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Guest post: Teaching Social Justice in the Physics Classroom, part 1

February 12, 2015

At the incredible People of Color Conference, I met Moses Rifkin, an outstanding physics teacher at University Prep in Seattle. I learned about the incredible unit he teaches his senior physics students that brilliantly brings lessons about social justice, privilege, and institutional racism into the physics classroom and leads to a measurable change in student understanding and attitudes about these subjects. Moses graciously agreed to write a series of guest posts for this blog about his curriculum and will be speaking 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


For the first four years of my high school teaching career, I felt stuck. I care deeply about making the world a better place – duh – but felt that as a science teacher, my opportunities to do so were limited. I was jealous of my colleagues in English and History who got to talk every day in class about society and how it worked and how to be moral and caring and kind, whereas those conversations with students only happened for me outside the classroom. That I was teaching at a private school only made matters worse: my students weren’t learning about their own privilege (academic and, in most cases, economic and racial). I wanted to make my classroom a part of the solution, but wasn’t sure how. What’s a science teacher to do?

Ten years later, I have come somewhat closer to finding an answer. I feel like it’s an answer because I’ve found a way to introduce my students to the ideas of racial and gender privilege, to the idea that our society is far from a meritocracy, and to broaden their conception of who (racially, gender-wise, etc.) does science to include a much broader slice of society; I say somewhat because it’s still very much a work in progress as I fumble my way upwards.

This article is meant as an overview of a six-day curriculum that I’ve developed and use with my senior physics students each year. For each of the days, I’ll give a brief synopsis of what happens in class and note the bigger-picture questions and goals that I hope to address that day. I’ve also included some resources that I use, though there are many more, and some narrative reflection on each day to help add some context. I’ve never had an opportunity like this to share what I do and if anything you read over the next few days is appealing or challenging or interesting or generative, I’d love to talk about it via e-mail ( or Twitter (@RiPhysKin).

TL;DR: As science teachers, we have to take an active role in undoing the bias in our society. Don’t be afraid to try, and don’t wait until you know exactly what to do. Start a conversation, incorporate feedback to improve it the next time, and let me know how it goes.

The project revolves, at least initially, around a question: why are there so few black[1] physicists? 4.2% of physicists self-identified as black as of 2012, according to the National Science Foundation’s Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering report; according to the 2010 Census, 12.0% of the population aged 25-64 identified as black. Physicists therefore make up a small percentage of the U.S. population (0.06%), but that percentage is 3.2 times higher among white Americans than black.

Pre-project Homework: Do some research into one black physicist who worked before 1950, and one working today. Also, please fill out an anonymous pre-evaluation so that I can get a sense of the class’ beliefs (more on that at the end of this article), and start your reflection journal.


Handout for the research/discussion project given to students.

Day 1: Research Debrief

Overview of project: what are we doing? Why are we doing it in a physics class?

Ground rules for discussion

Looking at basic statistics

Students share the results of their research, and how they found it

What are possible reasons that might explain the lack of black physicists? Let’s make a list.

Questions Discussed:

  • What might it mean that googling “physicist” isn’t a good way to find a black physicist?
  • Who are your inspirations? How do people end up doing what they do?
  • What would we need to be able to address the validity of these hypotheses?

My Not-So-Secret Agenda:

  • Not everyone might feel like physics is open to them; it might not only be about ability
  • Not everyone is as able to pursue their interests as we/you (independent school students, majority white, majority upper socio-economic class) are
  • Let’s get all the hypotheses out there, even the really uncomfortable ones (i.e. there’s a difference in IQ from race to race). Better to discuss it than to not.


National Science Foundation’s Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Report

U.S. Census Data

American Institute of Physics’ statistical research links and reports.


I want to acknowledge that this unit, especially the start, is awkward. We’ve just finished a unit about energy, and suddenly class looks very different: desks are in a circle, ground rules are on the board, and we’re talking about society and race. I’ve chosen to do this March in part because I rely on the relationships and trust that have formed in class by this point, between the students and me among the students. I’ve found that it’s useful to tie this into the overarching class goal I stated on the first day of physics class – to give them “a better sense of why things happen as they do” – and to acknowledge that I’m asking them to take a risk. I’ve learned that they’re pretty game for that, with a few exceptions, and it’s my own discomfort that presents the biggest stumbling block. Into the fray!

