February 5, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 42°F


Physics and astronomy department forms plan to fight discrimination

The Ithaca College Department of Physics and Astronomy has created an Anti-racism and Inclusion Action Plan to combat discrimination and microaggressions within the department.

Kelley Sullivan, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, chairs the Anti-racism and Inclusion Action Team, which includes Colleen Countryman, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy; senior Oluwasekemi Odumosu; junior Cyerra Adams; junior Antara Sen; sophomore Ted Mburu; and freshman Matt Weil. The 14-page plan includes action items for Faculty and Staff Education; Student Education; Representation; Student Support; Community; Curriculum and Pedagogy; and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) leadership. 

The highest priority items include bringing in more diverse speakers, having DEI discussions at department faculty meetings, helping students find identity-based conferences to attend and developing a more equitable curriculum.

“Our students are facing microaggressions, these subconscious digs, that add up,” Sullivan said. “I’ve been a victim of these as a woman in physics. Small numbers of women, lots of biases against our abilities, and they build up. They’re hard to deal with. We want to make sure that not just the faculty but also the students have an awareness of what microaggressions are, what their biases are and how they can combat them.” 

A study from the Pew Research Center shows that approximately half of women in STEM fields experience gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Another study from the Pew Research Center shows that 62% of Black people, 42% of Hispanic people and 44% of Asian people in STEM experience discrimination in the workplace based on their race or ethnicity. 

Members of the college community have spoken out about racism and microaggressions they have experienced at the college before. In December 2019, a group of students in the Department of Theatre Arts created a display in the hallway of the Dillingham Center chronicling some of the racist, sexist and discriminatory phrases that have been said to students. This occurred after an incident in which a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Arts asked her students to write racial slurs on a whiteboard in the classroom. In 2020, a group of students and alumni created Ithaca College Theatre Arts Black, Indigenous and People of Color (ICTA BIPOC), an organization that calls on the college to address the history of racism within the theater department. There have also been complaints about racist microaggressions within the Roy H. Park School of Communications. 

Odumosu said that having more diverse speakers is one of the goals she is most excited for the program to accomplish. She said that after the department brought in Ali Vanderveld, a female data science technical lead at Amazon Web Services, as a guest speaker, she was inspired.

Sullivan and Luke Keller, Dana professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, have begun to actively educate themselves on issues relating to diversity, equity and inclusion. They are currently taking part in a 10-month program on issues related to recruiting and retaining Black undergraduates for physics. 

In the summer of 2019, the National Science Foundation awarded Sullivan a grant that provides scholarships for high-performing students from low-income backgrounds who are committed to pursuing a degree in computer science, mathematics, physics or astronomy. In order to be considered, colleges must apply and create a unique set of programming for the students that they recruit. 

Sullivan and her team decided to focus their programming on building a community because it has been shown to build retention and improve students success. This grant has allowed the program to create the STEM residential learning community, have STEM seminars and award 14 students with scholarships up to $10,000 a year.

The action team has also decided it is important to change the freshman curriculum. Sullivan said the action team believes the current curriculum favors students with a stronger math background than others. Currently, students are required to take calculus within the first semester, but some are not prepared for it. 

Throughout Spring 2021, the team plans to coordinate DEI discussions at faculty meetings, work with student organizations to create informative DEI poster displays for classrooms, have the faculty representatives and the department chair work with administration to hire a student advocate in Student Financial Services who will help students understand their financial aid opportunities and have the faculty initiate proactive mentoring for academic advising. 

“I’m happy to be getting more education as well as being a part of taking steps towards change,” Weil said.

Odumosu said she hopes that the department’s plan will encourage others to take similar steps. 

“Go for it,” Odumosu said. “All it needs is a few passionate people. We had a group smaller than 10. It makes a difference having those things written down and having a plan for the department.”

Olivia Stanzl can be reached at ostanzl@ithaca.edu