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Building a PER Program

Ramon Teaching

Assistant professor Ramón Barthelemy is a former Fulbright Scholar and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy (AAAS) Fellow dedicated to equity and inclusion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). He joined the U in July 2019 to begin serving as the first tenure-track faculty member in the U’s Physics Education Research (PER) Program. Barthelemy is eager to build a new research group that focuses on student motivations, experiences, and successes in physics. He also has plans to build new projects specific to the context and student body of the U. He is collaborating with colleagues in the College of Science to determine how students’ experiences of inclusion in large introductory STEM classes can influence their overall course performance and graduation with a STEM major.

 “In the physics classroom, it’s important to accept students for who they are and to be kind and understanding about many things—such as their preferred names and the obstacles they may face in their day-to-day lives that may not be related to the classroom,” said Barthelemy. “At the same time, we want to make sure the department is continually offering opportunities for professional and educational growth.”

Ramon Barthelemy   Raised in Michigan, Barthelemy has also spent time in
  Finland and Washington, D.C. After receiving a B.A. in
  astrophysics, from Michigan State University, he
  began a graduate program at Western Michigan
  University (WMU). It was during this time he
  became increasingly interested in ways to support a
  diverse student body to pursue degrees in physics
  and astronomy. “In a class of 50 students, there were
  only seven women and no students of color,” he said. “The sciences are now beginning  to take the time to evaluate and deconstruct issues of gender, race, and sexuality in their fields. Faculty and administrators in physics departments are now starting to consider the conscious and unconscious biases, along with structural barriers, that may deter students from the field.”

Barthelemy became interested in PER after working as a teaching assistant with Dr. Charles Henderson, professor of physics and director of science education at WMU, who is also a leader in the field of PER. “It was so interesting to see how he managed to integrate group work and conceptual learning in a large introductory course,” said Barthelemy. “Working with him triggered my interest in completing my dissertation in PER.” 

Gender in Physics

Existing studies point to the differences in the number of men and women who study physics. On standardized physics tests, there is also a gap in scores between men and women. This difference, however, has not been thoroughly researched to understand if it is an artifact of the assessments or if the measured difference has any real meaning on success in the field of physics. Remedies to alleviate these “gaps” fail to discuss the culture of physics—how it might contribute to or reinforce the barriers people from underrepresented groups may face.  

Another concern is that these studies use an incomplete framework in assuming students are either male or female and nothing else—known as “gender binary.” Gender is a spectrum based on masculinity and femininity—traits not relevant for every student. For some students, gender is fluid and may shift over time, so using a gender label fails to include non-binary or gender nonconforming students. 

Additionally, the identity of a student can intersect with gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or LGBTQ+ status. Rather than considering this, researchers may simplify analysis of a student by putting people into discrete categories of gender, race, and other identities.  

“I’ve always been interested in social justice issues and decided to focus on them in my research in grad school,” said Barthelemy. While at WMU, he completed a quantitative project on LGBQ STEM faculty, a project on student pathways into PER, and a qualitative dissertation on women in graduate physics and astronomy programs. Specifically, he wanted to understand the roles of mentorship, gendered experiences, and personal definitions of success in the educational pathways of the participants.  

“Part of my focus has been advocacy and working to ensure student success no matter their background or where they come from,” said Barthelemy. “I’ve been very involved with a student organization called oSTEM that supports LGBTQ+ STEM students, helping them network and providing resources to successfully compete in the job market.” Barthelemy has also served on national committees with the American Physical Society.

PER Goals at the U

The U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy has taken important steps in building an inclusive environment, which is one of the reasons Barthelemy was interested in coming to the university. “Beginning with the graduate program, the department has thought carefully about how to recruit strong students who will be successful,” said Barthelemy. “I look forward to continuing this progress and in making physics a better place than I found it. I hope to develop policies and best practices over the next five years that can be adopted by a variety of institutions to further support, recruit, and retain many different kinds of students.” 

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Last Updated: 9/11/19