I do tell them, too, that we’re going to be focusing on race – specifically on the lack of black physicists– because it’s particularly illustrative of the bigger issues I’m trying to introduce. I believe that other focuses could be just as generative, or even more so, but we just haven’t gone that way yet. There are, in other words, plenty of other -isms that we could talk about, and I want to acknowledge that to them. I’ve done a better and better job of encouraging students interested in other scientific minorities (women, other races and ethnicities, the economically disadvantaged, the physically disabled, the LGBTQ community, etc.) to explore on their own over the years.


Initial hypotheses students came up with to explain why so there are so few black physicists.

Day 1 Homework: take one hypothesis and try to investigate its validity. Also, write in your journal.


Handout explaining second night homework.

 The next post will cover Days 2 and 3 of this unit, when students discuss research and statistics about race and privilege, and then work to understand systematic and institutional racism. 


[1] I use “black” instead of “African-American” because this is the language used by the National Science Foundation’s Women, Minorities and People with Disabilities report. I recognize that this isn’t a simple matter, and that recent research shows that it may actually make a significant difference.

Best Best Class Ever—when I leave the room

October 9, 2014

My Honors Physics class continues to blow my mind. Today I had to leave class early to go to a meeting, so I told them I wanted them to work on this very challenging problem, and record themselves discussing the problem.

Screen Shot 2014 10 09 at 12 59 49 AM

Here’s the video—remember, this is the last 15 minutes of class at the end of the day):

It turned out my meeting ended early, so I was able to sneak back into the lab and overhear them for about 5 minutes of this conversation while the class couldn’t see me. All a colleague and I could do is just stare awe of how the students were working so thoughtfully through this problem. Really, this video is one of those situations where I think if I had been there in discussion, I could have only made things worse.

This video makes me think about so many things I don’t understand why this class is like this? Why I can’t get my other classes, both past and present to work together like this?

It also makes me worry—will this class still be like this in February, when we are all exhausted and ready for spring break?

There are voices in this video that you don’t hear much, or at all. How can I help those students to be able to express their questions and ideas? How can I help the more dominant voices, to learn to draw out and build on the ideas of their less vocal peers?

Finally, it seems like we should be doing more than our standard curriculum of doing labs an solving problems. These students are capable of learning completely on their own. They should be able to devise and conduct experiments to test their own questions. They should be able to read and explore physics topics of interest to them. How do I facilitate this? How do we find time? How do I get them to reach the same depth with that kind of work that they are in this video?

Back to blogging with my best class ever

September 20, 2014

I’m sorry that I’ve neglected this blog for so long. I’ve got so many drafts stored away that I need to finish, but too much has been going on to find the time to write.

But today, I have to write, even if it means I’m doing it in the middle of the night.

I just had my very best class that I’ve had in 15 years of teaching. And thankfully, I have it all on tape so that I can remember it.

I have this really dumb habit of tearing up in the classroom when things are going really well, and today, I was almost wiping away rivers of tears at the end of class.

We were working on the same BFPM bridging activity that I’ve written about before, but this time, we made a few more modifications. We felt the old activity forced the students to wrestle too much with what was going on when the box was accelerating, particularly since we haven’t studied acceleration or unbalanced forces, so we modified the assignment so that students wouldn’t consider the times when the velocity of the box was changing. Here is the revised activity as a pdf.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to make this change, since in the past, students ultimately were about to come to good conclusions about the accelerated portions of the motion. But I was totally convinced when we tried this out in class—by reducing the complexity of this task, we allowed them to build up more confidence, and piqued their curiosity, so that they naturally wondered and asked great questions about what was happening in the accelerated phase, with out getting bogged down with all the details.

One other thing I’ve been doing this year that I think is starting to pay big dividends is giving short metacognative lessons. I’ve had students complete a couple of assignments on canvas where they respond to articles about feedback and why it is good to fail on assessments. I’ve also tried to take a minute or two here or there to talk specifically about how they are discussing ideas in class and offer suggestions for how we might continue to improve. Today I asked them to focus on speaking to one another and making sure they were involving everyone in the conversation.

And here is what I got (they are working on the second page of the activity when this starts).

I hardly have to speak at all. These are students who just figured out N1L two days ago. At around 8 minutes I step in and push them to think about what’s happening when I push on a box at rest. They have a great discussion, build up lots of confusion, and then are totally happy with putting this question aside and moving on to the next part of the activity.

So we move on to the third page—and they just nail it, which is pretty much to be expected. But even when I push them on giving multiple ways to explain how to test that the puck is moving at constant velocity, they do it.

