When Ms. Tamia Williams, a new Physics teacher at Bronx Science, interviewed fellow Black physicists on Zoom, the interviewees caught glimpses of something familiar but somewhat off-center in the background. It was a pendulum — not swinging but stationary, not composed of balls but of letters. The physicists needed to reorient their schemas at first. Suspended from painted strings, the varying cursive letters on the canvas spelled Black. Ms. Tamia Williams calls the piece ‘The Cradle.’
In many students’ physics notebooks, Newton’s cradle is transformed (or transcribed rather plainly) in a different way: “P = mass x velocity” is written in black ink. The sheets of paper containing these equations are stored in binders and ready to be memorized the day before the test.
Williams had considered spelling out these equations on the painting, perhaps as an anchor to the physicists before her or as some kind of justification for creating the piece. She decided against it. As an Elements of Engineering and Regents Physics teacher at Bronx Science, her job requires her to know and deliver the equations. But the equations are not all that is important.
Born into a Caribbean family in the Bronx, Ms. Williams grew up immersed in the harmony of chiming church bells and church choirs at Grace Baptist Chapel. “Singing, performing, reciting poetry,” she said. “In church, you’re just singing all the time.”
In third grade, she discovered her skill in math and won the classroom math award. This recognition helped instill confidence that would help her persevere in higher-level STEM courses.
A family trip to an amusement park in Northern Canada unveiled her disposition towards investigation. She took a ride on one of those rickety wooden roller coasters. Photographs from that day would show, as she describes it, “the happiest kid you could ever see.” To operate, roller coasters need to abide by the law of conservation of energy. Physics could satiate a desire of hers, to know how things worked.
Her love of physics began in her junior year at the all-girls Aquinas High School — a private, Roman Catholic school in the Bronx. The school closed in June 2021 due to the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Remembering the thrill of roller coasters, Williams took a special interest in kinematics, or the geometry of motion, throughout her high school career. Though the assignments often consisted of only word problems, she remembers being engaged. Here, she also served as president of the theatre club, where she acted in various plays and musicals.
Williams went on to receive her B.A. in Physics and Theatre Arts from Mount Holyoke College, a historic women’s college, and she graduated in 2018. Located in hilly South Hadley, Massachusetts, the college’s student population is more than 700 students short of Bronx Science’s 3,000+. She values her small liberal arts education because of the attention that professors were able to give to their students. Though Williams’ family was unfamiliar with the field of physics, they supported her decision.
In her physics classes, the same eight students would routinely appear during all four years of college. They were the only physics majors in their graduating class.
As a double major, Williams was able to become enraptured by intricate and glittering stage designs, then satisfied by a simple answer to a tough physics problem. Theatre, however, often acted as her respite from physics. She took up roles as Stage Manager and The Creature in Frankenstein and everything else in between. Acting, she reflected during quarantine, was one of the activities that she missed the most.
After her senior year, Williams travelled 700 miles west to participate in a fellowship at Ohio State University. The fellowship allowed her to sample what pursuing a PhD in physics would be like. The large, state university greatly contrasted with the tight-knit, collaborative environment in South Hadley. She was often left to disentangle physics problems alone.
While she enjoyed the rigor of her work there, her longing for a communal atmosphere drove her towards teaching. She said, “I missed doing physics with other people.” At Pace University, she obtained a Master of Science in Teaching degree to pursue a teaching career.
By being immersed in an academic community where women made up a majority of the staff and student body at Aquinas High School and Mount Holyoke College, Ms. Williams, who strongly identifies with womanhood, felt that an integral part of her identity had been recognized and represented.
For female students at Bronx Science, this may not be as true. In the 2018-19 school year, The Science Survey published an article that drew attention to fewer females enrolled in higher level physical science and math classes. Since then, many junior year physics teachers have been proactive in encouraging more female enrollment in their classes, which has changed the dynamic for the better.
The overwhelming whiteness of the field of physics in America is also something that Williams is working to change. The year that she graduated from Mount Holyoke, she was one of the 3% of African Americans who obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in physics nationwide. This is down from 5% in 1998.
As a predominantly white institution, Mount Holyoke altered her perception of the role of people of color in STEM. “Old white people, old white men,” she lamented. “Those are the people who had the access to those resources. But now, we’re changing the narrative of what a physicist is, because a lot more people have resources to perform their science.”
