In the hearing for Fisher v. University of Texas — the affirmative action case heard by the Supreme Court yesterday — Chief Justice Roberts asked “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” and mused later, “I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation.” (I am quoting from the Huffington Post article on the case.) This may have been a rhetorical question – I don’t know – but as a physics professor with 20 years of experience, I think I am qualified to answer it.
First of all, from the perspective of the professor, it’s vital that physics classes are as diverse as possible. This is for one simple reason: EVERYONE needs to know physics. Many of the major problems facing the world today, such as resource depletion, global climate change, alternate energy sources, and the like, can’t be understood without knowing some Physics. Whether or not someone becomes a Physicist, they need to understand it on some level if they are to be an educated, well-informed citizen who is capable of dealing with the future. A lot of people think that Physics is some weird esoteric subject studied by geniuses in lab coats. But it isn’t — it’s a vital, exciting, challenging, interesting subject with big consequences.
Secondly, Physics as a profession can’t do without diversity. Even ignoring all of the other advantages which diversity gives us, it comes down to a numbers game. From the mid-1990’s through the mid-2000’s, the numbers of students graduating with Ph. D.’s in Physics was in decline; this trend was reversed in the mid-2000’s, almost entirely due to an increase in people from non-traditionally represented groups entering the field. This was mostly due to women getting Ph. D.’s, but there has also been an increase in the numbers of African American and Hispanic students receiving doctorates over the past few years. The American Institute of Physics recognizes the need for diversity; it sponsors many programs to increase it among physics students and faculty. We need people from all backgrounds if the field is to thrive.
Finally, Justice Roberts is ignoring one of the most important findings in Physics education research in the last twenty years. Our students learn much more when their teachers have them work with each other than if we simply lecture to them. This is also how scientific research is really done: the interchange of ideas between people working on a common problem. If we want the classroom to prepare for real research, indeed for any problem solving in the real world, we want everyone to take part in this. We need for people to learn how to work with others, no matter how different their backgrounds are. I’ve seen students from vastly different ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds work together; learning how to teach each other across such divides is one of the most important skills an education can give. This is the perspective which minority students bring to Physics classes.