Forensics and Race - Teaching Diversity in a Physics Lab (Phys-111: Our Universe: Forensics Lab)

Gregory Braun, Ph.D.
Mentor: Ginger McKenzie, Ph.D. (Education)

Photo of Dr. Greg BraunAs the importance of diversity becomes more significant to the University's Jesuit mission, it becomes the responsibility of the faculty to address these issues in the classroom. Diversity is part of the Xavier University mission to "form our students intellectually, morally, and spiritually, with rigor and compassion, toward lives of solidarity, service, and success". Because physics attempts objectivity and detachment from society, this provides a challenge. But, the course Physics and Forensics offers a strong connection between science and society, and so is well-suited to adapting to teach social issues. I decided to look primarily at racial diversity, and hoped to show that the detachment from society provides science with an objectivity that serves to avoid the racial prejudices so common in our society. Through the process, I learned both what does and does not work well. While the overall student response was mediocre, I do believe that important issues were brought to the minds of the students. Within the limitations of the physics laboratory class, I am satisfied with the results of the project.

The course used was Phys 111, Our Universe: Forensics Lab, which we usually refer to as "Physics and Forensics". This is a core science class (the reason for the Our Universe denotation), taken by non-science majors to satisfy the sciences requirement. Many of the students choose this course because of some small interest in forensics, or at least in forensics-based television shows. Other students take the class only because it fits within their schedule. One criminal justice student has taken the course each of the last two semesters, but other than this the students have no dedication to the science of forensics. The course consists of lecture twice a week and lab once, with the lab broken into two sections. I taught both lab sections, and wanted to see what could be done to bring diversity issues to this part of the course.

The course teaches some of the methods used in forensics, but more importantly, teaches the science behind the methods. We want to show the students how scientists think and do things, rather than teaching them how to be forensic scientists. For our purposes, forensics is an example of an application of science. While the course topics include chemistry and biology in addition to physics, the focus is more on the nature of science itself, independent of any specific discipline. In the lab, we both practice these techniques and demonstrate the scientific processes that are involved. In some lab periods, we do not do anything that a forensic scientist would do, but instead deal with the phenomena that make the forensics possible.

The science of forensics is intrinsically linked to the criminal justice system, which has obvious racial issues. I wanted to look at how these racial issues affect how scientists must deal with certain techniques. When dealing with a population of unequal proportions, it is always important to be aware of how this will affect the science. For instance, while 12% of the U.S. population is black, they make up 41% of the prison population1. This tells us that whatever the cause, we can expect similar disparities in those involved in criminal investigations. We must learn how to deal with these inequalities and provide the most accurate results. This concern with accuracy is not just moral, but also scientific.

While I wanted to deal with racial diversity, I did not want to detract from the science in the class. In particular, I did not want this to become an ethics of technology course and debate the general use of forensics technology in the justice system. Rather, I want to look at specific ways in which race affects how we do forensics. Science still needs to be the focus of the course. So, while we mentioned the disparate treatment of different races, this was not the focus. Instead we focused on the extra thought needed by forensic scientists to prevent forensic evidence from contributing to this disparity. To this end, I discussed three topics involving racial issues, with increasing objectivity and reliability.

I must say that for the remaining weeks of lab we did not mention race at all. Some topics, such as fingerprinting or glass fragment analysis simply have no racial issues. I should also mention that we did not discuss the racial differences in victims of crime, for the simple reason that forensic evidence tends to deal much more with the perpetrator than the victim.

Course Topics Related to Diversity

The first lab dealing with diversity was the lab on eyewitness identification. Here we discussed two issues, the first being the differences in identification of people of different races. Race is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a person, and the races are not equally represented in the population. Identification of an individual with any minority trait is different from that of a majority trait, whether the trait is race, height, or any other obvious physical descriptor. If an individual is described with a height of 6'8", this piece of information is of a different nature than that of someone 5'10". A person of extreme height is more easily identified, because fewer people are of that height; thus the height of this person carries more information than the height of a mediumsized person. The danger is that this one piece of information blinds us to other characteristics, if height is the only factor we consider. The same is true of race. If a suspect is identified as a black male in a predominately white population, then this fact eliminates a large number of people and so carries a good deal of information. If we use this to ignore other factors, however, then we run the high risk of identifying the wrong person. At the scientific level, we have to treat identification of a minority race, height, etc., as different from that of a majority trait.

This is an issue with any type of identification of any type of subject, but it becomes much more important when dealing with race. The fact is that the forensics techniques listed here may all discover the race of a suspect and nothing else. In a society that treats different races very differently, identifying a suspect by no more than their race can perpetuate stereotypes. In addition, this can lead to misidentification of innocent members of the same race. While any information is potentially useful to a scientist, this one piece of data can unfortunately strengthen the link in society's mind between race and crime.

