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Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 3

February 16, 2015

Note: Since this work first published, Moses and a group of educators in college and high school dedicated to social justice in science education have formed the Underrepresentation Curriculum, and improved these materials described below into a series of detailed lessons freely available for use in your classroom.  Please check out our work at

This is the third part in a series of guest posts written by Moses Rifkin, a physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle, describing a unit he teaches to his senior physics students about social justice, privilege and institutional racism in physics. Moses will be speaking about this curriculum to the Global Physics Department on February 18

Part 1: Introduction and Day 1
Part 2: Days 2 & 3 Statistics and Thinking Systematically
Part 3: Days 4 & 5 Privilege and the Implicit Association Test
Part 4: Day 6 Closure & Evaluation

Day 4: Privilege

Small group discussion by optional reading choice

Students choose from selected quotes (A-E below) from McIntosh article, write/share/discuss

Quotes from Peggy Macintosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"

Quotes from Peggy Macintosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

Class discussion: Does this article feel mostly true? What might stop us from seeing privilege?

Writing/Pair Discussion: in what ways does the idea of racial privilege apply to our lives? Is racial privilege present in our school community?

Questions Discussed:

  • If we agree that unearned racial disadvantage exists, mustn’t unearned racial advantage?
  • Do organizations have a responsibility to balance their racial makeup? Why/why not?
  • In what ways have we been the recipients of unearned advantage? How does that feel?
  • Is color blindness the goal? If not, then what is?
  • What can be done to dismantle unearned advantage?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • As members of a private school, we each have some privilege; many of us have much more
  • Recognizing our privilege is uncomfortable but also motivating
  • Those who have privilege are in the best position to make change


Peggy Macintosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Myths about affirmative action

Public views about affirmative action

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations


Day 4 marks a pretty dramatic shift from talking broadly to talking specifically and personally about our own experiences. It’s pretty easy for students to recognize bias in society as a whole, I’ve found, but they quickly get uncomfortable when I start asking them to look at their own beliefs and roles. As hard and uncomfortable as it is, I feel it’s crucially important to make this conversation personal, to roll up our own sleeves instead of pointing fingers elsewhere. Even if it’s painful, I really think it’s what motivates us to keep acting. I don’t know this as a fact, it’s my gut feeling, but nothing I’ve seen in ten years of doing this has convinced me otherwise.

Inevitably, then, that means I am dealing with feelings. If I’m asking my students to recognize that many of them may have been given advantages that they didn’t earn themselves, I have to be ready to navigate the strong emotions that come up as a result. I spent my first few years with this curriculum cataloguing down possible student responses and how I might like to respond, but found that that became an impossible task. So now I just try to listen to the students, to really hear what they’re saying, and to trust my instinct and respond honestly. I can’t tell them what to think or feel, but I have to try to encourage them not to bail on the conversation, even if it gets messy; trying to be fully present with them is the best way I know to do that.

All of this is, you’ve probably guessed, a pretty big shift from the way physics class normally works. Throughout the year, things are relative informal but this project represents a further step forward: all desks facing inwards in a circle, all of us sharing personal experiences and talking about the sorts of things that rarely come up between friends, let alone physics students and their teacher. My use of “I” and “we” in this writing isn’t an accident; I find that I have to drop the pretense of having the answers and admit that I’m just another person trying to make my way through it. It’s scary – I generally finish these classes with my shirt damp with nervous sweat – but it feels honest and I’ve found that, by being honest with my students, it’s easier for them to be honest with me and with one another.

Speaking of having all the answers, it’s hard to communicate through these notes I’ve made that I’m guiding conversation but trying really hard not to dominate. It’s hard, because I know where I want the arc of the curriculum to lead and I do have some experience after ten years that the students don’t have. But everything I’ve ever read about facilitating challenging conversations stresses the need to listen and learn from your audience, and I try hard to do that. One thing that I’ve noticed more and more is that I should cede the floor to other students instead of trying to respond to everything myself. The dynamic is totally different when a student’s comment gets challenged by a peer instead of me, and I’m continually surprised (though I shouldn’t be) by how much wisdom there is in the room when I stop talking.

One heads up: in my experience, talking to high school seniors in the early spring about racial privilege leads to conversations about affirmative action in college admissions. I try to come to this class prepared with some facts that may surprise them (some of which I’ve listed in the Resources), because there’s definitely a gap between perception and reality when it comes to affirmative action, and I want to have a clear means of articulating the arguments for why taking race into account in admissions is more fair than unfair.

