Dear Chief Justice Roberts: These white physics students benefited from working with a black physics student

During the oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas last week, Chief Justice Roberts questioned the utility of having black students in college physics classes:  “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”  Do the white students in the physics class benefit from having black students there as well?

The answer is unequivocally yes.  Consider this story from my own SCALE-UP physics class several years ago.  By way of introduction, SCALE-UP is a hands-on learning environment in which groups of three students work on laboratory and problem-solving exercises during three-hour periods twice each week.  I’ve shared this story before, but it seems to be the right time to tell it again.

For much of the semester, the number one student in this 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. During the middle of the semester, I had placed this outstanding student in a group with another woman and a man who were both white. 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 – after all, if the black student was that good the white students wanted to benefit from picking her brain.

Those two white students had a wake-up call about their own stupid prejudices.  I wish such events would happen more often in my class, but they don’t because I have so few black students.  In fact, FSU has few black engineering and physics students and the institution is doing little or nothing to address this.

So yes, Chief Justice Roberts, white students can benefit from having black students in their physics classes.  But it’s a shame there is such a shortage of black students in these classes, and the US Supreme Court may be trying to make the situation worse.


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