The above effect is compounded by the fact that eyewitness identification is inherently subjective and unreliable. Whenever the judgment is being made by humans, personal prejudices are bound to interfere. And racial prejudices are some of the strongest, whatever those prejudices may be. We know that different races are not represented equally in the criminal justice system, whatever the cause. Finally, in addition to prejudices, any eyewitness identification is simply unreliable2.

The other issue we dealt with in the eyewitness identification lab is that of the Own-Race Bias, also called the "other race effect". Many studies over the years have shown that witnesses are about one and a half times more likely to make a mistake when identifying individuals of races other than their own2. While there are multiple theories for the reason behind this, our concern is the fact that it happens. As scientists, we would give less weight to interracial identification than to that of the same race, since it has shown to be less reliable. As a society, we have to consider the ramifications of determining the value of testimony based on race.

The next lab dealing with racial diversity was one in which we observed some identifying properties of hair. Here the students looked at hair under a microscope and learned what can be done to match samples. Looking at strands of hair alone can tell us only a few things, one of which is possibly race. Again we are faced with race being possibly all we know of a suspect, and many of the problems with eyewitness identification return. Hair identification is also somewhat subjective, and so personal prejudices again may interfere with the science. While far better than eyewitness identification, hair analysis does depend on judgment calls by the analyst. Here we are dealing with the prejudices of the forensic scientist instead of a general witness, and we may have more confidence in the objectivity of the professional scientist. This is the middle step in the theme of progressing objectivity of techniques, being more objective than eyewitness testimony, but less so than DNA. Also, hair analysis is more reliable than eyewitnesses, but less so than DNA. The FBI used DNA to investigate the accuracy of hair analysis and found 11% of positive hair matches to be false3.

Finally, we did a lab involving DNA. The actual lab itself dealt with beads showing the structure of DNA, as well as the steps taken to analyze it. However, at the beginning of the class we discussed some of the properties of DNA analysis related to race. The first thing I mentioned is that DNA has shown us there is no difference between races at the genetic level; there is no gene for "race." This leads to that fact that DNA evidence is not subject to some of the problems that other forensic techniques are. DNA analysis is much less affected by personal prejudices than are eyewitness and hair analysis. DNA is thus more color-blind, and it is this objectivity we value in a science. Here was a great opportunity to show that good science is less prone to personal prejudice.

We talked about using DNA to exonerate wrongly convicted suspects by groups such as the Innocence Project4. The statistics for these exonerations show that the racial makeup of those exonerated in general mirrors that of the prison population, which does not indicate or contraindicate any specific racial bias in the accuracy of convictions. The exception to this is if we look only at rape offenders, in which a disproportionate number of those exonerated are black. The significance of DNA exoneration to us was that it shows the unreliability of other, more subjective techniques. It is of note that false eyewitness identification played a part in 74% of the cases where the convicted was ultimately exonerated by DNA evidence5.

Usually, a DNA sample from a crime scene is matched to a sample taken from an individual. If there is no individual with whom to compare, the race of the DNA samples source may still be determined. While DNA does not show definitive differences between races, it can show traits that are more common in one racial gene pool than another. These markers can give a probable match for race. This technique is prone to error, and is also controversial6, and all of the earlier issues with knowing only a suspect's race remain problematic.

The Student Response

Laboratory classes are structured with an initial explanation and by the instructor, followed by the students performing the experiment or activity in pairs. The instructor helps individual groups during the entire period, but most of the presentation of material is done in the introductory lecture, and this is where most of my discussion of diversity occurred. The down side of this is that the students know that they are free to go upon completion of the experiment and so are eager to get started. This always makes student participation in the introductory lecture very limited, which is usually not a problem since they are participating throughout the lab. Since the diversity issues were dealt with primarily at the beginning of the class, student participation was limited. In future semesters, I hope to change this and involve diversity material throughout the lab period.

A note of interest is that, at the beginning of the eyewitness identification lab period, I asked the students to list some of the traits used to visually identify someone. I found it interesting that in both sections race was one of the very last things mentioned, after height, weights, scars, tattoos, etc. I think this represents a reluctance to think about race at all. This reluctance to bring up the issue is one of the things that I wanted to overcome.

