Aaron T. Lee, Ph.D.
Astronomer and Educator


Inclusion & Equality


Diversity and Inclusion in Science

Growing up in the Detroit metropolitan area, I frequently experienced how environments that are not visibly inclusive can impact a student’s motivation and success. In attempting to organize a class-wide study group for our upcoming AP Calculus exam, I reached out to the two African American students in my high school class, and they replied, “This group is not for us.” Only recently have I come to fully appreciate this statement–while I had the truest intentions of including everyone, I was forcing inclusivity rather than taking the time to foster it throughout the school year. As a member of the university faculty, I am dedicated toward fostering an environment where diverse voices are acknowledged and where students feel safe to approach me with their interests and concerns.

Physics and astronomy still struggle in abating the image that science can only be performed by men who are brilliant, straight, and white. In my introductory courses, I do not shy away from this fact, incorporating a historical context when teaching the results of Kepler, Newton, and Galileo, highlighting the less-mentioned achievements of Williamina Fleming and those of modern female scientists, and giving assignments where students can explore the contributions of non-western physicists. Group work and labs are structured so that all students have the opportunity to think independently before sharing their ideas with their group and the class. To augment quieter voices, especially those from people of color and non-traditional male identities, I identify students with the correct answer and ask them to share with the class–they are singled out but only after being set up to succeed. Furthermore, I frequently tell stories from my own life, highlighting moments of failure and struggle, some related to my LGBT+ identify. Doing so turns the classroom into a group of colleagues rather than “the instructor and students,” and it reminds students that even I too am human. Most importantly, it demonstrates that I teach in a larger social context and not in a bubble.

I am a first-generation college student (FGCS). As such, I have direct experience supporting the results of Treisman (1992), who found that nearly 90% of FGCS studied by themselves in their early college years, unaware that peer collaboration is an effective means of learning (I assumed if I could not figure it out by myself, I was dumb). Sitting in on a UMass Amherst seminar about student success & diversity, they revealed that a significant fraction of Amherst’s FGCS who were also persons of color did not understand what “office hours” meant, and therefore did not attend them. It is my job to help establish community amongst my students all while acknowledging that every student’s history is unique. As a graduate student I wrote a math primer for our introductory courses and held special office hours where students could come ask questions about the math skills they would need to succeed. As an instructor, I combined traditional office hours with special open office hours. The latter took place in a discussion section room, where students were encouraged to come and work on their problem sets together. If, as a group, they became stumped, I was present to assist. To further encourage this community, I required that students attend office hours at least once a semester, which allowed me a chance to interact with each student on a personal level.

I make no assumptions about any of my students, regardless of race, gender, and perceived background. Psychological barriers to success can still exist even with those who externally present as members of more privileged communities. For example, many continuing-generation college students must deal with achievement pressure from their parents. My syllabus takes a strong stance on cheating and plagiarism (“If you are caught cheating, you will fail the course.”), but I sit with each student to discuss the implications of their actions–typically offering a less severe punishment. A past students shared that her reason for cheating was because she feared disappointment from her parents if she failed to get a 4.0 GPA. It became clear that her pre-med degree program was also not her choice. These situations are challenging, because the parents are acting out of support but are unaware they are doing so in a potentially destructive way. I use my own experiences as a perfectionist to speak of how unnecessary the stress often is, and, with regards to cheating, how ultimately the student must determine their own moral character. I also try to work with the student to find overlap with their own interests. For example, one past student was pursing a business degree but she had a strong interest in independent films from her homeland, Japan. Together we were able to find a business internship in Hollywood she could apply to. Finally, in these situations the power difference between me and the student can have positive effects. While it is not my place to tell them to ignore their parents’ advice, by stepping back and actively listening to these students they are reminded that their own opinions are valued and should be acknowledged.

I am especially thankful to the experiences I received mentoring past research students who were both of Asian descent and teaching a FGCS in an independent study course. These one-on-one experiences have continued to improve my awareness and appreciation of cross-cultural understanding. As a mentor, I carefully listen to my students and set aside what concepts are “easy” or “hard” to understand, because these assumptions are based on my own educational background and interests. I appreciate that slow progress is rarely the result of only a lack of effort, and I strive to improve my awareness through formal training on racism, sexism, homophobia, mental illness, stereotype threat, and unconscious biases. However, as a department, our ability to mentor a diverse student body will continue to develop only if we continue to diversity the faculty, and I am a strong proponent of efforts to actively recruit candidates from under-represented groups.

Finally, I am dedicated as a member of the department to make research experiences available to any student with interest. Students that underperform in coursework may thrive in a research environment. Additionally, the research experience can have a significant impact on the student’s success. The student who took an independent study course with me averaged a B- in his courses the previous semester, which initially gave me pause. My mentor style relies heavily on students explaining their work and answering my rapid-fire question. This style originated because of my own undergraduate mentors, one who commonly said “You understand something only as well as you can teach it.” This student shared that this approach taught him how to better gauge his own learning–he not only succeeded in our independent study, but is now averaging an A- across his course load. The research experience is why many of us became professional physicists and astronomers, and it is our duty to give opportunities to students of all racial, gender, socio-economic, and academic backgrounds interested in these fantastic fields of study.