Skip to main content

Creating an inclusive physics curriculum

Thursday 6 July 2023, University of Nottingham
Chaired by Professor Sir William Wakeham Supported by the Institute of Physics

The Institute of Physics (IOP) 2020-2024 strategy has identified three key challenges that present the greatest barriers to unlocking the potential of physics and its impact in society. The first challenge is ‘diversity and skills’ and the need to build a diverse physics community to help address STEM skills shortages. This also makes sense from a business perspective that acknowledge recruiting a diverse and inclusive workforce can lead to better decision-making and business success. This key challenge of ‘diversity and skills’ is emphasised more strongly in the IOP’s new degree accreditation framework. For example, universities must ensure the curriculum reflects the diversity of people who have contributed to physics and that the curriculum does not have compulsory or elective elements where students could be discriminated against (eg placements or field trips).

In this context SEPnet and WRIPA hosted this meeting to explore how university physics departments can embed EDI across the curriculum and departmental culture to support an inclusive student learning experience and equitable graduate outcomes. The talks and summary of discussion points from the workshop are summarised below.

Encouraging diversity and facilitating inclusion in physics – a personal and professional perspective

Prof Helen Gleeson OBE, Cavendish Professor of Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds

As most professional physicists have never experienced being in a minority, how do we communicate some of the issues and barriers without engagement fatigue? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • There are two sides to communication – firstly the formal direction of how to address the issues and barriers and secondly the engagement of learning communities to implement changes. 
  • Training and content needs to be specific to physics and specific to individual institutions – include case studies, success stories, listening to communities and not ‘just data’. 
  • Problems and challenges encountered often end up being the responsibility of just a few people. However, the responsibility to implement change needs to be embedded within the fabric of the institution where everyone is involved. Senior figures need to  lead by example and make EDI relevant to each institution.
  • Commitment to EDI could be used as a mechanism for staff promotion.
  • Consider how to get buy-in from those not currently engaged with EDI. 

How to tackle ‘low level’ bullying and harassment where the penalty for the victim in speaking out is disproportionate to the ‘punishment’. This applies especially where the proponent is very senior, a big funding winner etc and so the power imbalance is significant. Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • It should not be the sole responsibility of the victim to report issues, anyone observing the bullying should feel they can report it and there needs to be a safe space to do so. It needs to be clear what constitutes harassment.
  • There could be a role called “Listeners” where a team of trusted people are trained to be confidential listeners.  Some victims think “is this an issue or is this just my perception?” and so examples and definitions should be made clear.  De-escalation could take place where possible with open minded discussions rather than going straight to a complaint. For example, the perpetrator may not realise the effect they are having on the victim. Mediation between both parties can sometimes be helpful.
  • Several points of contact could help to ensure issues are more effectively addressed. For PhD students – have two academic supervisors to create a ‘fail safe’ if the student- academic relationship deteriorates. 

How to challenge ingrained practices that unconsciously disadvantage underrepresented groups (e.g. asking for ranking, requiring research experience) in allocating PhD studentships. Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Preparation of students for the whole PhD recruitment process. Rather than just referring them to online resources provide clear guidance on expectations and what they need to convey. 
  • Consider the interview process itself – what things could be asked/not asked. The interview process should not be based on nepotism, ranking, university attended. More emphasis should be placed on why students are passionate about physics and what they can bring – motivation, enthusiasm. Create an interview environment that facilitates openness for people to talk about their barriers without it being seen as an “excuse”. Opportunity to bring in life experiences and skills not necessarily related to physics and demonstrate potential to learn new skills.
  • Preparation of interviewees and addressing unconscious biases. Funding mechanisms in place for those “middling” students who need the opportunity to present themselves in a “bigger way”. ‘Middling students’ need help with applications and interview prep.  
  • Head of Schools should be responsible for implementing change – if there is a strong leadership role model it is more likely change will be implemented. 
  • Internships should not be unpaid and should be appropriately advertised, taking into account ‘the reach’ to underprivileged areas. 
  • Neurodiversity – consider how certain aspects of the interview process could be disadvantageous for some students (eg teamwork could be a problem to evidence).
  • Need consistency across the whole uni network although hard to implement.
  • Training helps but if it’s not being implemented then there should be consequences, clear criteria for standardised questions. 
  • Need Research Councils to set out these expectations.

How to aim towards an inclusive curriculum

Piers Wilkinson, Policy and Campaigns Lead, Inclusive Education Team, Diversity and Ability

What might we be unable to anticipate? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Anything outside of our direct experience can be a challenge.
  • How individuals will respond to changes put in place. How individuals view their own situation may be viewed differently by someone else. 
  • National level circumstances – eg the pandemic, change of government, NHS crisis. 
  • Can’t necessarily anticipate the benefits of changes – need a proactive approach to facing the challenges.
  • Trends in Higher Education (eg strong requirement to code) or technological developments – how do these impair inclusivity? 
  • Increases in ADHD/autism – greater stress in Higher Education due to delays in diagnosis. 
  • Anything invisible is hard to anticipate – need to be proactive and try to think as broadly as possible and put many options in place.
  • Issues might arise during the course of study that were not initially present.
  • Might not be able to anticipate barriers to implement changes even if changes are identified.