At the end of the semester, we do a mock crime scene, where students and faculty were suspects in a staged crime. It happened by chance that in one section one of the students was identified as a black female by an eyewitness. I was very pleased when students brought up some of the issues we discussed at the very beginning of the semester. Although there was only one black student in the suspect pool (the other lab section), the students were quick to point out that this identification really had limited value in the case. Their discussion let me know that at least the few students working on this part of the case understood very well exactly what I had wanted to express upon them and remembered it months later.

When analyzing hair samples for the mock crime scene, the students first looked at the hair, and then chose students from a "mug book" from which to acquire hair samples for comparison. Some of the hairs found at the scene of the mock crime were of a very dark color, which led the students to request hair from students with dark hair, including the few black and Hispanic students. We talked about the effects of selecting members of one race for further analysis, and whether or not this was good science. Since the issue was purely hair color, the students determined that race was not much of an issue here. Hopefully, they understood that part of the scientific process is determining whether any factor is relevant, race or otherwise.

Near the end of the course, the class was assigned a short research paper on a topic showing the intersection of forensics and society. They were to look at some aspect of forensics that affected, or was affected by, not only those involved in the case but society at large. This could consist of looking at one specific case, a forensic technique, or some trend in forensics as a whole. While I expected many students would choose some diversity issue, only a few did so. Many students misunderstood the project, and failed to deal with any significant societal issue. Those that did deal with society covered interesting topics, but not many were diversity related. This may be partially due to the fact that students thought they needed to deal with something beyond what was done in the lab, and so they chose a topic other than diversity. Whatever the reason, I was disappointed that so few students did chose to further investigate diversity issues.

While the student response was less than I had expected, I am still glad that this material was introduced into the class. I do feel that the project was a success, and will continue to implement this material in the course. I hope that as I become more experienced in teaching this material, it may be better integrated into the lab experience as a whole, becoming a more central part of the labs in which it is involved.

When I started thinking about this project, I considered the possibility that this would be a candidate for the university's proposed diversity requirement. I have since reached the conclusion that this will not meet the requirements for such a course, at least as they are proposed now. The biggest issue is that there are only isolated topics which are relevant to diversity. The majority of the course (both lab and lecture) deal with scientific topics unrelated to diversity, and attempting to make diversity an underlying theme of the entire course would severely hinder the science. That being said, I think that the topics where race is a factor are very important, and need to be discussed. Whether or not Forensics fulfills a diversity requirement, I believe the university mission compels me to discuss these issues when they are relevant.


  1. Harrison, Paige M. and Beck, Allen J., Prisoners in 2005, Bureau of Justice Bulletin, http://www.ojp.usdoj. gov/bjs/pubalp2.htm#Prisoners
  2. Meissner, Christian A. and Brigham, John C., Thirty Years of Investigating the Own-Race Bias in Memory for Faces: A Meta-Analytic Review, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 1, 3-35 10
  3. Saferstein, Richard. Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science. (8th ed.) Pearson Education Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2004.
  5. Rizer, Aurthur L., III, The Race Effect on Wrongful Convictions, William Mitchel Law Review, Vol. 29:3, 2003, p845-867.
  6. Cho, M. and Sankar, P., Nature Genetics Supplement, Vol. 36, No. 11, November 2004.

Back to Top

Modern Physics in the Spirit of the Jesuit Tradition

Justin J. Link, Ph.D.
Mentor: David Mengel, Ph.D. (History)

Justin J. Link, Ph.D.Modern science has a tendency of being presented as the existence of facts found in nature. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of the greater good is often not considered in the light of the search for fundamental truth. As technology continues to grow, impressively opening windows to new areas of research not previously realized, one must take into consideration the impact on society as a whole. It is here at Xavier University that we can create the environment that is "dedicated to engaging and forming students intellectually, morally and spiritually, with rigor and compassion, towards lives of solidarity, service and success." With the topics presented in Modern Physics, excellent opportunities arise to illustrate the ethical and moral implications inherent in this pursuit of knowledge.

Modern Physics (Phys 330 and 340) is a year-long course typically consisting of sophomore physics majors. The course addresses the important physical discoveries from 1890 to the present. Topics covered include Einstein's Special Relativity, Bohr's model of the hydrogen atom, quantum physics phenomena, radioactivity, nuclear reactions, high-energy physics, and fundamental particles. Due to the exponential growth of technological advances, there have been more breakthrough physical discoveries in the last century than there has been in previous millennia. The rigorous and ambitious objectives set in the course description truly limit the available time to have quality in-depth discussions concerning all of the moral repercussions involved in Modern Physics. As a result, the current international heated topic of nuclear power, both in electrical supply and weaponry, was the focus of our discussions.