At a mini-graduation party hosted by the Mount Holyoke Physics Department, the department celebrated Williams’ achievements with the Shattuck Prize, an award that recognizes physics students who have exhibited engagement and curiosity with the subject. This was a moment when she felt like she belonged. “Now that I am at a place that values my expertise,” she said about Bronx Science, “I don’t have those initial feelings of timidity of being a physicist that I once did before.”
On her website, she identifies herself as a “Physicist. Artist. Writer. Researcher.” These labels — sometimes viewed as distillations of the self — contain a self-assurance that mirrors the feeling of displacement, the feeling that something has shifted irrevocably. This is in large part due to its punctuation. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “label” in 9a puts this in parentheses: “(sometimes with the implication that such classification is inaccurate, simplistic, or restrictive).” The periods demand a closer look.
We are, of course, always more than a label, more than a few descriptors. Placement into a label is not an inherent placement into the archetypes associated with certain labels. To those skeptical about the value of a label, “I’m not saying you should be classified in a box,” said Ms. Williams, the physicist, artist, writer, and researcher. “It’s still okay to be able to have something that you can relate to and relate to other people.”
When Williams applied to conduct research at the University of Colorado Boulder as a part of the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates in her junior year of college, she did not expect to get paired with Dr. Simone Hyater-Adams, a fellow Black woman in physics with a background in the performing arts. Together, they conducted research on the intersection of physics, performing arts, gender, racial identities, in order to “make the physics field more equitable and inclusive for Black students.”
“We valued their experience and could relate to those particular people,” Williams said. Their methods were restricted to interviews and qualitative data because the population of Black physicists is currently not large enough for reliable quantitative data.
Dr. Hyater-Adams developed the Critical Physics Identity (CPI) framework to operationalize one’s physics identity. The CPI redefines Hazari et al. ‘s 2010 Physics Identity framework in order to “consider the structural impacts” that can affect physics identity.
In her positionality statement, Dr. Hyater-Adams elaborates on her experience as a Black physicist. When she was applying to graduate school, her physics identity conflicted with the 2010 criteria due to her racialized experiences. Research is the area she focused her energy in, but graduate programs did not value this as much as her Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score. She only was made aware of the test’s existence a week before the only date available to take it.
The CPI framework, therefore, expands upon how relational (relationships to others), ideational (ideas relating the self to perceptions of physics), and material resources (physical objects relating to other constructs) impact recognition, interest, and competency in physics. They found that relational resources, material resources, and recognition were the most noted constructs in the interviews.
Recognition, in particular, was defined as “being recognized (or not) as a physicist or a physics person.” Williams explained, “Someone says, ‘I don’t think you look like a physicist.’ Or you walk into a physics building, and someone asks you, ‘What are you doing here?’ or ‘Are you sure you’re in the right office?’” The “(or not)” recognizes how Black physicists and other physicists of color are undermined.
For her senior thesis, she combined her double major in physics and theatre arts into one research project: “The Intersection of Identity and Performing Arts for Black Physicists.” She interviewed thirteen Black physicists and found that the performing arts have a positive influence on her participant pool. While physics has not taught them how to present their work, participation in the performing arts has taught them this skill.
For the purposes of the study, she defined a physicist as someone “who is close to obtaining or has already obtained a bachelor’s degree in physics.” This is her definition: “If you take an interest in astronomy and you like to stargaze and like to investigate, then you could identify as an astrophysicist.”
Over quarantine, Williams continued to connect with Black physicists around the world over Zoom. Being Seen is a web series that she hosts, where she has conversations with those who have intersecting identities of scientist and artist. Dr. Simone Hyater-Adams was the first person interviewed. Bonding outside of the research lab about being Black and their favorite new media, they are good friends today.
In her email signature, a bitmoji of Ms. Williams features her excited self jumping out of an envelope, similar to how she opens the door and lets students in with a big “welcome.” Below is a quote from iconic fictional science teacher Ms. Frizzle: “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” This captures how Williams thinks science should be viewed.
She grew up watching The Magic School Bus. “The way that she pushes her kids to discover things (even if it is fictional). Her preppy personality. What she embodies is just — I just love it,” she chuckled. “I really hope I can bring that into the classroom.”
Before Bronx Science, Ms. Williams taught general science at M.S. 180, a magnet middle school in the Bronx. Much of the content was life science, where she was re-learning as she was teaching.
