In our interactions with thousands undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and senior administration officials at research and teaching institutions around the globe, we observed a pattern that leads to the attrition of promising (underrepresented) scholars in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in higher education.  Our observations led us to a metaphor that connects social science, social justice, and physics in order to understand this phenomenon.  It is our hope that the proposed relationship between the mysterious physics of ‘the unseen’ dark matter in the universe and the unusual dynamics of institutions of higher education will provide a unique perspective on inclusion for faculty, administrators, and students in STEM fields.

Our paper, entitled, Dark Matters: Metaphorical Black Holes Affecting Ethnic Underrepresentation in Engineering was published by ASEE in 2016.  The abstract for this paper with section headings is provided below:

Orbits and Academic Departments

Orbits surrounding engineering departments can have negative effects on diverse scholars, and challenges related to broadening participation in engineering can be metaphorical black holes. As an example, inadequate mentoring can cause graduate students to leave engineering degree programs. However faculty mentoring can be influenced by cultures within departments or colleges, under the leadership of chairs and deans respectively. Problems that diverse graduate engineering students experience, and positions that faculty take regarding these experiences, can be described loosely using physics metaphors, e.g., dark matter, black holes, Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs), Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), and event horizon. Dark matter doesn’t emit light and includes MACHOs and WIMPs. MACHOs in turn can consist of small stars, black holes, and brown dwarfs (objects ranging in size between the largest planet Jupiter and a small star.) Black holes are regions in outer space where the force of gravity is so strong that light is unable to escape. Some black holes are a result of dying stars. The event horizon is a boundary that marks the limits of a black hole, and nothing that enters a black hole can get out, or be observed from outside of the event horizon.

Metaphorical Black Holes

Metaphorically, black holes are areas where students experience turmoil (e.g., implicit bias, lack of mentoring) that leads to attrition. Professors’ views outside of the event horizon, the black hole’s boundary, don’t reveal the realities inside of the black hole. The correlation to physics is that at the event horizon, objects that approach black holes are viewed as being suspended in animation. Outside of the event horizon, it isn’t possible to see what is happening inside of the black hole. Metaphorically, the person falling into the black hole is being obliterated, however outside observers don’t see the damage because events past the event horizon are only evident to the student inside of the black hole.

Gravitational Forces

Metaphorical black holes can be avoided by developing constructs that develop students’ STEM identity such that the gravitational pull (the invisible force that causes massive objects to pull other objects towards them) is strong enough to withstand biases and gaps in mentoring. Graduate student professional development programs that infuse diverse external mentors into students’ environments can provide thrusts that avoid black holes. In one NSF-program, data showed that Black and Latino graduate students in engineering and IT experienced a sense of mentoring in external workshops that they didn’t regularly receive within departments. Further, these seminars influenced students to strengthen their STEM identity. These kinds of interventions metaphorically return us to physics, as objects can avoid destructive black holes if they are thrust into orbits that are far enough away from the event horizon. This paper uses physics to describe problems that occur within graduate student and faculty mentor relationships, with emphasis on experiences from underrepresented students. Physics metaphors coupled with social science research and graduate student data present an interdisciplinary approach to demonstrate that student motivation and success are possible with purposeful attention to the academic environment.

Photo credit: NASA by Space Telescope Science Institute under Contract NAS5-26555, or for ESA by the Hubble European Space Agency Information Centre. The Keyhole Nebula, within NGC 3372. A mosaic of four April 1999 images by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2.
Date: 3 February 2000;  Author: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)