Text books for the modern sciences thoroughly cover the scientific aspects of nuclear power but fail to address any moral implications, therefore, class discussions are included to increase the scope of the course. The time allotment for such discussions was originally set for one fifty minute class period. Due to the enthusiastic response from the students and excellent discussion, several class periods were required for the exercise. Before any such discussions began, the issue of respect was thoroughly emphasized due to the heated topics addressed. The students were also instructed to put themselves in the shoes of the scientists working on the projects, not as outsiders looking in. This point of view gained by such instruction lead to extremely insightful discussion. As the facilitator of the discussion, I played the role of devil's advocate trying to challenge the students to critically think about their comments in the discussion. It is with this challenge that the students appeared to dive deeper into the topics.

The first topic addressed was the use and control of nuclear energy. To begin the discussion, several challenging questions were posted for all to review and consider. The questions were as followed:

  • Is nuclear energy a safe and viable option?
  • What is the environmental impact of nuclear energy?
  • As nuclear power facilities reach their life expectancy, should they be allowed to continue to operate?
  • Would you want a nuclear power plant in your city?
  • Can nuclear power assist the socioeconomic status of troubled countries?

Can we responsibly supply the technology needed to these countries? These questions were not intended to inject my personal opinion, merely to ask the hard questions that the students must address and consider. Each question stimulated more in-depth responses but the attitude of the class changed significantly when discussing the last three questions. In order to have the students understand the significance of this topic, I introduced them to the nuclear facilities close to Xavier. Discussing facilities such as the Davis-Besse Power Plant in Toledo and the Perry nuclear power plants located in Cleveland illustrated that these issues are relevant to each and every student's lives. To bring the issue even closer to home, we discussed the history of the Zimmer Power plant and how it related to the mistakes made at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The implications of the new Piketon Nuclear Power Plant, which is only 90 miles away from Xavier University, were also discussed. The overall sentiment of the students was that nuclear power plants have an overall good effect but they didn't want them in their back yards.

The final two questions of the topic brought forth intriguing discussions. At the time of the discussions, the United Nations was attempting to control the Iranian procurement and control of nuclear enrichment facilities for the purpose of nuclear power and potentially weaponry. It became clear that most of the students had not critically thought about the implications or moral justifications for or against Iran obtaining the nuclear technology. Some students believed that the best solution was for the United States to build the facilities and control them at all costs. It soon became evident that this may not be a viable option and the complexity of the situation frustrated the students. This discussion was finalized at the end of the class period and nuclear weaponry was resumed in the following class.

The use and control of nuclear weaponry was the second topic addressed. To begin the discussion, three short video clips were shown to prepare the students for the discussion. The first two clips were that of the Nagasaki bomb explosion, and the released military video of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The final video clip was that of J. Robert Oppenheimer discussing the attitude of the scientists on the Manhattan project after the first successful test of a controlled nuclear explosion. These clips visibly upset the students and illustrated to them the severity of the nuclear weapon discussion. Just as before, the same discussion technique was used and the questions were as follows:

  • Do you, as a scientist, need to consider the moral implications of your scientific research?
  • Placing yourself in the shoes of the scientists of the Manhattan project, would you have completed the work on nuclear weapons?
  • Is the use of nuclear weapons necessary?
  • Do we still need to build more nuclear weapons?
  • Do other countries have a right to advance their nuclear weapon programs?
  • Do we have an obligation to share the technology with other countries?

These topics were by nature much more controversial and this fact showed in the discussions. The students quickly came to a heated discussion on the use of nuclear weapons and the building of the nuclear arms race. Being of the generation where the Cold War is something of the past and only discussed in text books, several students did not understand the need for the building of our own nuclear weapon stock pile. I personally found this rather eye-opening and was happy to hear the responses from other students. One student went as far as to research the topic and was happy to supply the class with several uncommon facts behind the fight for the first nuclear weapon. The last two questions introduced to the students once again challenged them to discuss the current events.At the end of the two-class exercise, the students were presented with two comments from the father of the Manhattan project J. Robert Oppenheimer. After the end of WWII, he stepped down from the nuclear arms program due to his moral convictions, and the project went on without him to develop the hydrogen bomb. I personally believe that these two statements truly brought home the message to the students.

"If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and values."

"[W]e have made a thing, a most terrible weapon, that has altered abruptly and profoundly the nature of the world. We have made a thing that, by all standards of the world we grew up in, is an evil thing. And by doing so, by our participation in making it possible to make these things, we have raised again the question of whether science is good for man, of whether it is good to learn about the world, to try to understand it, to try to control it, to help give to the world of men increased insight, increased power. Because we are scientists, we must say an unalterable yes to these questions; it is our faith and our commitment, seldom made explicit, even more seldom challenged, that knowledge is a good in itself, knowledge and such power as must come with it."

