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Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 4

February 17, 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 fourth and final 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 6:Closure

Poster show-and-tell

Further Brainstorm and Discussion: potential action steps for us to take

Discussion of role models: individuals, past and present, and organizations already doing this work

Ending on a high note: even these days in class have been an important step

Reflections by students after this unit

Reflections by students after this unit

Questions Discussed:

  • What can we do to address imbalance in society?
  • This was hard/uncomfortable/depressing. Did we do any good?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • The playing field will only become level with our effort
  • The work is hard, but we can do it


Census projections indicate that, by 2043, the majority of Americans will be non-white.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty and Law Center, has some great resources in their Speak Up! curriculum. Speak Up! is geared towards recognizing moments that merit intervention, and learning how to do so as well as possible. (And Teaching Tolerance in general is great for primary and secondary school teachers.)

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice.


As I mentioned earlier, I heard loudly from the students that the curriculum felt incomplete without talking about solutions. That’s challenging for me as a facilitator but, again, I’ve found that answering these questions together is way more effective than trying to have all of the answers myself.

Part of what I’ve realized I can do is to make sure they know that they’re not alone. I try to emphasize the importance of having role models, people who have done the sort of work we hope to do, and the fact that there are organizations who can act as resources and supports for them if they choose. For the students who sign the Speak Up! pledge (below), which is most of them, I post their pledges on the wall outside my classroom so that they can see that they’re not alone.

As a facilitator of the in-class discussion, I try to keep the emphasis on things that we can do. The conversation generally steers elsewhere – it’s much easier to talk about what the government could do, or what physics textbook publishers could do, and so on – and I think that’s valuable but can’t be the end. So I keep steering them back to what steps they can take.

The answers vary every year, but the students get most excited about increasing the visibility of black (or female or Latino/a etc.) physicists role models. Each year we have a few students who volunteer to go talk to the sixth graders (my school includes grades 6-12) about some of the scientists they hadn’t known about at that age, which I think is really cool. The poster homework is a means of broadening our community’s sense of what a physicist looks like. The posters are the public face of this project and, though they hardly capture the entirety of what we do, it’s really awesome to me when my ninth graders tell me that they remember seeing them in middle school. We cover them with a “Picture A Physicist, Then Lift This Page” cover sheet (a student’s idea) to heighten the cognitive dissonance and (not-so-)subtlely make the point.

Beyond the very concrete step of showing that not all physicists are, to use my students’ phrase, “dead white dudes”, I have a lot of less visible goals. I hope that my students can see that the lack of black physicists is a problem regardless of their own race, and that it likely reflects some broader themes in our society. I hope that my white students understand that what doesn’t seem related to race to them may still be, and that not taking action as an ally is to perpetuate the problem. I hope all of my students continue to see how the story they hear – in class, in the media, in society – may not be the whole story, and that it’s important to re-examine history and the present with that in mind. And I hope that they recognize that these are processes that take a lifetime and that they’re motivated to continue long after the project ends.

Day 6 Homework: Fill out the post-project evaluation forms and, if you would like, sign and return the Speak Up! pledge.

Speak Up Pledge

The Speak Up Pledge

The Speak Up Pledge

Poster Project Examples

Image95Image94 Image93 Image92

Evaluation of the Project

Anonymous Survey Text

Anonymous Survey Text

I also ask students to fill out an anonymous survey to get a sense of their beliefs after this unit. This is the same survey that I asked them to complete before beginning it and, by asking them to use the same nickname as they did before, I can track just how their beliefs are changed by what we do in the curriculum. The news is generally good, which feels amazing, but this data also helps me to identify which messages are coming through less clearly and to think about how to improve in years to come.



[“Gain” is the proportion of potential improvement I achieved. For example: a pre-assessment value of 70% could improve by 30%, so if the post-assessment value is 90% then the gain would be 20%/30% = 0.67]

Conclusion and Future Steps

I started this article by talking about its beginning, that I wanted to use my science classroom as an agent of positive social change. This curriculum is probably my most successful attempt at that, a tidy and hopefully-powerful package, but I also want to note that I’m hoping that’s not all. I try to talk throughout the year with my students about bias, and more broadly about science as a human process done not only by dead white dudes. That year-round process is much less clearly defined than this unit, and I feel I’ve got a long way to go, but I think it’s important that my whole curriculum be anti-bias than just two weeks in March.

The process of writing this article has been exhausting and exhilarating, and I’m so grateful to John Burk for encouraging me and for giving me a platform on which to do it. As I’ve told him, I’m writing this because I’ve been doing this work in isolation: I haven’t ever found a forum where I could share this, get feedback, and talk about like-minded things that other science teachers are doing. So please please please don’t hesitate to contact me to talk about this, either through e-mail ( or Twitter (@RiPhysKin). I’ll be talking about the curriculum live on Wednesday, February 18th at 6:30 PST as part of the Global Physics Department group, and getting a lively conversation going there is one of my goals. (I believe the talk will also be posted online after the fact if you can’t make it.)

Speaking of feedback, I’m also sharing the bulk of my electronic files for this curriculum below. Feel free to use these as you see fit, but please understand that I use my documents as a place to jot plans and random ideas. I haven’t, in other words, prepared these for anyone else to use, but figure that unpolished oversharing is better than no sharing at all. I’m doing this in the hopes of getting a conversation going about the curriculum, so if you do use these files, please let me know what you think.

Lesson Plans, Homeworks, Images and Articles, and Planning Documents

Finally, I wanted to close by saying that all of this may seem overwhelming. Ironically, if I’d read this article when I was feeling stuck ten years ago, I don’t think I would have known what to do with it. If you’re still reading, and aren’t feeling like this is helpful, I’d say this: go with what works for you. This project reflects who I am in many ways and so, if you’re not me, the curriculum that works for you will necessarily be different. I should note this started in a much smaller form and has evolved each year. If you wanted to start smaller (one student suggestion that I love: every time a scientist is mentioned in class, print and post a picture of them, and then later discuss what you see), that’s fine; if you want to go bigger, go for it and let me know how it goes.

I’m excited and nervous to be putting all of this out there. Please let me know what you think. Thank you for reading.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Shernell Mabien permalink
    February 22, 2015 9:28 am

    Hi I am a student at the University of South Alabama. this article is a little confusing when I first started to read it. However the more I read the more I could understand it. The article I is very informative and gives good ideals about learning.

  2. Emily Van Ark permalink
    February 27, 2015 10:49 am

    Moses, thanks so much for sharing this amazing collection of ideas and resources and plans! I’m going to think hard about how to incorporate it into my teaching!

  3. Galeet Cohen permalink
    April 4, 2017 8:03 pm

    I happened upon this while planning a STEM & Social Justice session in my 2nd year Science Methods course. I’m so impressed/intimidate! I would loooove to pull something like this off in my own classes. This is such an incredibly thoughtful unit- and I especially love how scientific method and argumentation are integrated throughout.


  1. Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 3 | Quantum Progress
  2. Guest post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 1 | Quantum Progress
  3. Guest Post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, Part 2 | Quantum Progress

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