions that integrate issues of race, gender, colonialism, and indigenous knowledge into this traditional curriculum is a more daunting task.

In this presentation, I will discuss two multi-week course projects that required introductory physics students to read historical biographies and respond to the scientific and social issues in the story. In the first semester of a year-long course, students were required to read Margot Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The central narrative of race and gender in NASA’s history is interspersed with descriptions of rocket propulsion, Newtonian forces, momentum conservation and other topics prevalent in introductory physics. The second semester biography was The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. Kamkwamba’s personal story of his innovative construction of a windmill is suffused with introductory physics concepts – energy, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and fluid flow - embedded in an intense social context of poverty, famine, deforestation, and climate change in his native Malawi.

Students completed anonymous pre and post surveys of their general knowledge on the topics discussed in each book, as well as their attitudes towards the incorporation of social issues in physics. Each assignment included two components: (1) student reflections on a pertinent social issue highlighted in the book, and (2) a numerical physics worksheet crafted from the narrative. The talk will discuss details of these projects as well as student attitudes and responses to the assignments.

Venugopal, E. (2022, August), Integrating Race, Gender, and Indigenous Knowledge in the Introductory Physics Curriculum Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--40856

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