By the end of the two-day discussion, several comments truly exhibited the significance of this effort. Student comments such as: "If we don't do it, who will?", "Who would be better to do the job than those who have morals and consider the ethical implication of the research" and "If we were in the shoes of those working on the Manhattan project, if we quit to demonstrate our vested interest in the nuclear weapons program, the program would still go on without us and those who continue the work may or may not consider the impact on society." These comments alone highlighted the importance and significance of our jobs as Xavier University professors to ask the hard and challenging questions to our students. These discussions emphasized the need for us to continue to be "dedicated forming students intellectually, morally and spiritually, with rigor and compassion, towards lives of solidarity, service and success."


Back to Top

Building Electronic Circuits to Help Our Community

Haider Raad, Ph.D. Haider Raad, Ph.D.
Mentor: Minerva Catral, Ph.D.

As technology continues to evolve and open new areas of research and academic disciplines, one must take into account the impact on society as a whole. In exploring ideas for the IMP project, I thought that the laboratory experiments in PHYS 243 (Circuit Analysis Laboratory) and the required final project for the lecture part (PHYS 242) offered splendid opportunities in engaging students to grow their spirit of solidarity, compassion and service, and that they can demonstrate this by implementing projects dedicated to help those in need in our local community.


Course Description and Goals (from Course Syllabus):


The Circuit Analysis course covers the fundamental concepts and laws of electric AC and DC circuits. Students will learn about Kirchhoff's laws, passive linear components including resistor, capacitor, and inductor, and circuit design. Analysis techniques such as: Nodal, mesh, superposition theorem, Thevenin's and Norton's theorems will be covered. Moreover, transient analysis of linear circuits, power and power transfer, impedances, ideal transformers, operational amplifiers, and filters will be covered as well. A final project based on the covered material is required. The goal of the course is to allow students to gain a conceptual understanding of the course material in a manner that fosters critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Course Objectives:

  • Obtain a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental concepts and laws of electric circuits.
  • Obtain analytical skills for solving problems in Electricity.
  • Obtain a complete knowledge of the analysis and design of AC and DC circuits in addition to basic filters.
  • Build a circuit that meets a practical requirement through the course final project.

It should be noted that the final project is implemented and presented within the laboratory part of the course (PHYS 243).

After brainstorming with my mentor, Dr. Minerva Catral, we agreed that the PHYS 243 (Circuit Analysis Laboratory) would be a perfect candidate to pilot such project. When discussing the final project requirements with my students I have asked them to use Fr. Graham's quote "Xavier University is dedicated to engaging and forming students intellectually, morally and spiritually, with rigor and compassion, toward lives of solidarity, service and success." as an inspiration when proposing their final projects (mid semester). In the final reports I have added the requirement of including a reflection paragraph in the conclusion section. Twelve students have participated in this project (working in pairs) which have resulted six different implemented projects. Five groups out of six have included a reflection section in their final reports which are summarized below.

Project 1: Bridge Circuit for Self-Regulating Heated Plate for 3D Printer

Problem Addressed: The community problem addressed is that inner-city school systems typically do not have enough of money to invest in new Science, Technology, Engineering, and/or Mathematical (STEM) equipment to motivate students to go into such fields. A common problem that could be faced with inner-city schools is that when they do invest in STEM equipment, they cannot afford the most expensive and top of the line equipment. The self-regulating device will make heated plates for 3D printers DIY, and more importantly, affordable. In order to accomplish this task, a bridge circuit was used to generate a self-regulating heated plate. This would not only save money on purchasing a heated plate, but this would also save on energy expenditure. Since it is self-regulating, the heated plate would turn off when it does not need to be used. Since heating a plate requires a large energy expenditure, this project would not only impact students across the world with its affordability, it would also be eco-friendly.

Reflection: "I also really enjoyed the theme of the project. It motivated me to finish and make the project as good as possible because I knew that it could end up helping the greater community. Furthermore, this is a project that could influence more young people to enter STEM fields, which would further change the world. Between the life experience and the real world application of helping the community, especially potential STEM students, I think that this project was both insightful and successful".

Project 2: Handicap Escalator

Problem Addressed: For my project my main concern was people who are handicapped, and who have trouble climbing stairs. My plan was to build a circuit that turns a set of stair into an escalator. This solves two different problems: it will help those who are not able to climb stairs easily, and it will save money on escalators that run all of the time.