Now, here’s where I think it gets really good. In the 4th page, we get them to think about a situation where you are pushing the block first at a constant slow speed, and then later at a constant fast speed. They do a great job of discussing this, checking their work, and collectively, they all come to the wrong answer that when the box is moving faster, you are pushing harder. All I have to do is tell them they are collectively wrong and they should check their assumptions, and they come back with two amazing explanations:

  • Maybe friction doesn’t depend on speed
  • Or, Maybe N1L needs to be modified—perhaps CVPM doesn’t mean Fnet=0.

The points they raise in discussion here with minimal assistance from me are stunning to me. They even get to the point where they figure out that they need to settle this with an experiment, and they do this. All of this is stuff I used to simply walk classes through in the past.

Now, they talk about the result of the experiment, and use it to definitely answer the 4th page of the activity, and along the way they come to so many more realizations—FBDs don’t tell you the velocity of an object, other things the frictional force might depend on, the threshold nature of the static frictional force, how drag forces depend on velocity, and much more.

Even though I’m amazed by all these students did today, in watching the video, I see few of them are taking notes, and it makes me wonder if many of the insights we realized today might be ephemeral, and wonder what I can do to help them preserve the understandings they came to today.

And, this is 80 solid minutes of discussion. Students are whiteboarding in parts, and we do some experiments, but I see some yawns, and certainly not everyone is engaged at every moment. I can also tell this is mentally exhausting—it makes me wonder what we can do to help students be more engaged in discussions like this.

And in the last segment, I’m doing quite a bit of leading—I wonder if I’m going to be able to find a way next year to turn even more of that over to students. If I do, I think I’m going to need to remember to bring a box of kleenex to class.

A solution to comment writing dread: video reflections

June 10, 2014

Writing comments/reports whatever you call them, it’s something many teachers dread—for many of us it involves writing thousands of words, doing hours of work, knowing they won’t be read for a week or more until after you write them, and in some cases, wondering if they’ll be read at all. I often find myself struggling to understand the audience and purpose of these comments—should I direct them to the students, or to the parents? Are the formative or summative? Sometimes, I feel like I’m trying to speculate about a student’s motivation or a cause for his or her actions. And even when I write my very best comments, I’m not sure I’m giving a student’s parents the clearest picture into what a student is learning in my class.

Here’s what I’d like for my comments to be. I’d like them to be part of a conversation. I’d like for students to have some input into to content of their comment. I’d like to give them specific feedback and advice on how to improve, and I’d like to emphasize and highlight the things that the student is doing best, and to have a clearer picture of what’s motivating the student.

Here’s an idea I had after my latest 20,000 word comment writing adventure. Why not ask students to make a video reflection before each comment writing period? I think I could ask each student to compose a 5 minute video showing me 3 things:

  • Show me an example from your work that shows strong understanding of a physics concept.
  • Show me and example from your work that shows improvement in your understanding of physics.
  • Show me an example from your work that shows a concept that you are still working to improve your understanding.

I could then ask students to comment on their work and study habits, goals and more. What I find most useful about this is that like screencasts, I think this video would paint a clear picture of that student in my class. Students who are doing well in the course would present clear and specific answers to the three points above, which vague responses would be one more indicator of struggle.

My comments could then be written reposes to these student videos, which would allow me to enter a conversation with the student and make specific comments on the understanding demonstrated in the video. Maybe one day, my comments could even be videos themselves.

So what do you think? At 5 minutes a video, it would take an hour and 15 minutes to watch all of the videos for my class (assuming I didn’t watch them at double speed). This seems like a reasonable investment for significantly improved comments.

I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions you may have to ease the comment writing process.

A workshop on screencasting

May 30, 2014

On Monday, I’ll be leading a workshop for our Math department on creating screencasts. Our 9th grade math program uses the Exeter 1 and 2 Curriculum, and they are looking to augment it with screencasts that students will view. The content of these screencasts mostly undecided, but could contain some of the background material and definitions students might need to get started with a set of problems, or might contain challenges that extend problems or try to hook students into thinking more deeply about a particular problem.

I’ve tried to develop a very interactive workshop that starts by getting our faculty experience learning via video by watching three great talks about by

From there, my hope is to launch them very quickly into designing ideas for possible screencasts for a given page of Exeter problems, and then to go out and create a prototype video in less than half an hour.

After all the videos are created, faculty pairs will pitch them, Shark Tank style, to a group of students I’ve assembled that will help us to see how engaging they are and offer suggestions for improving our next revisions.