What are the challenges to building an inclusive curriculum? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • The learning environment of students during their degree – labs and lectures. Need to use a variety of approaches and ways to engage.
  • Assessment methods – need a variety of assessment approaches so students can demonstrate learning. 
  • Structural issues with building design – need accessible buildings. 
  • Staff understanding of what is meant by an inclusive curriculum and accepting that things have to change – are they competent/do they have the necessary skills?
  • Need feedback and evaluation from students, are changes working? Does the data account for student perceptions?
  • Making changes to the curriculum that assist some individuals but then don’t exclude others.
  • Barriers to implement changes or ideas – eg at an institutional level, HR or estates constraints. 

What does belonging look like? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Feeling welcome and part of the whole student experience.
  • Culture of celebrating differences.
  • Belonging is not making comparisons between people. 
  • Biggest barriers to student progression – lack of belonging. 
  • Overcome social barriers – eg commuter students may not feel as socially included. Additional consideration for international students adapting to a new environment. 
  • Physical social spaces – some students don’t like this type of environment – consider how to cater for this. 

What professional advantages would an inclusive curriculum provide your students? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Strong course content and assessment processes that address EDI issues will actually make it better for all students.
  • Showcase the best in all individuals and bring out their talents and skills. 
  • Make well-rounded individuals that understand and normalise differences – improves self-awareness of their own skills – making them more employable.
  • Students that are able to identify their own strengths, weaknesses, and soft skills and bring them to the surface for interviews.
  • Good practice in the curriculum will eventually trickle down into industry as the students will become the employers.

SEPNet neurodiverse summer placement programme – lessons learnt and impact

Claire Hepwood, Director of Employer Liaison South East Physics Network

What examples do you have of best practice supporting neurodiverse students to apply for and be successful on placements? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Role modelling – sharing experiences between mentor and mentee. People returning from placements as mentors and peer support for the next placement students. 
  • Mock interviews, if designed properly. Need to reflect on whether they are actually designed in a way that inadvertently weeds out neurodiverse students eg does the mock interview “ramp up” anxiety levels?
  • Working with local SMEs to offer summer placements and/or mentoring.
  • Being mindful of the type of interview questions used and how they are presented e.g. breaking the questions down, providing written questions prior to the interview.

How can we design assessments so that the value of different ways of thinking is properly credited? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Design assessments in a different way, choices of assessment or variety to allow students to demonstrate their abilities, e.g. poster sessions, talks. Tap into preferred method of assessment, gently pushing students out of their comfort zone to use other communication styles. Portfolio of assessment – different forms for the same learning outcomes.
  • Remove the time penalty on exams.
  • Marking scheme is too rigid. 
  • Mock assessment so students know what is expected of them. 

Can we design a curriculum which suits neurodiverse students and enhances learning for all? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Reviewing evidence that exams don’t suit neurodiverse students and other forms of assessment do.
  • Different ways to access materials.
  • Changing Module Leader every few years to ensure the curriculum is refreshed.
  • AI could help with some constraints moving forward.
  • Universal design for learning is difficult with different university approaches, different module leader approaches etc.
  • Asynchronous learning would suit many students – how would this work in practice?
  • Neurodiverse is a large umbrella term so effective change is hard to achieve. 
  • Elephant in the room – it does take time and resources, there are lots of practicalities to take into consideration. 

How scared should we be about ChatGPT

Prof Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

Do you believe that AI tools can support student learning? If so, how? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Cautiously yes – AI can’t replace everything –  students need to be able to check their understanding using physics principles. For example if AI gives a wrong answer students need to understand and explain why it’s wrong, ensuring it’s used with integrity.
  • Current method of assessment is archaic – 100 years old.
  • There are many opportunities to use AI and inevitably we are going to have to embed it. It’s a good opportunity to change how we do things, maybe asking questions which are more open ended and teaching how you solve a problem, how you break it down into manageable steps, map out the solution strategy.
  • AI is an amazing learning tool – need to support students to use it.

Can AI tools be leveraged to develop equitable assessment? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Can help students to express themselves and to write well.  
  • Concern that those with less money will only be able to use the free, “lite-version”. Or different versions provided by different institutions etc. 
  • We need to understand how to ask the right questions in AI.
  • People may not feel comfortable integrating with technology in this way – maybe other EDI issues will open up.
  • In terms of equality of information – AI probably has unconscious bias as do humans based on the information and data it has available to produce its responses. 
  • Concern that if we design AI learning systems that mimic specific parts of the brain, these parts of the brain will die out through lack of use. 

Where do you see the benefits of generative AI to enhance the learning experience? Or is it just a problem? Summary of the attendees discussions:

  • Saves a lot of time. 
  • Students could feel more comfortable asking “stupid” questions via AI. Good with helping students to understand concepts in many different ways, e.g. repetitive answers, some will find it more comfortable to chat with but it should not replace human contact.
  • Could be used for the first or second draft to overcome the “blank page”. 
  • Good for marking and feedback. Perhaps more so for subjects like maths which is factual rather than theoretical subjects.
  • Can test critical thinking – is the AI answer correct? Need to recognise “hallucinations” – when the answer sounds correct but is actually gibberish.
  • Concerned how long it will be free for. 
  • Calculators changed the nature of assessment – are people complaining now?
  • Different people have different learning styles – what does this mean for chatGPT?