Reflection: "The project itself was a great experience. It not only forced us to build a circuit, but it also made us think of a way to help the community. I believe that my circuit is very practical for small distance escalators, and that it could be used in buildings. It will save on electricity, and help those who have trouble breathing".

Project 3: Cost-Effective Alarm system

Problem Addressed: Many communities in our country and countries across the world suffer from effects caused by poverty. One of the many unfortunate side effects of poverty is the increase in theft related incidents in the given area. This in turn causes the small businesses who get robbed to lose money, which inhibits them from purchasing better security systems. It may seem like an effective, cheap alarm system is an oxymoron, but it is only that way if you let it be. To solve the problem of poverty-related theft, I decided to come up with a simple alarm that has the ability to fit the user's needs and works well. This alarm can be customized by the user for light threshold, allowing it to be utilized in rooms of varying darkness. Along with light threshold, the interface used to engage the alarm can be varied from the RFID scanner (implemented in my specific design) to include a keypad, a Bluetooth chip, a Wi-Fi module, or even a fingerprint scanner. None of these options, other than the fingerprint scanner, would be more expensive than the RFID scanner, which is only around $5. The only other requirement would be some sort of computer system, whether it be a phone or computer does not matter, to receive the update that the alarm has been set off.

Reflection: None.

Project 4: Elderly Care Alert System

Problem Addressed: The purpose of this project was to test the knowledge of circuits I have gained this semester and implement it into a practical project that may be useful in helping or assisting a body of people. The group of people I chose to zone in on are generally older persons who are bedridden where they are patients of staff members or faculty of an organization or facility. This product will help assist those taking care of bedridden patients as they will not be under 24/7 vigilant watch. If any type of waste, specifically urine, is detected by means of change in temperature, then a signal will be sent to the faculty member under watch to let it be known that the patient is in need of assistance. This product is instituted to further the care of these patients by having swift action taken, not necessarily to eradicate a problem the currently persists.

Reflection: "I was able to meet the design criteria set for me at the start. I'm glad I hopefully am able to produce something that will directly benefit others as well as their family and loved ones because that is important. Everyone will become old and making life as easy and comfortable as possible for all walks of life is a goal I plan to pursue as long as I am able".

Project 5: Power Saver

Problem Addressed: Our circuit is designed to help control the temperature of an environment by using two different types of sensors. The circuit is supposed to turn on an electric heating element as the environment in which it is placed decreases its light intensity and as the temperature of the environment decreases. In order to achieve this result, we used a thermistor that directly correlates to temperature and a photosensor that correlates to a decrease in light intensity. As the resistance of these elements decreases, the heating element will warm and provide heat to the environment. This will help reduce power consumption for many people.

Reflection: "I believe that this circuit can be used for many applications not only in the community, but also in the world. The circuit could be implemented in desert like environments which are very warm during the day and significantly cooler at night. This circuit would allow the people in these types of areas not only to control the temperature in their homes, but also to reduce their energy consumption. Reducing energy is beneficial to everyone because that means that we are reducing the money required to be paid to energy companies, and we are reducing the amount of energy we need to use. The homeowners save some money, and planet earth reduces its greenhouse gases production. This circuit can also be used for humanitarian purposes as well. For example, after a disaster strikes a certain area, energy production is often very rare. Most humanitarian aid programs are required to bring their own generators and produce their own energy. If the aid workers were to implement this circuit, they could save energy of the limited supplies that they have. They may be able to extend the amount of time they have before they need more fuel".

Project 6: Heated Bench for the Homeless

Problem Addressed: The purpose of this project is to produce a functional circuit that can heat a bench when it is cold out, but only when someone is sitting on the bench, in order to help the cold and homeless, who struggle to stay warm in the winter. To create such a circuit, a bridge circuit will be designed, such that the voltage drop is enough to activate a relay, which connects a pressure sensor to a heating unit. A functional bridge circuit was created, as well as a functional relay system, but due to internal resistance, the bridge circuit would not activate the relay.

There are over 100,000 homeless people living in America right now, and with the winter months approaching, most of them will not have a way to stay warm. This circuit is designed to help aid in that problem, as anyone who is cold will be able to use the heated bench to warm up. The benefit of this design is not limited to the homeless, as it can help anyone who is cold.

The first step in creating this circuit is implementing a relay into a pre-configured heating unit. After examining the circuit logic inside of the heating unit, it was concluded that an AND integrated circuit allowed for the heater to turn on when two buttons were pressed. The two default inputs were removed, and were replaced with a pressure sensor and a relay. This means that the heater will activate when the pressure sensor is activated and the relay is closed.

Reflection: "The theme of the final project was a great way to get students to think about how to use their knowledge for good, and if this circuit worked properly, would have fully fit into the theme".