Given that this is her first academic year teaching physics, she is learning how to best convey content that she knows well to a class who knows little. The challenge with learning physics is that much of it leans toward the abstract. Williams acknowledges that this abstractness confuses many students, at first. She walks into the classroom with this goal in mind, to make physics understandable and interesting. Enter the personal.
‘The Cradle’ acted as an expression of conservation of energy and as an expression of herself. “If we were to put [the pendulum] in a vacuum,” she said, “the balls on the cradle would just be going back and would never make it stop. As an African American, as a Black person. I can’t change how I am as a person. My Blackness stays continuous throughout my entire life.”
Williams’ other paintings include ‘Spring’s Constant’ and ‘Discovery of the Unknown.’ Like ‘The Cradle,’ ‘Spring’s Constant’ visually relates a physics concept to a significant aspect of her identity — her hair. Williams said, “If I pull my hair down, it’s going to jump back,” just like a spring.
Mr. Joshua Ilany, who has been teaching physics at Bronx Science for seven years and coincidentally sits next to Ms. Williams in the department office, recalls similar struggles when he first started teaching. He said, “There were so many times when I would be in the middle of a lesson and realize that I was doing something wrong, that I was confused. Or a student would ask a question that made me step back and think I have no idea.”
Ilany, however, claims to have learned everything about teaching from the rest of the department. Pace University is where Ms. Williams earned certification to teach, but the community of the Physical Science and Engineering Department at Bronx Science will continue to teach her.
As a new teacher, she meets weekly with the Coordinator of the Department, Mr. Colin Morrell, in order to exchange feedback and ideas on how to better engage students. Ms. Mallory Womer, who steps in for Ms. Williams during some periods for her to eat lunch, speaks with her regularly about innovative assignments.
Ian Etheridge ’23, one of Ms. Williams’ sixth-period Regents Physics students, noted her kindness, which he believes is exhibited professionally and personally. In the hallways, students can be heard talking about her light singing during classwork. As she engages with students, they look down at their papers — not to hide but to watch the point of Ms. Williams’ fingers elucidate concepts. Her performance, many students feel, is an authentic one.
Her class is one that seems to inspire a wide range of emotions. Etheridge even says that he loves physics. Growing impassioned during a lab, one student in seventh-period exclaimed, “I’m not citing Galileo in my hypothesis!”
With only forty-one minutes in each class period, engaging discussions are often cut off with the drone of the bell and followed with, “we’ll continue this discussion tomorrow.”
The rich folklore of physics — Galileo’s Leaning Tower of Pisa experiment and Newton’s apple tree revelation — necessitates the telling of its past. After a double-period lab involving falling balls, Williams wanted to tell her students all about Galileo, but the bell cut her off and her students went on their way. They heard the rest of the story the following day.
“We have to remember: behind the science, behind the equation, there are people who decided them and people who figured it out,” she said. As I interviewed her, I often narrowed the scope down with the use of the acronym “STEM.” She would answer me back with “STEAM.” In a moment that catches me off guard, she points to me and relates her love of investigation to mine. Though I’m the one asking the questions, I’m also a part of the conversation and the construction of this article. The humanities are not just stepping stones towards what is “more important to know,” a phrase that teachers of all departments repeat too often, but regarded as essential.
Later in this 2021-2022 academic year, Ms. Williams plans on tasking students with creating their own art based on Newton’s equations. This is how equations stop feeling so distant.
At Bronx Science, subjects that seem to be at odds with one another have an ever-increasing number of ties. Ms. Williams is not alone in this. Take Biology teacher Ms. Latisha Coombs’s love for poetry or Principal M. Rachel Hoyle’s interest in theology and chemistry. Or look at the students. In that great pool, contradictions dissolve into the ground and no longer become contradictions at all.
Physics and theatrics. Teachings and paintings. These are all in the pursuit of communication, a communication that nurses care towards those willing to listen and motions people who have been historically been kept out towards potential. Soon enough, these sounds, these paintings, these words will inspire conversations that turn ordinary places into lively classrooms. “Why would you do that? What made you so inclined to put those paintings on your wall?” Williams noted, “It helps people to see we’re not that different.”
“Why would you do that? What made you so inclined to put those paintings on your wall?” Williams noted, “It helps people to see we’re not that different.”