Diverse Perspectives in Physics Classrooms


02 Aug 2017 04 Sep 2017

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The School of Science invited the esteemed Dr. Sylvester James Gate, currently a professor at the University of Maryland, to give two talks on Tuesday March 21,2017. The first talk "What unique perspectives does a minority student bring to a physics classroom?", given in Mayo Concert Hall as the second annual Barbara Meyers Pelson '59 Lecture in Faculty-Student Engagement, focused on Gate's experience as an educator and his observations on how minority students bring diverse perspectives to physics classrooms. The event began with Janet Morrison introducing Dr. Gate who is an intellectual pioneer in string theory, super gravity, and super symmetry, has authored over 200 research papers, is the director for String and Particle Theory Center in Maryland, and was honored with a membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He received the National Medal of Science from President Obama for is contributions to scientific research in 2013 and became the first African America to hold an endowed chair of physics at a major United States research university. In addition to is impressive academic achievements, Gate has also been a lifelong advocate for diversity in the classroom; even being the first physicist to write to the United States Supreme Court to argue the importance of minority students in college classrooms. This letter to the Supreme Court and an article published in response to a judge's question about his position was the corner stone of his lecture.

Gates opened his talk by giving a short summary of his career regarding physics and public outreach through documentaries and commercials. This lead to him discussing his first documentary in the 1990's where he explored how the sciences were starting to be accessible to minorities communities in ways, such as professor positions and research opportunities, that had not been possible before. This lead to allegory on diversity, starting with all things music, that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Gate argued that "life is enriched from different musical style" (Gate) and I doubt anyone would disagree that their life is poorer due to having more than classical music to listen to. This theme of diversity enhancing a topic or product, Gate argues, can be found throughout the scientific disciplines. In biology, diversity in biomes creates life that is more adaptable to change. In biomedical engineering, the use of genetic modification not only increases yields in food harvest but also decreases the use of environmentally harmful pesticides. It is this argument, rather than the "moral argument" (Gate), that Gate bases his position on. He states that, while it is correct morally to ensure individuals from all backgrounds have access to the sciences, it is imperative for science as a discipline to ensure diversity to survive. "So what does diversity do? It enriches the experiences. It gives us a bigger set of choices" (Gates) and these choices are the future of scientific development.

While Gates never mentions the terms situated knowledge or standpoint theory his arguments and stance about diversity in the classroom and academia are dependent on these theories. He stated during the question and answer part of the talk that "the outsider viewpoint which is therefor intellectual diversity which I'm talking about. …In the example that I talked about, it was the presence of the minority…that caused the majority…to be more careful in their analysis and that's what suppressed the grown of [economic] bubbles. So yes, in that case it is the actual ethnic diversity that did that" (Gates)1. Earlier, he also stated that minorities, whether they are ethnic minorities or gender minorities, have a different way of thinking and viewing the world due to their minority statues. This all directly relates to situated knowledge and standpoint theory in the idea that the position of these individuals gives then different perspectives that allows them to better understand the problem at hand. He never outright stated that this perspective is superior to the majority perspective but it was, in my opinion, heavily implied which leads to his arguments being more based in situated knowledge than standpoint theory.

I found the talk to be informative but slightly disorganized and the speaker to be open and not afraid to speak his mind even if his opinions were unpopular. During the talk, I learned some very interesting information such as Einstein's history of social justice work and current research on diversity in different disciplines; however, the speaker chose to use an allegory type of storytelling that, if one did not listen intently to, was easy to lose track of. Throughout the talk and while answering questions, Gate was forthcoming on his personal views and beliefs whether the audience agreed with him or not. I believe this was especially relevant during the last question after the talk. The person asking the question seemed to be implying that ethnic diversity did not matter as long as there was "intellectual diversity", which essentially reminded me of a person arguing that someone was "making something all about race", and I believe Gate gave a wonderful answer which not only spoke on how ethnic diversity caused intellectual diversity but how it was essential for intellectual diversity. As a teacher, I am hoping to decorate my classroom with diverse scientists, not the same old white guys everyone thinks about when they think of science, and this talk provided me with even more anecdotal and research evidence of the importance of ensure my students see diversity in science.


  1. This is in reference to a study Gate mentioned that focused on the growth of economic bubbles in stock markets. The study found that the presence of minority traders suppressed the growth of bubbles in the stock market, like the housing bubble that caused the 2008 United States crash, and that these results could be reproduced in white majority nations and Asian majority nations.

Work Cited

Gates, Sylvester J. "What unique perspectives does a minority student bring to a physics classroom?" Barbara Meyers Pelson '59 Lecture in Faculty-Student Engagement, The College of New Jersey, 21 March 2017, Mayo Concert Hall, Ewing, NJ, Lecture.


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