By the end of the semester and aggregating the students' reflections I feel that this pilot project is successful and could be used as a model in future applicable courses where a need-serving practical project is required. I have identified potential courses where such projects can be implemented (i.e.: ENGR 350 Digital Systems, ENGR 354 Microprocessors, and Communication Systems ENGR 358). The students' reflections highlighted the importance of such activities to prepare them to be morally and spiritually aware, and be equipped with compassion and rigor towards building a world of solidarity. On a personal level, I feel that this project has enabled me to better understand the importance of utilizing hands-on project based courses to implement realistic, not only theoretical, practical applications which would enhance the educational experience of students.

Back to Top


Supporting Undergraduate Women in Physics and STEMP Fields Now and Throughout Their Careers

Laura Wessels, PhDLaura Wessels, PhD
Mentor: Supaporn Kradtap Hartwell, PhD (Chemistry)

Imposter syndrome, gender bias, socioeconomic disadvantages, racism: These are all big issues that carry with them a lot of negative connotations. When I think about physics, I like physics because it is an objective discipline. There is a right answer and it can be found using the right equations based on logical reasoning. Tackling a complex social problem such as the low percentage of women in STEMP (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and philosophy) is very different from the types of problems I am used to solving as a physicist. It seems like imposter syndrome, gender bias, socioeconomic disadvantages and racism are out of my scope of expertise and shouldn't have any place in a physics classroom, but unfortunately the opposite is true. These issues are amplified in STEMP fields, especially physics (i.e. less than 20% of physicists are female (Figure 1) and around 75% of physicists are white (Figure 2)). The failure of physics and other STEMP disciplines to diversify creates barriers for some of our students. Sadly these issues are not confined to the classroom, they linger and continue to dog certain groups throughout their career. I have learned of females who get internships or work on group projects in their graduate classes that are often given menial tasks such as cleaning up the workspace or recording the group's data, which do not help further their intellectual growth and decrease their interest in the subject material. These problems need to be tackled within the discipline because our majors need to be prepared both intellectually, socially and spiritually for the careers that await them. We in the physics discipline need to foster kinship and solidarity amongst our majors.

Jesuit education seeks more than just intellectual learning, focusing on the development of the "whole person." Apart from supporting students in acquiring knowledge in their disciplines, I believe that preparing students for their future by caring about their personal endeavors is an essential task. "Cura Personalis" is an important mission of the Jesuit education. I would like to support those of disadvantaged status who experience imposter syndrome, gender bias, socioeconomic disadvantages and racism. Although I have no solutions to end the struggle or even level the playing field, I have tried to forewarn our students so that they can forearm themselves.

Fraction of Bachelor's Degrees in STEM Disciplines Earned by Women graph

Figure 1. Until 2003 females obtaining physics degrees were on the rise, but since then the trend has reversed due to unknown factors. 1

Graphs of Physics degrees by race

Figure 2. About 75% of physicists are white, which is far above the overall US population's percentage of people identifying as white. 1

The first step in tackling these issues is to make our students aware that these issues exist and can affect them and/or their peers. In order to do this, I am part of a group of faculty in the STEMP (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Philosophy) disciplines that arrange for guest speakers, plan workshops and accompany students to women specific conferences. Within this group, I took the lead on writing a grant proposal entitled "Xavier Pilot Program to Support Female Students in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Philosophy (STEMP)" to the Women of Excellence funding group at Xavier University. The project was funded for us to carry out activities throughout the 2017 academic year. Our main goal was to promote inclusivity and to encourage undergraduates, especially females, in disciplines with low female representation to remain in their chosen discipline and to succeed in their future careers

This past semester the #MeToo movement has brought a lot of attention to the treatment of women in business. It has been great for our society to finally bring attention to the abuse of power and how it disproportionately affects women. Recently on XU campus, the Gallagher Student Center has an art installation called "Racism, Sexism, Stereotypes: Then and Now," and the Ethics/Religion and Society (E/RS) Program has had several timely talks in the 2017/2018 academic year. It is beneficial to give students multiple opportunities to attend such talks. However, I think in some instances it is more impactful for students to attend an event hosted by their disciplines because they can then see how it relates to their chosen career path.

