American Physical Society Receives $3 Million to Increase Representation of Women in Undergraduate Physics

Pilot program aims to increase engagement of women from three major school districts into physics bachelor’s programs by five-fold over four years

COLLEGE PARK, MD, October 17, 2022 — The STEP UP program, a key education initiative of the American Physical Society (APS) in collaboration with Florida International University, recently received a $3 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The award will support a targeted effort to engage hundreds of additional high school physics teachers from three of the largest urban school districts in the US to promote the engagement of young women into undergraduate physics programs.

“I’m very thankful and very excited,” said Claudia Fracchiolla, Head of Public Engagement for APS. “The fact that a foundation sees the value in the STEP UP program and that they’re willing to put their money behind it demonstrates that there is interest in changing the culture of physics education.”

After decades of increase, numbers of young women entering undergraduate physics programs in the US have stagnated, with physics bachelor’s degrees awarded to women decreasing from 23% in 2002 to 19% by 2015. Although more recent years have seen small increases in this percentage, significant work remains to achieve gender parity throughout the discipline.

“It’s not primarily an issue of retention — it’s an issue of inviting young women in and engaging them in personally meaningful ways,” said Zahra Hazari, a professor in the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University and a founder of the STEP UP program. “There is a lot of messaging and an accumulation of experiences that lead women away from physics at a higher rate than men. It’s all cultural, social.”

The award will support a four-year effort to collaborate with high school physics teachers from New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles to introduce previously developed lessons into the physics curriculum. The lessons are designed to increase students’ understanding of who pursues a career in physics and the diversity of physics careers available. The goal is to engage and inspire more young women from these three school districts to pursue physics, aiming for a five-fold increase in numbers over four years, followed by a national rollout of these pilot strategies. This boost would put the discipline on the fast-track toward gender parity at the undergraduate level.

“The grant allows us to continue in the path of systemic change in a way that we would not have been able to do without providing financial resources to directly support teachers” during the process of implementation, said Hazari. In total, training and implementation activities require only 10 hours of a high school physics teacher’s time over the course of a school year. Financial support from the Moore Foundation grant will provide stipends to participating teachers, most of whom are likely to engage in the program’s activities beyond their normal working hours.

STEP UP data have also shown that the program’s curriculum can positively benefit students who are members of racial or ethnic minority groups, which have traditionally been marginalized in the physics discipline. This finding is significant because teachers are often limited in their ability to address these long-standing challenges due to a lack of tailored resources, said Bree Barnett Dreyfuss, a high school physics educator at Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, California, and STEP UP’s high school Ambassador Program Coordinator.

The STEP UP program was founded in 2017 as a collaboration between the American Physical Society, Florida International University, Texas A&M University, and the American Association of Physics Teachers after nearly a decade of advocacy. An initial set of awards from the National Science Foundation supported the development of the program’s community building and curriculum training materials, which will serve as the basis for the activity funded by the Moore Foundation award.

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The American Physical Society is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world.