Day 4 Homework:  Go to and take the “Race IAT” and “Gender-Science IAT” tests. Print out the results page but don’t put your name on it. Write in your journal and, if you want, there are optional readings if you’d like to learn more.

Fourth Night Physics Homework

Fourth Night Physics Homework

Day 5: IAT Debrief

Small group discussion by optional reading choice

Collect anonymous IAT results, add to student results dataset

Discussion of imperfections of the test – not a perfect tool but a useful/informative one

Sharing of student results dataset/national dataset, discussion

Sharing of research into IAT interventions: how to change subconscious biases that you don’t like

Having described the problem (black physicist underrepresentation), what can we do to address it?

IAT Race Results

IAT Results for Rifkin’s Class

IAT Race responses

IAT Race Results

IAT Gender Responses

IAT Gender-Science Results

Questions Discussed:

  • If the class data is to be believed, what does it mean for our school community?
  • If the national data is to be believed, what does it mean for our society?
  • Do our subconscious beliefs matter?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • We all have biases. They are dangerous and painful if not properly handled
  • Having unconscious bias does not mean you act in a biased way; biases can be shifted
  • We can use our privilege to improve the world


The Implicit Association Test website

A Washington Post article about the researchers behind the test

The Good News – Effects of racial bias (as measured by the IAT):

The Bad News – How bias can be shifted through conscious intervention:

Other places where implicit bias shows up:


When I first heard about the Implicit Association Test, I was intrigued. When I first took it, I was skeptical and frustrated. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as a powerful tool (and have shared it with as many people as I can). Taking this test is the most personal thing I require of my students, and I’ve set up the homework assignment and next-day debrief so that nobody is forced to share their results. But I collect and share the class trends to drive home an important point: year after year, my students and I are shown to have subconscious associations based on race and gender.

The test is personal and often upsetting, but the students also understand that they are not defined by their results. They recognize, in fact, that it’s better to know about your inner workings than to not know if the goal is to do something about them. I’m Not A Racist…Am I? had a beautiful way of normalizing these results without letting us off the hook: bias isn’t like tonsils (you have it but then you get them removed), it’s like plaque (you are swimming in a sea of factors that cause it to accumulate, and only by conscious and steady action can you work towards removing it).

This used to be where the curriculum ended: the world is scary, you’re a part of it, good luck figuring it out. But the feedback that I received from students made it clear that this wasn’t what they wanted, so I tacked on an additional day and we talk at the end of this fifth day about possible solutions that we can take. That’s no small task, but in the years where our conversation has gone best, the students now have a clear sense of the problem and some great ideas about what they can do. Tonight’s homework assignment came out of their ideas.

Day 5 Homework: Revisit your first night homework, in which you researched a black physicist working today. [If you’d prefer to focus on another under-represented minority, please do so.] Make an engaging and eye-catching poster emphasizing their achievements in physics and including their picture. If you’d like, there are optional readings that describe some of the research into and using the IAT.

Day Five Homework

Day Five Homework

The next post will cover the last day of this unit, the final project students complete, and follow-up. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Buggen permalink
    February 19, 2015 9:58 am

    The problem I see is that the Implicit Association test doesn’t hold up to even minimal scrutiny for statistical rigor, even by the creators’ own admission…. so, even though the segment does seem to encourage “being skeptical,” by weight of the tools presented, the segment seems to be railroading ideological frameworks.

    • February 19, 2015 11:07 pm

      I’m certainly not an expert, but I tried to do some research to find some information regarding the validity of the IAT, which I’ve shared, and think this would make for great discussions in a science class as part of this unit.

      Here’s a 2008 reference from the American Psychological Association on the IAT , which seems to conclude that the IAT does have some power to measure implicit bias but “isn’t ready for prime time” and use in a courtroom setting.

      Here’s the large meta-analysis referenced in the above article:

      Here’s a paragraph from the conclusion of that report that supports the idea that the IAT has some validity in the domains of prejudice and stereotyping.

      The results of the present meta-analysis support conclusions about when IAT measures
      should be most useful. IAT measures significantly out-predicted explicit measures in the domain
      of prejudice and stereotyping. This is especially encouraging given the difficulty explicit
      measures have historically encountered in assessing intergroup prejudice (Crosby et al., 1980).
      In general, the results from this meta-analysis suggest that IAT measures should be most
      valuable as an independent predictor of criterion measures when social desirability concerns are
      high and the response in question is difficult to control.

      Here’s a piece by John Tireney in the NYT reporting on some of the criticism of the IAT.


  1. Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 2 | Quantum Progress
  2. Guest post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 1 | Quantum Progress

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