I also believe that the best way to minimize the disadvantaged status of females is to educate male colleagues and students about the issue. We, therefore, invited both female and male students/colleagues to join in all the events that we arranged in order to promote "Solidarity and Kinship." Our invited speakers helped us raise awareness regarding women/minority issues in the workplace and society to a broader audience. From these events, I learned that students benefit from conferences where they can meet other women who currently are having the same experiences they are and from hearing speakers talk about their past experiences and how they persisted to eventually be successful in their chosen careers. This is an example of "kinship," where our students can readily identify with the speakers and learn from them. It is also important to include in the audience both males and females in and outside the STEMP fields. The goal is not to preach to the choir but to get everyone, most especially white men, to understand the issues of imposter syndrome, gender bias, socioeconomic disadvantages and racism so they can become part of the solution. This is an example of "solidarity", bringing everyone together in a common cause.

The WOX experience also allows me to take on leadership/management roles such as arranging for food and honorariums for all of our guests, setting the schedule and working out the agenda for our group meetings. I personally invited three of our the speakers to campus, helped arrange one of the workshops, supervised a female undergraduate in creating the group website and I accompanied a student to the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics where I served as a panelist on the Imposter Syndrome and Underrepresented Groups panels (Figure 3). As a group we have accompanied students to 3 conferences, invited 7 speakers who came to talk to students on campus, held 1 workshop and created a group website ( over the past 18 months.


Figure 3. Dr. Wessels (left) from the Dept. of Physics and Brianna Lyons (right), a physics major, attend the poster session at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in Toledo, OH on Jan. 14th, 2018.

Most of the talks went well, with both female and male students in attendance. The feedback received was overwhelmingly positive. Seminar topics such as "imposter syndrome", "work/life balance", "how to handle difficult situations at work", and "when hard work is not enough", seem to resonate well with young undergraduates and faculty members alike. Sometimes faculty members who are not members of our group also attended the talks, leading to even more meaningful discussions of the topics with the invited speakers.

Students who attended the workshops and guest lectures and those who attended the conferences have expressed their gratitude. After the talks, some students approached the invited speakers to introduce themselves and make use of the opportunities to contact and build their networks. Some students who started working part time have personally communicated with the faculty how certain topics resonate with their work experiences and help them better cope with certain difficult emotions, as shown in the following examples of student testimonies. I am happy that I have provided outside classroom opportunities for students to learn and prepare for real life issues, and that the "Cura Personalis" and "Solidarity and Kinship" approaches have produced positive outcomes for our students.

"I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the WOX seminars throughout the year. The Imposter Syndrome and Stereotype threat seminar was extremely interesting because I had never really heard about those topics before. I also enjoyed hearing about Work-Life balance and getting tips that will benefit me years down the road. The events were always insightful and I am grateful that I got a chance to attend these seminars. I know I have only mentioned a few of the seminars offered but really all of them were amazing and I really enjoyed having the opportunity to attend them."

"Thank you for helping put together the work life balance talk. I found it very helpful!"

"I was wondering if you had the speaker's email. I would love to send her an email and thank her for speaking with us."

"I really enjoyed the conference! It was neat to hear talks given by successful women in physics because they aren't cookie cutter. I liked that some were working in corporate, some were working in academia, some had families, some didn't, etc. I also really appreciated them talking about what professors look for in graduate students and they also pushed REUs (Research Experience of Undergraduates) which is something I hadn't heard of before the trip and now I'm doing one this summer! Honestly, the event would be beneficial to any undergrad in physics but it was extra uplifting and motivating for women."

"The CUWiP conference is extremely helpful and eye opening. Before going there I was only aware of a few career options within the physics world, and afterward attending for the first time I decided to change my major into the Engineering Physics as I learned that I enjoyed that much more. The second time attending I was able to appreciate and understand the research that some of the other attendees were presenting and learn what others are doing in the field of physics. It's a great way to network early on and learn all about what is out there in order to make the best decision about your career. The seminars and talks are all very interesting and helpful, and the panel is always happy to answer any questions that you may have. I would absolutely recommend any young woman in the field of physics to attend this. It's very inspiring to see other successful women in physics. I've not been disappointed for the past two years that I've attended and can't wait to attend next year."

All these experiences get incorporated into my advising and teaching, primarily through office hours when I have one on one contact with the students. When I recall the Courageous Conversations two day workshop that I attended in August of 2017, I found that the information I received was primarily introspective. It helped me to gain insight into how other people's experiences within similar social settings differed from my own. Since I have different experiences to draw from, I have found that my role to hear them out and try to direct the students to resources that may be helpful. Information for contacting our invited speakers, a list of resources available on our group's website, and material from our workshops, all become tools that I can use to better support my students moving forward.

1 Physics Graphs and Statistics(2013-2015). Retrieved from:

Back to Top

To provide feedback, please email: is developed by The Center for Mission and Identity at Xavier University with support from the Conway Institute for Jesuit Education. Learn more about Jesuit Resource.