Several years ago, the number one student in my introductory physics class was an engineering major who happened to be a black woman. In fact, she had come from a high school with very challenging demographics – about 80% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches. The students in my SCALE-UP physics classes work in groups of three, and I had placed this outstanding student in a group with another woman and a man who were both white. It was halfway into the semester, and I knew all three students fairly well and did not that anticipate any issues would arise. But I was wrong. While circulating around the classroom, I noticed that the two white students in the group talked only to each other, and seemed to not even notice their third partner. I was caught completely off guard by this development since the two white students had seemed so reasonable up to this point in the semester.
I puzzled over how to react to this development. Finally, I just walked up to the group and addressed the outstanding black student with, “How’s my number one student doing?” While listening for her response (“I’m fine, Dr. Cottle”), I looked at her two white partners out of the corner of my eye. Both were staring at me with both their mouths and their eyes wide open. I left to move onto other groups, but five minutes later I looked back and saw that the dynamics of the mixed-race group had completely changed. The two white students were now thoroughly engaged with their black partner who was, after all, the strongest student in the group. The white students’ self-interest had overcome their prejudices.
I wish I could say that these sorts of sad studies in bias are not common. But unfortunately, they are common. I deal with one in class every two or three weeks – and that’s in classes of between 50 and 70 students, which is not a huge group.
But what’s important is that I can deal with those situations because of the SCALE-UP format, where I am in the classroom with the students six hours per week, and instead of lecturing I’m mostly observing and interacting with students.
In the disciplines represented in my classes – mostly engineering, physics and computer science – the opportunity to observe and intervene in student interactions is particularly important. In all three fields, the underrepresentation of women is scandalous and stubborn – only about 20% of bachelors’ degrees in these fields are awarded to women (both nationally and in Florida). Black students are also horribly underrepresented in these fields, and that situation is getting worse in Florida. And students wear their biases on their sleeves in class. If a male student is convinced for whatever reason that women don’t make good engineers and physicists (and that is often the case), then that male student will generally ignore a female group partner, and may even say something disparaging. And of course white students of either gender may ignore a black student, even if the black student is superior to the white students. These interactions can have a destructive impact on female or minority group member, and that is something that we must be constantly on the lookout for.
The reason I am writing this post today is that FSU’s studio physics program is a bit under siege at the moment. Some of the university’s administrators are arguing that everything that can be done in the SCALE-UP environment can be done just as well in a lecture hall, and more cheaply (the first is self-evidently not correct, and it is not at all clear that the second is correct). Virtual science learning environments are being sold as genuine teaching innovations, when in fact they are only excuses to push down the cost per credit hour by jettisoning hands-on laboratory exercises.
But given the mind-boggling underrepresentation of women and minorities in the fields of my students, here’s the bottom line: If your so-called teaching reform doesn’t empower instructors to observe and intervene in student interactions, then it’s not worth a damn.