Prof Sir William Wakeham

Chair of the South East Physics Network (SEPNet)

Bill retired as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton in 2009 after an extensive academic career. Additional roles have included Chair of the University and Colleges Employers’ Association, a Member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and a member of the Board of the South East of England Development Agency. In 2008 he chaired a UK Government Review of Physics in the UK, completed a review of the effectiveness of Full Economic Costing of Research in 2010 and a review of STEM graduate employability in 2016. Bill has been a specialist advisor to the House of Lords Committee on Science and Technology and a consultant to the Portuguese and Canadian Research Councils. Bill is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering where he was Senior Vice-President and International Secretary for several years. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institute of Physics. Bill is currently an Emeritus Professor at the University of Southampton and a Visiting Professor at Imperial College London, Instituto Superior Tecnico, Lisbon, University of Exeter, as well as Chair of the Exeter Science Park Company, Non-Executive Director of Ilika plc, Trustee of Royal Anniversary Trust and the Rank Prizes Fund. He was made a Knight Bachelor in 2009 for services to Chemical Engineering and Higher Education.

Back to Programme

Prof Jacob Dunningham

Executive Director of SEPnet & Prof of Physics at the University of Sussex

Jacob’s research focuses on quantum technologies and he is also Deputy Director of the Sussex Centre for Quantum Technologies and served as Head of Department from 2018 until 2020. He studied at the Universities of Auckland and Oxford and was a Reader at the University of Leeds before moving to Sussex.

Back to Programme

Professor Helen Gleeson OBE

Cavendish Professor of Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leeds

Helen was Head of School, Dean for Research for Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Manchester and Head of School at the University of Leeds. She has more than 35 years of award-winning experience of experimental studies of liquid crystals. Helen was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2009 that acknowledged her work on equality and inclusion in physics in addition to her scientific achievements. She won the 2018 Times Higher Education Outstanding Research Supervisor of the Year award, reflecting both her approach to mentoring early career researchers and to improving the environment for minorities. Helen chairs the Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund and was appointed as the Institute of Physics Advisor to Council for Inclusion and Diversity in November 2021. Helen currently holds a prestigious Established Career Fellowship awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK.

Back to Programme

Piers Wilkinson, Policy and Campaigns Lead, Inclusive Education Team

Diversity and Ability

Piers has been deeply involved in representing disabled students for over 7 years, culminating in their election to national representative positions during the last 5 years. Piers was initially appointed as a Student Voice Commissioner. Piers also worked as an access consultant specialising in inclusive design within education, digital accessibility, user design learning, and inclusive campaigns. Projects Piers has previously worked on include the 2016 UNCRPD inquiry, the Arriving at Thriving report on disabled student experiences, and providing expert advice on collaborative projects such as Student Minds’ Mental Health Charter, and the 2019 Phaseout of Plastic Pollution Bill. As a Student Voice Commissioner, ensuring the lived experience of disabled students shapes and supports the decisions made about disabled students is a key priority of Piers’. The commission aims to achieve equity, from quality provision of DSA, to extracurricular opportunities.

Back to Programme

Claire Hepwood, Director of Employer Liaison

South East Physics Network

Claire graduates with a degree in computer science. Claire worked in industry specialising in high performance computing and parallel programming. Claire has held a variety of positions from Software Analyst to Professional Services Consultant working at Cray Research, SGI and ECMWF. Claire‘s most recent work at AWE focused on collaborating with their French counterparts and forging relationships with academia in the UK. Claire worked as a HPC Collaborator before taking on the position of Strategic Outreach Scientist working for the Chief Scientist. Claire sourced and organised sponsorship for WISE events and was influential in AWE becoming an active member of WISE. Claire is a member of the BSC, WiHPC and WISE. Claire has worked with SEPnet since 2017 supporting students and working with academics to embed employability into the curriculum. Claire is especially passionate about widening the participation and engagement of all students, irrespective of social, economic, ethnic or gender background.

Back to Programme

Professor Philip Moriarty

School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham

Philip’s research interests span nanometre scale science with a particular current focus on single atom/molecule manipulation using scanning probes leading to numerous publications and grant awards. He has a keen interest in outreach activities, primary and secondary education, and both science and higher education funding policy. In addition to participating in a number of research council-funded public engagement projects (including Giants of the Infinitesimal), he has been interviewed, and written for, The Independent, The Guardian, Times Higher Education, BBC Radio 4, Die Zeit, and The Economist amongst others. Philip’s also a regular contributor to the Sixty Symbols YouTube project and blogs as often as he can at Symptoms Of The Universe. In his spare time, he enjoys exploring the deep and fundamental connections that exist between quantum physics and heavy metal (music, not Au, Ag, and Cu!).

Back to Programme