I’ve created a Google doc with a fairly detailed outline of the workshop, and I’d love any feedback you may have. You can comment directly on the document, or you can view it below and simply leave a comment on this post.

One of the things I’m most interested in is other teaching or technical tips for creating and using screencasts.

Here’s my list of tips so far:

Basic tips

  • Write a script, or at least an outline of what you want to say before you start recording. It will save you a ton of time.
  • Never make a video longer than 10 minutes (there are those who argue this limit is even shorter).
  • Include an index at the start of the video that gives students times of various parts of the video.
  • Try to stick to the the principle of one concept per video.

Learning tips

  • Frequently ask students to pause the video and a try a problem for themselves. You could even ask students to email you a photograph of that work.
  • Create a space for students to be able to ask and answer one another’s questions about the video. Youtube comments are a good start. Canvas can also do this.

Advanced tips

  • How to create a link to a particular location in a video (great for making an interactive index).  Just add “#t=Xm&Ys” to the end of the link, where X is the time in minutes and Y is the time in seconds of where you want to link to. You can also use this handy site:
  • How to add annotations to a Youtube video. add callouts links and hotspots over your videos.
    • This is an awesome tool for asking a question, and then putting possible responses up on the screen and asking the students to click the appropriate response, which will link them to different videos that can then follow up on the student’s answer. Here’s a great example of this: Buoyancy Quiz.
  • If you have students create their own screencasts, you can easily ask them to submit them via a google form, or in an assignment canvas.
  • You can enable variable speed playback on Youtube. This lets you watch screencasts at 1.5 and 2x speed, which can be great for watching student submitted screencasts.

Thanks for any suggestions or feedback you may have.

Quick insights from twitter into vector products

March 19, 2014

I love twitter specifically because it presents me with so many ideas, even new ways about thinking about old things or ideas I thought I already understood. Here’s today’s example, courtesy of Superfly Andy Rundquist:

and Joe Heafner promptly responded with

I don’t know about you, but my first introduction to dot and cross products was filled with trying to understand i,j,k notation and follow weird procedures for manipulating vectors in a matrix form, and I had no clue what I was doing, nor did I understand the significance of what I was calculating.

How great would it be to simply introduce the cross product to a class with Andy’s question? Stand next to a kid, ask “how much of you is perpendicular to me?” Then lean over to the side at a 10 degree angle and ask the question again. Students could probably measure this with a meter stick. Later try all sorts of other situations, like clock hands, and later, more abstract ideas like position and momentum vectors.

This would have helped 19 year old me out tremendously.

On cold calling

February 12, 2014

I can still remember the third quarter calculus course I took my senior year of high school. The professor had developed this teaching style of continuously cold calling on students to work through problems he wrote on the board. He’s start off a lecture by writing an integral on the board, and then methodically start calling on students:

“What is the next step in this problem, Mr. Smith?” he’d ask, and if that student didn’t know, he’d casually switch over to someone else, “Well, perhaps Ms. Johnson can help you out.”

He did this so frequently that even in a class of 25, you were basically guaranteed to get called on at least twice. I can remember dreading this class every day, especially the moment I would be called on and wouldn’t know the answer, and suddenly everyone would realize I was the calculus impostor from high school sitting in on a college level class. From that moment on, I’ve always stayed far away from cold calling students when I’m teaching.

Last night, Bowman Dickson gave an awesome presentation on developing conceptual understanding before introducing mathematical formalism to the Global Math Department *. In his presentation, Bowman mentioned the great value he finds in cold calling on students, especially to bring out a range of different responses when trying to introduce an idea conceptually. He also stressed the need to explain to students from the beginning why he’s cold calling, and never to use cold calling as a form of punishment to call out students who aren’t paying attention.

This totally got to reconsider about a practice I’d previously written off. What if I when I started the year, and we were discussing the value of making mistakes and having everyone contribute to the conversation, I talked about cold calling as a way of working to intentionally help build our class culture to encourage mistake making and to help me quickly gauge our understanding as a class. I think this would dramatically change the tone of a practice that I’ve found distasteful in the past, and I’m sure most students find stress inducing.

It also made me think of how many of the friction-inducing practices we do as teachers, like not directly answering student questions, and instead answering with questions, would probably far more palatable and effective if we simply took the time to explain their rational and build a bit of buy-in.

* Incidentally, the GMD has been on a tear with some incredible presentations lately. Check out @sophgermain‘s great discussion of race and privilege, @suevanhattum’s excellent presentation on math circles and becoming invisible in discussion, and Ben Orlin‘s teaching as a form of writing.